Updike on Writers & Celebrity Status

A striking passage from Updike’s memoirs Self-Consciousness taken from the essay ‘On Being a Self Forever’:

Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being “somebody,” to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the “successful” writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip – all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dinning-room table, with a child’s beautifully clear eyes.

John Updike

I’ve often read material by writers before and after they’ve won some major literary award – like the Nobel Prize or Pulitzer – and there seems to be something more authentic in the earlier work. The argument isn’t necessarily limited to prizes but perhaps even controversy or simply brilliant writing that attracts the kind of attention it deserves.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Sometimes I wonder if feeling this way about the texts of an established writer are based on the expectations I have built after the writer’s recognition, and therefore expect each new text to surpass the previous one. Other times I think it’s the writer’s responsibility since the writer didn’t produce a text with the same or even better literary quality.

Take Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an example, his work continues to grow and improve in time despite having received the Nobel Prize at the age of 55 some thirty years ago. So how can this be explained?

Updike enlightens us by stressing that the material – the substance – that makes up the stories of writers, that stuff needs to come from a time before fame and fortune – before literary acclaim. Those thoughts, ideas, emotions and instincts that shape us, as well as the challenges and obstacles life impedes us with before we finally have a breakthrough, there is where the ink lies mingled with our blood. It’s in our veins to be tapped out and used on the page.

Afterwards? We’re probably too corrupted.



6 thoughts on “Updike on Writers & Celebrity Status

  1. I’m an optimist and like to think that there are those out there who CAN rise above “the machine” and not allow fame to degrade their efforts. Of course, for some, when you get a House and they give you a publishing schedule to fulfill, that, in itself, can [also] degrade the work, because the author no longer has “all the time in the world” to rework their mss like they did before. I have noticed that. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be applied, I suppose, if you were to believe the above sentiment: “Absolute fame corrupts absolutey.”

    Yet…I have faith. :-]

    1. Yes, I agree with the points you’ve mentioned. The deadlines of publishers are looming and the bills need to be paid. That is certainly one source to reduce quality if an ms doen in fact need more time to polish.

      What I like about Updike’s take on it though, is that he focuses more on where the story material comes from from within us. I find the notion that those ideas based on pre-fame emotions produce greater works than those ideas from post-fame somewhat plausible. Of course, it’s all quite hypothetical in a way and this could just be his reflection of his own process being generalized as an explanation.

      So… I have faith, too 🙂

  2. Great observation by Updike. I have read several established authors where I found myself disappointed in their later work. I had attributed it to publishers expecting them to churn out more novels. Maybe part of it is the mask- there are expectations to meet.

    1. I suppose like all things it’s difficult to have a clear-cut explanation. But I too have definitely been disappointed with some later works, fortunately not all fall in the same trap 😉

    1. It’s a good book. The only essay I found tedious was the fourth, in the form of a letter to his grandchildren explaining their lineage. All the others were excellent in content and style.

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