Academic journal article ARIEL

Nothing Personal: James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, and the Pursuit of Celebrity

Academic journal article ARIEL

Nothing Personal: James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, and the Pursuit of Celebrity

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article reflects on literary celebrity through an examination of James Baldwin's artistic career, especially his collaboration with American photographer Richard Avedon in a book entitled Nothing Personal. Baldwins case is used to analyze a changing publishing world, which has been characterized for the last few years by a form of indifference toward writers of serious literature.

Keywords: James Baldwin, Richard Avedon, literary celebrity, literary publishing


I came into publishing in the mid-1980s at a time when there was a great push for book promotion. Waterstones was expanding, bookshop readings were all the rage, and Granta was transforming itself into an influential magazine and starting to make lists: "Best British Authors Under 40," etc. The Booker Prize was being televised live, and there was significant media interest; you might even be asked onto Newsnight. Among the television book programmes I took part in were ones with Sidney Sheldon and Jack Higgins as my co-interviewees. My first book tour was with Pete Townsend of The Who, a really bizarre introduction into the world of literature--as it transpired, it was more a baptism into the world of celebrity.

Around the same time, in the summer of 1985, I sat in the south of France where I was supposed to be working on a BBC documentary about James Baldwin, and one evening Baldwin asked me to read the manuscript of his new book. He couldn't find a publisher. The book had been repeatedly turned down. So, of course, I sat through the night and read it. It wasn't good. Baldwin was on his heels. Publishing, promotion, and touring felt like things of the past for him. He seemed quite far removed from the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, it was tempting to think of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard; there was a quality of the film about the scene, especially when Baldwin said to me, "I'll soon be making my comeback. "

I returned to London, as well as the novelty of accustoming myself to promotion and publicity at Faber and Faber, where the media offices, as opposed to those of the editorial staff, seemed to be the most active hub of the building. It has continued thus. Publicity and promotion are what matter now in publishing. Baldwin's being turned down--mid-career--is now a more frequent occurrence. Reputation means little. The seeds of present-day problems were all sown back then.

However, one thing that was fast fading then, and isn't apparent now at all, is celebrity. Like Gloria Swanson, Baldwin's celebrity couldn't secure him a contract. And he was a celebrity. I spent time with him in Nice, in New York, in London. He was a star, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. People didn't know who he was, or what he was, but they knew he was famous. Today, I don't think of writers as being celebrities or making comebacks. Which is just as well, for celebrity is toxic and leads one away from the desk and in the direction of the cameras.

It's these thoughts that led me to put together this essay, which was delivered as The Graham Storey Lecture at Cambridge University on 10 February 2014.

It is clear from the explosion of Creative Writing courses that are on offer in British universities, and the continued demand for such degrees in the United States, including the increasingly popular, if somewhat baffling, Ph.D. in Creative Writing, that despite an ongoing crisis in the publishing industry, and statistics which clearly demonstrate a downturn in our general literacy and appetite for literary fiction, young people still wish to be exposed to the craft and discipline of writing in the hope that writing--a vocation that suggests independence and the ability to set one's own hours and work at home--might provide them with a career of some kind. But, as I've suggested, in a culture that is increasingly less wedded to literature as a mirror into which we might peer to learn about the society around us, sales of literary books are falling. …

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