[Paleopsych] WkStd: The Culture of Celebrity

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The Culture of Celebrity
[I have not read this article but pass it along, as it may be of intererst. 
This just takes me a few seconds. If it's really good, let me know. I'm trying 
to cut back on my reading.]

    Let us now praise famous airheads.
    by Joseph Epstein
    10/17/2005, Volume 011, Issue 05

    CELEBRITY AT THIS MOMENT IN America is epidemic, and it's spreading
    fast, sometimes seeming as if nearly everyone has got it. Television
    provides celebrity dance contests, celebrities take part in reality
    shows, perfumes carry the names not merely of designers but of actors
    and singers. Without celebrities, whole sections of the New York Times
    and the Washington Post would have to close down. So pervasive has
    celebrity become in contemporary American life that one now begins to
    hear a good deal about a phenomenon known as the Culture of Celebrity.

    The word "culture" no longer, I suspect, stands in most people's minds
    for that whole congeries of institutions, relations, kinship patterns,
    linguistic forms, and the rest for which the early anthropologists
    meant it to stand. Words, unlike disciplined soldiers, refuse to
    remain in place and take orders. They insist on being unruly, and
    slither and slide around, picking up all sorts of slippery and even
    goofy meanings. An icon, as we shall see, doesn't stay a small picture
    of a religious personage but usually turns out nowadays to be someone
    with spectacular grosses. "The language," as Flaubert once protested
    in his attempt to tell his mistress Louise Colet how much he loved
    her, "is inept."

    Today, when people glibly refer to "the corporate culture," "the
    culture of poverty," "the culture of journalism," "the culture of the
    intelligence community"--and "community" has, of course, itself become
    another of those hopelessly baggy-pants words, so that one hears talk
    even of "the homeless community"--what I think is meant by "culture"
    is the general emotional atmosphere and institutional character
    surrounding the word to which "culture" is attached. Thus, corporate
    culture is thought to breed selfishness practiced at the Machiavellian
    level; the culture of poverty, hopelessness and despair; the culture
    of journalism, a taste for the sensational combined with a short
    attention span; the culture of the intelligence community,
    covering-one's-own-behind viperishness; and so on. Culture used in
    this way is also brought in to explain unpleasant or at least dreary
    behavior. "The culture of NASA has to be changed," is a sample of its
    current usage. The comedian Flip Wilson, after saying something
    outrageous, would revert to the refrain line, "The debbil made me do
    it." So, today, when admitting to unethical or otherwise wretched
    behavior, people often say, "The culture made me do it."

    As for "celebrity," the standard definition is no longer the
    dictionary one but rather closer to the one that Daniel Boorstin gave
    in his book The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream: "The
    celebrity," Boorstin wrote, "is a person who is well-known for his
    well-knownness," which is improved in its frequently misquoted form as
    "a celebrity is someone famous for being famous." The other standard
    quotation on this subject is Andy Warhol's "In the future everyone
    will be world-famous for fifteen minutes," which also frequently turns
    up in an improved misquotation as "everyone will have his fifteen
    minutes of fame."

    But to say that a celebrity is someone well-known for being
    well-known, though clever enough, doesn't quite cover it. Not that
    there is a shortage of such people who seem to be known only for their
    well-knownness. What do a couple named Sid and Mercedes Bass do,
    except appear in bold-face in the New York Times "Sunday Styles"
    section and other such venues (as we now call them) of equally
    shimmering insignificance, often standing next to Ahmet and Mica
    Ertegun, also well-known for being well-known? Many moons ago,
    journalists used to refer to royalty as "face cards"; today
    celebrities are perhaps best thought of as bold faces, for as such do
    their names often appear in the press (and in a New York Times column
    with that very name, Bold Face).

    The distinction between celebrity and fame is one most dictionaries
    tend to fudge. I suspect everyone has, or prefers to make, his own.
    The one I like derives not from Aristotle, who didn't have to trouble
    with celebrities, but from the career of Ted Williams. A sportswriter
    once said that he, Williams, wished to be famous but had no interest
    in being a celebrity. What Ted Williams wanted to be famous for was
    his hitting. He wanted everyone who cared about baseball to know that
    he was--as he believed and may well have been--the greatest pure
    hitter who ever lived. What he didn't want to do was to take on any of
    the effort off the baseball field involved in making this known. As an
    active player, Williams gave no interviews, signed no baseballs or
    photographs, chose not to be obliging in any way to journalists or
    fans. A rebarbative character, not to mention often a slightly
    menacing s.o.b., Williams, if you had asked him, would have said that
    it was enough that he was the last man to hit .400; he did it on the
    field, and therefore didn't have to sell himself off the field. As for
    his duty to his fans, he didn't see that he had any.

    Whether Ted Williams was right or wrong to feel as he did is of less
    interest than the distinction his example provides, which suggests
    that fame is something one earns--through talent or achievement of one
    kind or another--while celebrity is something one cultivates or,
    possibly, has thrust upon one. The two are not, of course, entirely
    exclusive. One can be immensely talented and full of achievement and
    yet wish to broadcast one's fame further through the careful
    cultivation of celebrity; and one can have the thinnest of
    achievements and be talentless and yet be made to seem otherwise
    through the mechanics and dynamics of celebrity-creation, in our day a
    whole mini-(or maybe not so mini) industry of its own.

    Or, another possibility, one can become a celebrity with scarcely any
    pretense to talent or achievement whatsoever. Much modern celebrity
    seems the result of careful promotion or great good luck or something
    besides talent and achievement: Mr. Donald Trump, Ms. Paris Hilton,
    Mr. Regis Philbin, take a bow. The ultimate celebrity of our time may
    have been John F. Kennedy Jr., notable only for being his parents'
    very handsome son--both his birth and good looks factors beyond his
    control--and, alas, known for nothing else whatsoever now, except for
    the sad, dying-young-Adonis end to his life.

    Fame, then, at least as I prefer to think of it, is based on true
    achievement; celebrity on the broadcasting of that achievement, or the
    inventing of something that, if not scrutinized too closely, might
    pass for achievement. Celebrity suggests ephemerality, while fame has
    a chance of lasting, a shot at reaching the happy shores of posterity.

    Oliver Goldsmith, in his poem "The Deserted Village," refers to "good
    fame," which implies that there is also a bad or false fame. Bad fame
    is sometimes thought to be fame in the present, or fame on earth,
    while good fame is that bestowed by posterity--those happy shores
    again. (Which doesn't eliminate the desire of most of us, at least
    nowadays, to have our fame here and hereafter, too.) Not false but
    wretched fame is covered by the word "infamy"--"Infamy, infamy,
    infamy," remarked the English wit Frank Muir, "they all have it in for
    me"--while the lower, or pejorative, order of celebrity is covered by
    the word "notoriety," also frequently misused to mean noteworthiness.

    Leo Braudy's magnificent book on the history of fame, The Frenzy of
    Renown, illustrates how the means of broadcasting fame have changed
    over the centuries: from having one's head engraved on coins, to
    purchasing statuary of oneself, to (for the really high
    rollers--Alexander the Great, the Caesar boys) naming cities or even
    months after oneself, to commissioning painted portraits, to writing
    books or having books written about one, and so on into our day of the
    publicity or press agent, the media blitz, the public relations
    expert, and the egomaniacal blogger. One of the most successful of
    public-relations experts, Ben Sonnenberg Sr., used to say that he saw
    it as his job to construct very high pedestals for very small men.

    Which leads one to a very proper suspicion of celebrity. As George
    Orwell said about saints, so it seems only sensible to say about
    celebrities: They should all be judged guilty until proven innocent.
    Guilty of what, precisely? I'd say of the fraudulence (however minor)
    of inflating their brilliance, accomplishments, worth, of passing
    themselves off as something they aren't, or at least are not quite. If
    fraudulence is the crime, publicity is the means by which the caper is
    brought off.

    IS THE CURRENT HEIGHTENED INTEREST in the celebrated sufficient to
    form a culture--a culture of a kind worthy of study? The
    anthropologist Alfred Kroeber defined culture, in part, as embodying
    "values which may be formulated (overtly as mores) or felt (implicitly
    as in folkways) by the society carrying the culture, and which it is
    part of the business of the anthropologist to characterize and
    define." What are the values of celebrity culture? They are the
    values, almost exclusively, of publicity. Did they spell one's name
    right? What was the size and composition of the audience? Did you
    check the receipts? Was the timing right? Publicity is concerned
    solely with effects and does not investigate causes or intrinsic value
    too closely. For example, a few years ago a book of mine called
    Snobbery: The American Version received what I thought was a too
    greatly mixed review in the New York Times Book Review. I remarked on
    my disappointment to the publicity man at my publisher's, who promptly
    told me not to worry: It was a full-page review, on page 11,
    right-hand side. That, he said, "is very good real estate," which was
    quite as important as, perhaps more important than, the reviewer's
    actual words and final judgment. Better to be tepidly considered on
    page 11 than extravagantly praised on page 27, left-hand side. Real
    estate, man, it's the name of the game.

    We must have new names, Marcel Proust presciently noted--in fashion,
    in medicine, in art, there must always be new names. It's a very smart
    remark, and the fields Proust chose seem smart, too, at least for his
    time. (Now there must also be new names, at a minimum, among movie
    stars and athletes and politicians.) Implicit in Proust's remark is
    the notion that if the names don't really exist, if the quality isn't
    there to sustain them, it doesn't matter; new names we shall have in
    any case. And every sophisticated society somehow, more or less
    implicitly, contrives to supply them.

    I happen to think that we haven't had a major poet writing in English
    since perhaps the death of W.H. Auden or, to lower the bar a little,
    Philip Larkin. But new names are put forth nevertheless--high among
    them in recent years has been that of Seamus Heaney--because, after
    all, what kind of a time could we be living in if we didn't have a
    major poet? And besides there are all those prizes that, year after
    year, must be given out, even if so many of the recipients don't seem
    quite worthy of them.

    Considered as a culture, celebrity does have its institutions. We now
    have an elaborate celebrity-creating machinery well in place--all
    those short-attention-span television shows (Entertainment Tonight,
    Access Hollywood, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous); all those
    magazines (beginning with People and far from ending with the National
    Enquirer). We have high-priced celebrity-mongers--Barbara Walters,
    Diane Sawyer, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Oprah--who not only live off
    others' celebrity but also, through their publicity-making power,
    confer it and have in time become very considerable celebrities each
    in his or her own right.

    Without the taste for celebrity, they would have to close down the
    whole Style section of every newspaper in the country. Then there is
    the celebrity profile (in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Gentlemen's Quarterly;
    these are nowadays usually orchestrated by a press agent, with all
    touchy questions declared out-of-bounds), or the television talk-show
    interview with a star, which is beyond parody. Well, almost beyond:
    Martin Short in his parody of a talk-show host remarked to the actor
    Kiefer Sutherland, "You're Canadian, aren't you? What's that all

    Yet we still seem never to have enough celebrities, so we drag in
    so-called "It Girls" (Paris Hilton, Cindy Crawford, other
    supermodels), tired television hacks (Regis Philbin, Ed McMahon),
    back-achingly boring but somehow sacrosanct news anchors (Walter
    Cronkite, Tom Brokaw). Toss in what I think of as the lower-class
    punditi, who await calls from various television news and chat shows
    to demonstrate their locked-in political views and meager expertise on
    major and cable stations alike: Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift, Mark
    Shields, Robert Novak, Michael Beschloss, and the rest. Ah, if only
    Lenny Bruce were alive today, he could do a scorchingly cruel bit
    about Dr. Joyce Brothers sitting by the phone wondering why Jerry
    Springer never calls.

    MANY OF OUR CURRENT-DAY CELEBRITIES float upon "hype," which is really
    a publicist's gas used to pump up and set aloft something that doesn't
    really quite exist. Hype has also given us a new breakdown, or
    hierarchical categorization, of celebrities. Until twenty-five or so
    years ago great celebrities were called "stars," a term first used in
    the movies and entertainment and then taken up by sports, politics,
    and other fields. Stars proving a bit drab, "super-stars" were called
    in to play, this term beginning in sports but fairly quickly branching
    outward. Apparently too many superstars were about, so the trope was
    switched from astronomy to religion, and we now have "icons." All this
    takes Proust's original observation a step further: the need for new
    names to call the new names.

    This new ranking--stars, superstars, icons--helps us believe that we
    live in interesting times. One of the things celebrities do for us is
    suggest that in their lives they are fulfilling our fantasies. Modern
    celebrities, along with their fame, tend to be wealthy or, if not
    themselves beautiful, able to acquire beautiful lovers. Their
    celebrity makes them, in the view of many, worthy of worship. "So long
    as man remains free," Dostoyevsky writes in the Grand Inquisitor
    section of The Brothers Karamazov, "he strives for nothing so
    incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship." If
    contemporary celebrities are the best thing on offer as living gods
    for us to worship, this is not good news.

    But the worshipping of celebrities by the public tends to be thin, and
    not uncommonly it is nicely mixed with loathing. We also, after all,
    at least partially, like to see our celebrities as frail, ready at all
    times to crash and burn. Cary Grant once warned the then-young
    director Peter Bogdanovich, who was at the time living with Cybill
    Sheppard, to stop telling people he was in love. "And above all,"
    Grant warned, "stop telling them you're happy." When Bogdanovich asked
    why, Cary Grant answered, "Because they're not in love and they're not
    happy. . . . Just remember, Peter, people do not like beautiful

    Grant's assertion is borne out by our grocery press, the National
    Enquirer, the Star, the Globe, and other variants of the English
    gutter press. All these tabloids could as easily travel under the
    generic title of the National Schadenfreude, for more than half the
    stories they contain come under the category of "See How the Mighty
    Have Fallen": Oh, my, I see where that bright young television sitcom
    star, on a drug binge again, had to be taken to a hospital in an
    ambulance! To think that the handsome movie star has been cheating on
    his wife all these years--snakes loose in the Garden of Eden,
    evidently! Did you note that the powerful senator's drinking has
    caused him to embarrass himself yet again in public? I see where that
    immensely successful Hollywood couple turn out to have had a child who
    died of anorexia! Who'd've thought?

    How pleasing to learn that our own simpler, less moneyed, unglamorous
    lives are, in the end, much to be preferred to those of these
    beautiful, rich, and powerful people, whose vast publicity has
    diverted us for so long and whose fall proves even more diverting now.
    "As would become a lifelong habit for most of us," Thomas McGuane
    writes in a recent short story in the New Yorker called "Ice," "we
    longed to witness spectacular achievement and mortifying failure.
    Neither of these things, we were discreetly certain, would ever come
    to us; we would instead be granted the frictionless lives of the

    Along with trying to avoid falling victim to schadenfreude,
    celebrities, if they are clever, do well to regulate the amount of
    publicity they allow to cluster around them. And not celebrities
    alone. Edith Wharton, having published too many stories and essays in
    a great single rush in various magazines during a concentrated period,
    feared, as she put it, the danger of becoming "a magazine bore."
    Celebrities, in the same way, are in danger of becoming publicity
    bores, though few among them seem to sense it. Because of improperly
    rationed publicity, along with a substantial helping of
    self-importance, the comedian Bill Cosby will never again be funny.
    The actress Elizabeth McGovern said of Sean Penn that he "is
    brilliant, brilliant at being the kind of reluctant celebrity." At the
    level of high culture, Saul Bellow used to work this bit quite well on
    the literary front, making every interview (and there have been
    hundreds of them) feel as if given only with the greatest reluctance,
    if not under actual duress. Others are brilliant at regulating their
    publicity. Johnny Carson was very intelligent about carefully
    husbanding his celebrity, choosing not to come out of retirement,
    except at exactly the right time or when the perfect occasion
    presented itself. Apparently it never did. Given the universally
    generous obituary tributes he received, dying now looks, for him, to
    have been an excellent career move.

    Careful readers will have noticed that I referred above to "the
    actress Elizabeth McGovern" and felt no need to write anything before
    or after the name Sean Penn. True celebrities need nothing said of
    them in apposition, fore or aft. The greatest celebrities are those
    who don't even require their full names mentioned: Marilyn, Johnny,
    Liz, Liza, Oprah, Michael (could be Jordan or Jackson--context usually
    clears this up fairly quickly), Kobe, Martha (Stewart, not
    Washington), Britney, Shaq, J-Lo, Frank (Sinatra, not Perdue), O.J.,
    and, with the quickest recognition and shortest name of all--trumpets
    here, please--W.

    ONE HAS THE IMPRESSION that being a celebrity was easier at any
    earlier time than it is now, when celebrity-creating institutions,
    from paparazzi to gutter-press exposés to television talk-shows,
    weren't as intense, as full-court press, as they are today. In the
    Times Literary Supplement, a reviewer of a biography of Margot Fonteyn
    noted that Miss Fonteyn "was a star from a more respectful age of
    celebrity, when keeping one's distance was still possible." My own
    candidate for the perfect celebrity in the twentieth century would be
    Noël Coward, a man in whom talent combined with elegance to give off
    the glow of glamour--and also a man who would have known how to fend
    off anyone wishing to investigate his private life. Today, instead of
    elegant celebrities, we have celebrity criminal trials: Michael
    Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Martha Stewart, Robert Blake, Winona Ryder, and
    O.J. Simpson. Schadenfreude is in the saddle again.

    American society in the twenty-first century, received opinion has it,
    values only two things: money and celebrity. Whether or not this is
    true, vast quantities of money, we know, will buy celebrity. The very
    rich--John D. Rockefeller and powerful people of his era--used to pay
    press agents to keep their names out of the papers. But today one of
    the things money buys is a place at the table beside the celebrated,
    with the celebrities generally delighted to accommodate, there to
    share some of the glaring light. An example is Mort Zuckerman, who
    made an early fortune in real estate, has bought magazines and
    newspapers, and is now himself among the punditi, offering his largely
    unexceptional political views on the McLaughlin Group and other
    television chat shows. Which is merely another way of saying that,
    whether or not celebrity in and of itself constitutes a culture, it
    has certainly penetrated and permeated much of American culture

    Such has been the reach of celebrity culture in our time that it has
    long ago entered into academic life. The celebrity professor has been
    on the scene for more than three decades. As long ago as 1962, in
    fact, I recall hearing that Oscar Cargill, in those days a name of
    some note in the English Department of NYU, had tried to lure the
    then-young Robert Brustein, a professor of theater and the drama
    critic for the New Republic, away from Columbia. Cargill had said to
    Brustein, "I'm not going to bulls--t you, Bob, we're looking for a
    star, and you're it." Brustein apparently wasn't looking to be placed
    in a new constellation, and remained at Columbia, at least for a while
    longer, before moving on to Yale and thence to Harvard.

    The academic star, who is really the academic celebrity, is now a
    fairly common figure in what the world, that ignorant ninny, reckons
    the Great American Universities. Richard Rorty is such a star; so is
    Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who as "Skip" even has some celebrity
    nickname-recognition); and, at a slightly lower level, there are
    Marjorie Garber, Eve Sedgwick, Stanley Fish, and perhaps now Stephen
    Greenblatt. Stanley Fish doesn't even seem to mind that much of his
    celebrity is owed to his being portrayed in novels by David Lodge as
    an indefatigable, grubby little operator (though Lodge claims to
    admire Fish's happy vulgarity). Professors Garber and Sedgwick seem to
    have acquired their celebrity through the outrageousness of the topics
    they've chosen to write about.

    By measure of pure celebrity, Cornel West is, at the moment, the star
    of all academic stars, a man called by Newsweek "an eloquent prophet
    with attitude." (A bit difficult, I think, to imagine Newsweek or any
    other publication writing something similar of Lionel Trilling, Walter
    Jackson Bate, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, or John Hope Franklin.) He
    records rap CDs and appears at benefits with movie stars and famous
    athletes. When the president of Harvard spoke critically to West about
    his work not constituting serious scholarship (as if that had anything
    to do with anything), it made front-page news in the New York Times.
    When West left Harvard in indignation, he was instantly welcomed by
    Princeton. If West had been a few kilowatts more the celebrity than he
    is, he might have been able to arrange for the firing of the president
    of the university, the way certain superstars in the National
    Basketball Association--Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird,
    Michael Jordan--were able, if it pleased them, to have their coaches

    Genuine scholarship, power of ratiocination glowing brightly in the
    classroom, is distinctly not what makes an academic celebrity or, if
    you prefer, superstar. What makes an academic celebrity, for the most
    part, is exposure, which is ultimately publicity. Exposure can mean
    appearing in the right extra-academic magazines or journals: the New
    York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Atlantic
    Monthly; Harper's and the New Republic possibly qualify, as do
    occasional cameo performances on the op-ed pages of the New York Times
    or the Washington Post. Having one's face pop up on the right
    television and radio programs--PBS and NPR certainly, and enough of
    the right kinds of appearances on C-SPAN--does not hurt. A
    commercially successful, much-discussed book helps hugely.

    So does strong public alignment with the correct political causes.
    Harvey Mansfield, the political philosopher at Harvard, is a secondary
    academic celebrity of sorts, but not much in demand, owing to his
    conservatism; Shelby Steele, a black professor of English who has been
    critical of various aspects of African-American politics, was always
    overlooked during the days when universities knocked themselves out to
    get black professors. Both men have been judged politically incorrect.
    The underlying and overarching point is, to become an academic
    celebrity you have to promote yourself outside the academy, but in
    careful and subtle ways.

    ONE MIGHT ONCE HAVE ASSUMED that the culture of celebrity was chiefly
    about show business and the outer edges of the arts, occasionally
    touching on the academy (there cannot be more than twenty or so
    academic superstars). But it has also much altered intellectual life
    generally. The past ten years or so have seen the advent of the
    "public intellectual." There are good reasons to feel uncomfortable
    with that adjective "public," which drains away much of the
    traditional meaning of intellectual. An intellectual is someone who is
    excited by and lives off and in ideas. An intellectual has
    traditionally been a person unaffiliated, which is to say someone
    unbeholden to anything but the power of his or her ideas.
    Intellectuals used to be freelance, until fifty or so years ago, when
    jobs in the universities and in journalism began to open up to some
    among them.

    Far from being devoted to ideas for their own sake, the intellectual
    equivalent of art for art's sake, the so-called public intellectual of
    our day is usually someone who comments on what is in the news, in the
    hope of affecting policy, or events, or opinion in line with his own
    political position, or orientation. He isn't necessarily an
    intellectual at all, but merely someone who has read a few books,
    mastered a style, a jargon, and a maven's authoritative tone, and has
    a clearly demarcated political line.

    But even when the public intellectual isn't purely tied to the news,
    or isn't thoroughly political, what he or she really is, or ought to
    be called, is a "publicity intellectual." In Richard A. Posner's
    interesting book Public Intellectuals, intellectuals are in one place
    ranked by the number of media mentions they or their work have
    garnered, which, if I am correct about publicity being at the heart of
    the enterprise of the public intellectual, may be crude but is not
    foolish. Not knowledge, it turns out, but publicity is power.

    The most celebrated intellectuals of our day have been those most
    skillful at gaining publicity for their writing and their
    pronouncements. Take, as a case very much in point, Susan Sontag. When
    Susan Sontag died at the end of last year, her obituary was front-page
    news in the New York Times, and on the inside of the paper it ran to a
    full page with five photographs, most of them carefully posed--a
    variety, it does not seem unfair to call it, of intellectual
    cheesecake. Will the current prime ministers of England and France
    when they peg out receive equal space or pictorial coverage? Unlikely,
    I think. Why did Ms. Sontag, who was, let it be said, in many ways the
    pure type of the old intellectual--unattached to any institution,
    earning her living (apart from MacArthur Foundation and other grants)
    entirely from her ideas as she put them in writing--why did she
    attract the attention she did?

    I don't believe Susan Sontag's celebrity finally had much to do with
    the power or cogency of her ideas. Her most noteworthy idea was not so
    much an idea at all but a description of a style, a kind of reverse or
    anti-style, that went by the name of Camp and that was gay in its
    impulse. Might it have been her politics? Yes, politics had a lot to
    do with it, even though when she expressed herself on political
    subjects, she frequently got things mightily askew: During the Vietnam
    war she said that "the white race is the cancer of human history." As
    late as the 1980s, much too late for anyone in the know, she called
    communism "fascism with a friendly face" (what do you suppose she
    found so friendly about it?). To cheer up the besieged people of
    Sarajevo, she brought them a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting
    for Godot. She announced in the New Yorker that the killing of 3,000
    innocent people on 9/11 was an act that America had brought on itself.
    As for the writing that originally brought her celebrity, she later
    came to apologize for Against Interpretation, her most influential
    single book. I do not know any people who claim to have derived keen
    pleasure from her fiction. If all this is roughly so, why, then, do
    you suppose that Susan Sontag was easily the single most
    celebrated--the greatest celebrity--intellectual of our time?

    With the ordinary female professor's face and body, I don't think Ms.
    Sontag would quite have achieved the same celebrity. Her
    attractiveness as a young woman had a great deal to do with the extent
    of her celebrity; and she and her publisher took that (early) physical
    attractiveness all the way out. From reading Carl Rollyson and Lisa
    Paddock's biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, one gets a
    sense of how carefully and relentlessly she was promoted by her
    publisher, Roger Straus. I do not mean to say that Sontag was
    unintelligent, or talentless, but Straus, through having her always
    dramatically photographed, by sending angry letters to the editors of
    journals where she was ill-reviewed, by bringing out her books with
    the most careful accompanying orchestration, promoted this often
    difficult and unrewarding writer into something close to a household
    name with a face that was ready, so to say, to be Warholed. That
    Sontag spent her last years with Annie Leibowitz, herself the most
    successful magazine photographer of our day, seems somehow the most
    natural thing in the world. Even in the realm of the intellect,
    celebrities are not born but made, usually very carefully made--as
    was, indubitably, the celebrity of Susan Sontag.

    ONE OF THE MAJOR THEMES in Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown is the
    fame and celebrity of artists, and above all writers. To sketch in a
    few bare strokes the richly complex story Braudy tells, 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 contemporary public and
    posterity (under Romanticism), to serving mammon, to a state of
    interesting confusion, which is where we are today, with celebrity
    affecting literature in more and more significant ways.

    Writers are supposed to be aristocrats of the spirit, not promoters,
    hustlers, salesmen for their own work. Securing a larger audience for
    their work was not thought to be their problem. "Fit audience, though
    few," in John Milton's phrase, was all right, so long as the few were
    the most artistically alert, or aesthetically fittest. Picture Lord
    Byron, Count Tolstoy, or Charles Baudelaire at a lectern at Barnes &
    Noble, C-SPAN camera turned on, flogging (wonderful word!) his own
    most recent books. Not possible!

    Some superior writers have been very careful caretakers of their
    careers. In a letter to one of his philosophy professors at Harvard,
    T.S. Eliot wrote that there were two ways to achieve literary
    celebrity in London: One was to appear often in a variety of
    publications; the other to appear seldom but always to make certain to
    dazzle when one did. Eliot, of course, chose the latter, and it worked
    smashingly. But he was still counting on gaining his reputation
    through his actual writing. Now good work alone doesn't quite seem to
    make it; the publicity catapults need to be hauled into place, the
    walls of indifference stormed. Some writers have decided to steer shy
    from publicity altogether: Thomas Pynchon for one, J.D. Salinger for
    another (if he is actually still writing or yet considers himself a
    writer). But actively seeking publicity was thought for a writer,
    somehow, vulgar--at least it was until the last few decades.

    Edmund Wilson, the famous American literary critic, used to answer
    requests with a postcard that read:

      Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read
      manuscripts, Write articles or books to order, Make statements for
      publicity purposes, Do any kind of editorial work, Judge literary
      contests, Give interviews, Conduct educational courses, Deliver
      lectures, Give talks or make speeches, Take part in writers
      congresses, Answer questionnaires, Contribute or take part in
      symposiums or "panels" of any kind, Contribute manuscripts for
      sale, Donate copies of his books to Libraries, Autograph books for
      strangers, Allow his name to be used on letterheads, Supply
      personal information about himself, Supply photographs of himself,
      Supply opinions on literary or other subjects.

    A fairly impressive list, I'd say. When I was young, Edmund Wilson
    supplied for me the model of how a literary man ought to carry
    himself. One of the things I personally found most impressive about
    his list is that everything Edmund Wilson clearly states he will not
    do, Joseph Epstein has now done, and more than once, and, like the
    young woman in the Häagen-Dazs commercial sitting on her couch with an
    empty carton of ice cream, is likely to do again and again.

    I tell myself that I do these various things in the effort to acquire
    more readers. After all, one of the reasons I write, apart from
    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. Having a high threshold for praise, 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 away quietly, producing (the hope is) good work, isn't any
    longer quite sufficient in a culture dominated by the boisterous
    spirit of celebrity. In an increasingly noisy cultural scene, with
    many voices and media competing for attention, one feels--perhaps
    incorrectly but nonetheless insistently--the need to make one's own
    small stir, however pathetic. So, on occasion, I have gone about
    tooting my own little paper horn, doing book tours, submitting to the
    comically pompous self-importance of interviews, and doing so many of
    the other things that Edmund Wilson didn't think twice about refusing
    to do.

    "You're slightly famous, aren't you, Grandpa?" my then eight-year-old
    granddaughter once said to me. "I am slightly famous, Annabelle," I
    replied, "except no one quite knows who I am." This hasn't changed
    much over the years. But of course seeking celebrity in our culture is
    a mug's game, one you cannot finally hope to win. The only large,
    lumpy kind of big-time celebrity available, outside movie celebrity,
    is to be had through appearing fairly regularly on television. I had
    the merest inkling of this fame when I was walking along one sunny
    morning in downtown Baltimore, and a red Mazda convertible screeched
    to a halt, the driver lowered his window, pointed a long index finger
    at me, hesitated, and finally, the shock of recognition lighting up
    his face, yelled, "C-SPAN!"

    I was recently asked, through email, to write a short piece for a high
    price for a volume about the city of Chicago. When I agreed to do it,
    the editor of the volume, who is (I take it) young, told me how very
    pleased she was to have someone as distinguished as I among the
    volume's contributors. But she did have just one request. Before
    making things final, she wondered if she might see a sample of my
    writing. More than forty years in the business, I thought, echoing the
    character played by Zero Mostel in The Producers, and I'm still
    wearing the celebrity equivalent of a cardboard belt.

    "Every time I think I'm famous," Virgil Thomson said, "I have only to
    go out into the world." So it is, and so ought it probably to remain
    for writers, musicians, and visual artists who prefer to consider
    themselves serious. The comedian Richard Pryor once said that he would
    deem himself famous when people recognized him, as they recognized Bob
    Hope and Muhammad Ali, by his captionless caricature. That is
    certainly one clear criterion for celebrity. But the best criterion
    I've yet come across holds that you are celebrated, indeed famous,
    only when a crazy person imagines he is you. It's especially pleasing
    that the penetrating and prolific author of this remark happens to go
    by the name of Anonymous.

    Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. This
    essay is adapted from a lecture he gave earlier this year at the
    Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of

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