A recent meandering through the new biographies at Barnes & Noble confronted me one more time with a bald fact of our time: people want to read biographies with salacious details or biographies of celebrities who have achieved — well, what do celebrities achieve? — or biographies of famous figures. I passed over Brooke Shields new book about how she struggled with post-partum depression, and I don’t want to minimize her pain but don’t we have some very fine books about this by those who have studied the issue and who know so much more? I don’t want to read a book by a celebrity whose only entitlement to write something, or should I say the only reason a publisher picked it up, is because he or she is a celebrity and the book will sell. I want to read books by people who know what they are talking about.
I passed by dozens of celebrity volumes and lighted upon the new biography of Mark Twain. I’m a sucker for anything Twain — why? not because he was a celebrity, which he was in part, but because I love Tom Sawyer and the character behind him who gave him life. Ron Powers, author of Mark Twain, has mastered his subject.
I’d rather hear what Jeffrey Sachs has to say about poverty than Bono — sorry friends. That is not a political statement nor one that is not aware that not all agree with Sachs, but a statement about a commitment to listen to those who know best. (Blogging, by the way, is not expertise, but it can at times mediate expertise.)
If there is anything the emerging movement ought to desist from doing it is being sucked into the appeal of celebrity. After all, the emerging movement is anti-culture at some levels. I want to make a suggestion for all of us to begin reading more wisely by asking why it is that we are buying a book. If we are buying a book because the author is a celebrity, maybe we ought to think again.
The most recent edition of The Hedgehog Review is devoted to Celebrity Culture. Essays are written by a variety of thinkers, but my favorite is by Joseph Epstein, erstwhile editor of The American Scholar and former professor at Northwestern.
Epstein is the first of many who quote Daniel Boorstin’s famous definition of celebrity: “The celebrity is a person who is well-known for his well-knownness,” which has become “a celebrity is someone famous for being famous.” Epstein suggests fame is something one earns, while celebrity is something one cultivates. (If you didn’t read that carefully, read it again for it is a wise word.) Epstein also explores the academic celebrity and the public intellectual.
Here is where he begins to meddle with an issue that concerns me about Christian writers. Let me now turn to summarizing a few pages of his essay. In summing up what Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown said, Epstein says: “writers went from serving power (in Rome) to serving God (in early Christendom) to serving patrons (in the eighteenth century) to serving themselves, with a careful eye cocked toward both the public and posterity (under Romanticism), to serving mammon, to a state of interesting confusion, which is where we are today, with celebrity affecting contemporary literature in what strikes me as a more and more significant way.”
“Writers,” Epstein says, “are supposed to be aristocrats of the spirit, not promoters, hustlers, salemen for their own work.”
Then he realizes that, of course, he does promote his books — and I consider his essays to be the finest we have today, but he says: “I tell myself that I do these things in the effort to acquire more readers. After all, one of the reasons I write, apart from the pleasure in working out the aesthetic problems and moral questions presented by my subjects and in my stories, is to find the best readers. I also want to sell books, to make a few shekels, to please my publisher, to continue to be published in the future in a proper way. I also don’t in the least mind meeting strangers who tell me that they take some delight in my writing. But, more than all this, I have now come to think that writing quietly, producing (I hope is) solid work, isn’t any longer quite sufficient in a culture dominated by the boisterous spirit of celebrity.”
The way publishers speak of this today is with the word “platform.” Let’s face it: publishers want to sell books, and if they don’t sell books, they go under. So, they ask this question: “What is this author’s platform?” That is, who is he or she, who knows him or her, where does he or she speak, how many copies of his or her last book sold, etc.? Such are their questions.
And the answer to the above questions for a pastor in a mega-church or a musician with lots of CDs in homes, is “big” and “famous” and “everyone” and “everyone” and “lots and lots.” So, sign ’em up — and, by the way, they ask, “What does he or she want to write about?” To which someone will always say, “Does it matter?” The answer, sadly, is “no.” Such is an impact of celebrity culture in the writing world.
I don’t complain. I ask that you look at who is writing a book and ask this question, “Does this author know what he or she is talking about?” If the answer is “no,” pass on to the next book.