Byline: Roger Bull, Times-Union staff writer
There are so many authors out there. Thousands, tens of thousands of books are published each year in the United States. Much Ado About Books will be held Saturday, bringing authors to talk about writing, bringing others to talk about authors.
But how many authors are really well-known these days? How many authors would be recognized in the way that Ernest Hemingway was during the middle of the last century? How many authors would be recognized at all if they walked through The Avenues mall?
More people probably know who former poet laureate Robert Frost was, and he's been dead for 40 years, than can name the current poet laureate. (It's Billy Collins, by the way.)
James Herron thinks the time when an author was a well-known celebrity is past.
Herron, director of the honors program at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the last writer who had much celebrity status was Normal Mailer.
"In the 1960s and '70s," Herron said, "if you turned on the TV talk shows, if you turned on Dick Cavett, you saw Mailer or Gore Vidal or Truman Capote.
"Life magazine would show Hemingway in Africa or Key West, and people would say 'Oh, that's the famous writer.' But it wasn't because they had read his work.
"Today, writers don't know how to be celebrities, and face it, most of them are not that good looking, not very interesting to talk to, don't, by and large, have a clue how to comport themselves on stage, and so are boring."
But Mark Winegardner, director of the creative writing program at Florida State University, said writers have never really been famous.
"I think there's always been a distinction between 'writer famous' and 'famous famous,' " he said.
Of course, that's changing for Winegardner who was chosen week before last to continue writing Mario Puzo's legendary Godfather series.
And he did acknowledge that there was a time when authors, at least a few of them, were well known.
"You don't have the writer as central cultural figure in the way it might have been early to mid-century," he said. "But in the mid-20th century, there was a brief emphasis on middlebrow culture. There was the idea that a cultured person, or an upper or middle-class striver should have . . . some sense of what should be read. You're also looking at an era when the book-of-the-month clubs started. You had people deciding on a book that any middle-class striver should have read, and it showed up at your door."
Poets, other than Frost, are a different story, Winegardner said.
"One of the great recent poets, William Matthews, had a poem called Oxymoron, and one of them was 'famous poet.'
"The point is that we've almost never had one. Whitman and Dickinson the two figures that almost everyone would know from the 19th century. But they weren't well known at the time. Dickinson, of course, wasn't known at all until after her death."
But 150 years or so ago, writers were celebrities, Herron said.
"At that point," he said, "the only way you could disseminate writing was to buy the book and read it. There was no TV or other medium. Until later in the 19th century, you didn't even have accurate photography. So no one knew what they looked like."
Until, that is, the authors showed up in person.
"To make money," Herron said, "those guys went out on the road. They would undertake reading tours. An agent would book the tour, people would buy advance tickets to Mark Twain. Then 4,000 would show up to hear him read. That was mass audience, in that one existed at all at that time.
"Oscar Wilde would tour the mine fields, and he was the entertainment. It probably wasn't as much for writing. But what a hoot, a guy in velvet talking about aesthetics. He was wildly popular in the Nevada silver mines.
"Dickens toured the U.S. because he needed the money. I don't know of any famous touring 19th century writer who did it to get famous. They did it to make money. Twain was a bankrupt. He lost all his money investing in a typesetting machine."
So what happened?
"I think there is a change," Herron said, "but it's not that TV has rotted America's brains. More Americans today are consuming more writing and producing more writing that at any time in the history of the republic.
"Now people want to be writers themselves. I'll bet there are five bars in your town, I know that there are five within walking distance of me, where people will get up and read poems and short stories.
"There are journal-keeping clubs. Go to any bookstore and there are books on how to keep a journal. Writers aren't mysterious anymore because so many people feel like they've written themselves. Back then, writing was pretty damn mysterious."
That's Marika Flatt's take on it, too, that writing has become simply much more common. Not only writing, but publishing. She's a book publicist.
"It's certainly not as difficult to get a book out in the market and published than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. There's so much self-publishing, so many smaller publishers who work with unknown authors. Twenty years ago, you really needed to find a one of the big guys, Random House or Simon & Schuster.
"But I've heard so much criticism that, since anyone can self-publish a book these days, it takes away from real literary work."
She said that about 135,000 books were published in the United States in 2001.
But Dan Levine, editor in chief of the Avant Guide travel books, thinks there is something else cultural at work.
In Prague, where he happened to be calling from, streets in the city center are named for 19th century writers.
"The same is true in Moscow," Levine said. "Pushkin is the most obvious one. There are statues of authors in city squares of writers. Have you ever seen a statue of a writer in the United States?
The Czech Republic, he pointed out, elected Vaclav Havel, a playwright, as president.
"Americans don't value intellectuals," Levine said. "Americans didn't elect a writer as president, they elected an actor. That tells you everything you want to know."
And Winegardner said that writers he knows in other countries are routinely asked by the media to comment on political issues.
In the United States, it's actors who comment on, for example, the possibility of war with Iraq. And far more people recognize Harrison Ford, the actor who plays Jack Ryan, than recognize Tom Clancy, who writes the books.
"Maybe that's really the point," Levine said.
"The writers were the people who were bringing the entertainment directly to the masses. Now there is an intermediary, film and television. The writer has been removed. There was nothing to come between the writer and the audience. But now it's the actors who bring it."
But movies have brought another level of recognition to authors.
"It used to be seen as nothing at all, but now it's somewhat legitimizing," Winegardner said. "There's this veiled idea, even among literate people, that if you haven't had a movie made from one of your books, you might as well be a vanity press author, which is, of course, deeply, deeply insane."
Still, he admitted, movies do help sell the author.
"Look at Richard Russo, who's becoming writer famous," Winegardner said. "He's won the Pulitzer, his book has been chosen by a few of the book clubs. He's flirting with being famous.
"But if you want someone to read Richard Russo, you say 'You might know him from Nobody's Fool,' which was made from one of his books."
Roger Bull can be reached at (904) 359-4296 or at email@example.com.
FREE BOOK DISCUSSIONS
Much Ado About Books returns to the Prime Osborn Convention Center Saturday.
The morning book discussions are free.
For more information and a schedule of speeches and seminars, visit www.muchadoaboutbooks.com or call (904) 630-2665.
A Reading Zone for children will be in the lobby from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. The Reading Zone, where authors will read children's books and lead craft activities, is free.
A luncheon, featuring speakers Kenneth Starr and Bob Schieffer, will be from 12:45 to 2:30 p.m. Luncheon tickets are $30 for general seating and $40 for seating at an author's table. Tables of 10 can be reserved. Luncheon tickets are available by at all Jacksonville Public Library locations or by calling (904) 630-2665.
A gala will be at 7 p.m. Saturday at The Haskell Company building on Riverside Avenue. Tickets for the gala are $125 per person.
Free book discussions are scheduled throughout the morning and early afternoon.
-- Wide World of Sports: Neal Conan, Peter Golenbeck, Jane Leavy.
-- The Adventure of Historical Fiction: Mario Bencastro, Jose Raul Bernardo, Chris Davey.
-- Comic Turned CEO, How to Pilot Your Life: Ron Shaw.
-- Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing for all Ages: Greg Keyes, E. Rose Sabin, Mark Waid.
-- Murder by the Book: Christopher Chambers, S.V. Date, Stuart Kaminsky.
-- The Novel Approach: Linda Hudson-Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason, Kimberla Lawson Roby.
-- Children's author Carol Weston will be in the Reading Zone.
-- A Dialogue About Marriage: Diane Rehm and John Rehm.
-- Writing for Children, Toddlers to Teens: Sabin, Mark Teague, Weston.
-- Turning Headlines into Books: Valerie Boyd, Golenbock.
-- Books That Inspire, Biographies and Memoirs: Michael C. Keith, Leavy.
-- Writing with Humor: Date, Kaminsky.
-- The Romance of Fiction: Bernardo, Marcia King-Gamble, Roby.
-- Talented Authors from our Back Yard: Gary Buffone, Antonio de Nicolas, Randy Noles.
-- Radio Broadcasts to the Written Word: Conan, Keith.
-- The Heart of a Soldier, A Story of Love, Heroism and September 11th: James B. Stewart.
-- Where Do Those Stories Come From: Bencastro, Hudson-Smith, King-Gamble, Greg Keyes.
-- Elvis and Zora Neale Hurston, Fascinating Lives: Boyd, Mason.
-- "S" is for Series: Chambers, Davey, Waid.
-- Author and illustrator Mark Teague will be in the Reading Zone.…