Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't make me a celebrity! Please, make me a celebrity!

It was one of the first things I noticed upon coming to the USA--celebrity culture. Not that the South Africa of my youth lacked magazines devoted to "uncovering" Rock Hudson's skinny-dipping locales and speculating about how he got HIV. Or less gloomily, counting Liz Taylor's diamond necklaces. But the trend was magnified on this side of the Atlantic. What I noticed was the sheer number of prime-time TV shows dedicated to Hollywood, not to mention trashy rags at the checkout counter.

And then there was the cult of personality about Nelson Mandela.

In the "struggle," we just saw Mandela as our "Comrade Leader." The battle to defeat apartheid was collective--the only thing we had on our side was force of numbers. But here, Mandela was seen as a charismatic Beowulf-style hero who'd single-handedly slain an evil monster. I remember Charlene Hunter Gault interviewing him on PBS, and Madiba telling her off several times for assuming democracy in South Africa was "his" victory. This difference seemed to epitomize a culture steeped in adversity, which promotes community, versus a more prosperous, individualized one geared more to mass entertainment.

But whether it's Jesus, Buddha, Prince William, or the Biebs, we seem to need people to exalt above ourselves. Today, South Africa is almost as celebrity-obsessed as North America. When it comes to Lady Gaga or Zac Efron, the amount of money and attention we pour on celebrities is staggering. Did you know that Beyonce made $ 84 million in 2009?

Which brings me to the current focus of this blog--the experience of publishing a first book. My publicist at my press told me the day he met me: "It's only celebrity memoirs that we try to get onto the big radio and TV shows." A friend--also a book publicist--explained, "If you want to sell books, frankly, the goal is to try to make yourself, as much as possible, into a celebrity." Of course, what she was saying was entirely relative. Even the biggest celebrity literary authors, like Dave Eggers, are ultimately small fry. But I think her point was that if I want people to read my words and get my message--if I want an audience for the stories which I worked so hard to produce--I need to be able in some modest way, to play the celebrity game.

Yesterday, WITF--the public broadcasting TV station in Harrisburg, PA--came to our Writers Institute building to interview me about my book and about the Travel Writing in South Africa course. In the big universe of celebrity-hood, it was nothing at all. Tomorrow, at 8 pm, a small news magazine program will broadcast a couple of minutes about me and my students to a central Pennsylvania audience. But still, the camera guy and anchor added a touch a glamor to our bookish surroundings. There were photo lamps; reflective umbrellas. It was fun to talk about teaching and writing, and as is so often the case, I was proud as can be of the Susquehanna University students when they got in front of the camera.

My friends, students, and colleagues didn't lose the chance to tease me about it, though.

"You're a celebrity now!" they said. "A hot shot! Obama will be inviting you to the White House!"

'No," I wanted to reply, echoing my erstwhile President, back in 1994. "I'm just an author!" Half my brain was going, "Shit, yeah! Barack and me, natural buddies." The other half, "Don't you dare call me that dirty c-word!" And of course, it doesn't need to be said that the whole idea was completely ridiculous.

I suppose the ultimate point to these ramblings on the topic of celebrity culture is that I'll take every little thing the world is willing to throw at me, in order to be able to live my dream. That dream is simply to create truth and beauty--emotional, formal, and linguistic --on the page. That's the passion that made me want to be a writer. That's my vocation, what the Italian essayist Natalia Ginsburg called--I'm quoting roughly from memory here--the thing that "burns away everything inessential."

If someone hands me $84 million--thanks so much! I'll buy a nice island and tower off the South African West Coast and use the beautiful solitude to read and write more. I'll donate the surplus to end corrective rape and support the education of young South African writers. Not that I'm holding my breath--but I'm just saying.

If the world hands me nothing at all, I'll write in whatever time I can carve aside.

Either way, writing and love of the people in my life--family, friends, students, colleagues, neighbors--are the two things I care most about.

I don't even think I'm kidding myself on this point. All of this book publicity stuff--successful or unsuccessful--is just a means to an end. All the rest is meaningless.


  1. You're so right about we Americans and our obsession with fame and with individualism.

    However, if you do get that $84 million, please consider donating to my retirement fund, if that's not too much to ask. :)

    Joe G.

  2. Lovely. Nail Gaiman once blogged something similar to this. No stranger to celebrity, he had been having a particularly busy week of engagements and award ceremonies. Lamenting the fact of two engagements (one an award) that he couldn't simultaneously attend he eventually caught himself on, remembering what you have concluded here;

    'the stories + people= important
    everything else= unimportant'

    I am off to meet my MA class for the first time 'in real life' in Manchester tomorrow. People AND stories! can't wait :-)