MUCH ADO ABOUT BOOKS; Writers Slipping in Fame Game

Article excerpt

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. …