Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Writers and the fallacy of fame

Margaret Atwood wrote: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.”

She continued by saying “that’s a light enough comment upon the disappointments of encountering the famous, or even the moderately well known — they are always shorter and older and more ordinary than you expected …”

I know writers who can barely articulate when you meet them, who mumble and blush and battle to string together words. I’ve watched as their adoring fans look at them in befuddled astonishment — this is not The Great Author, they’re thinking; send back this inarticulate yob and give us the witty, the clever, the sublime …

The point is that writers write because we have to. It’s an addiction. It’s a spiritual imperative, and because of that all that accompanies being a writer often surprises us.

No author ever gets used to being published. We are always so astonished that we have produced a work that anyone might want to read that we veer from being screamingly happy to dumbstruck. When it actually comes out as an article, a book or a blog, and others are going to read it, we become terrified/apprehensive/basket cases because we think no one will like it. Every flaw that we feel in ourselves and our writing becomes magnified within our heads.

We think of every great author that ever lived (or rather those who, in the scope of our limited intelligence, we know of) and think, in loud, exaggerated tones: “I am crazy; whatever made me think I could write!?” But write we do because we have a message we are convinced others want to or need to share. Atwood says that writing is singular, but I disagree. The task is, but the motive is to be part of a community, to tell a tale, to caution, to provide lessons from our mistakes, our hurt, our complicated experience. It is how we make sense of our world. If writing was singular we would never write, because writing always presumes or desperately seeks an audience.

South Africa is a very small goldfish bowl and it is relatively easy, especially for those of us in the media — writers, authors, television presenters, radio broadcasters and bloggers — to gain a modicum of name and even face recognition.

I hate the word fame because it implies the transitory success of being fleetingly trendy.

The gravest danger for anyone who experiences such recognition is to believe the exaggerated praise of the media or of those who like your work, because they can just as quickly turn against you. That is why the pain and confusion of those at Polokwane or the Britney Spears’ of the world is so intense. Once they thought they were loved, and now those who showered adoration in folded newsprint or flickering screens taunt them.

That is why I keep no articles about me or by me. I don’t record the television or radio shows on which I appear. I usually don’t watch or listen to them. I have only three professionally taken pictures of me. It’s seductive to believe the saccharine that journalists can dish, and hurtful to stomach the bile if popularity wanes or goes against you. Only fools buy into the passing shadow that is fame.

I’ve been in journalism long enough to have some name recognition and, regrettably, face recognition too.

Recently I phoned a company to make an enquiry. The person I spoke to asked if I was the Charlene Smith. I mumbled. Later I wrote to him: “I’m sorry if I sounded ungracious when you asked if I was the Charlene Smith, but I get phenomenally uncomfortable — stupidly I know, when people ask me that. I prefer to think I am invisible. Sort of old-school journalism where what we write is hopefully important, but not us. I even hate pics next to our writing; I think it scares away the readers. But I often get asked that question, so I need to find an answer — I suppose ‘yes’ might be a good one.”

People who have read my work or know me by reputation often say when they meet me, with some disappointment: “But you’re so small.”

I then say: “Yes, but my mouth is big.”

I met a French journalist recently who wanted to hear my jaundiced views on the state of the nation. I sat at the restaurant reading the New York Review of Books. He did not recognise me. He chivalrously later said it was because I was reading. But it wasn’t that. I clearly did not look like his impression of me. My hair was up in a bun and after a year without a holiday, very hard work and now tussling with a book I’m writing (always a time of little sleep) I have enormous bags under my eyes — so big that airports make me check them. But hey, I still look like me. I think.

People meet you and expect someone else. You almost want to apologise and say, sorry, she’s at home, she’s only let out at night …

The worst is if you meet someone you like who looks at you with big eyes and says: “I so admire you/your work,” and you think, damn, that means we can never be friends. Because to be my friend you have to know all of me.

Let me explain it in this way: the Japanese revere cracked porcelain and perhaps the pottery they respect the most is raku-yaki. To the untrained Western eye these tea-ceremony bowls look like something a kindergarten child threw together. They are rough; textures and colours collide. Raku looks flawed, imperfect, but the Japanese — knowing the skill and time involved — rate it highly. And that is a metaphor for life. It’s the flaws that make you interesting, especially if you seek to transform them and use them as the fuel for personal growth, an evolutionary process that is life long. Perfection is often fragile and fleeting, and sometimes deadly dull.

Those who think I am a pious rape survivor will be disappointed when they discover I am a notorious party animal who constantly interferes with the music because I so love to dance. Readers who believe I am a fierce lefty and will kneecap anyone with conservative views discover my circle of friends are a wildly eclectic mix of ultra-leftists, cops, filmmakers, students, game rangers, book-store clerks, billionaires, motor mechanics, some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the land and others who live in shacks. I have friends in their teens and others in their 80s.

Others who believe I’m a radical feminist (which I hope I am) are disconcerted when they meet me and I’m in full make-up with hair freshly blow-waved and nails manicured, and discover I have a passion for cooking and a home filled with flowers. I don’t need to be your fantasy or your prejudice; I need to be me.

Atwood, in her fabulous Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, commented: “The writer and the reader communicate only through the page … Pay no attention to the facsimiles of the writer that appear on talk shows …” Blogs may give the appearance of writers and readers communicating, but it is a fallacy. It gives the reader greater power to say to the writer: “What a load of rubbish,” or “Well done.” But ultimately it is still a one-way relationship. We don’t, I don’t think, respond to some and say what we privately mutter: “Oh, get a life …” — although I did once. If I am grateful for the response, I may write my thanks or beg for more information from the particularly insightful. Mostly I am quietly grateful that you read this far.

Writers have promiscuous intellects. If you seem interesting, we want to know you better. I’ll scribble notes on your great ideas on everything from receipts to newspaper margins or paper table napkins; I’ll save your great emailed quote and insert it later — attributable to you, in a book or article.

A writer that wants to fail will write for what he or she believes is his or her audience. Inspiration cannot be manufactured. I cannot write to please you. I write to express a range of ideas and experiences percolating through my mind — it’s entirely narcissistic.

I went to a Mail & Guardian discussion forum last year and sat next to a fellow writer. I was fascinated by the discussion. She nudged me. “Stop writing,” she said. “I’m not,” I lied because indeed physically I wasn’t. But she’s a writer too. “Yes, you are,” she said, “I can see it in your expression; you’re writing in your head.”

For those of you who know writers, you’ve seen the expression. You’ll say something to them and you can visibly see their brain switching track. They’ll look up to a corner past you, their responses will become vague or they’ll grab anything they can write on and furiously scribble — it may be just a word, but it is their prompt. An idea is being born.

  • MW


    I call myself a writer too, and I feel you.

  • Llewellyn Kriel

    The more we differ, the more we are alike, Charlene. I sense self-deprecation bordering on low esteem – I know that look. I am fascinated by how you deal with your celebrity, because, while I agree with much you and Atwood say (and remember we’ve only met through our writing), I retain every single item I’ve ever written, every speech I’ve given, every photo I’ve had taken, every TV or radio show, every doodle from every conference, every training course I compiled and even some press releases I wrote.

    Yes, my pad is a mess – it’s a museum and a monument to mess. Both those edifices are places of learning – learning from the past. I can seldom find what I’m looking for, but I always find what I need. Especially when I need to be brought down a peg or two. I looked at my son’s wedding pics from April 1 2006. It took at least 15 minutes to figure out that that little old toppie with the scrub-patch of grey hair and bemused store-bought grin on his face was the groom’s father. I did it by a process of elimination. That is so cool, don’t ya think? It’s inspirational.

    Don’t you sometimes find you’ve written something stunning. And you weren’t even trying? I’d love to know where that comes from – I think it’s my angel. She writes so well.

    I can’t dance for shit, so I listen to the music and the lyrics. Where dancing works for a rape survivor, the music and lyrics do their bit for a two-time suicide survivor.

    Maybe that’s all part of the reasons why we write. Thanks for the reminder Charlene.

  • Warren Foster

    Sounds so familiar Charlene, the bits about writing, not the fame and recognition. Great read, thanks!

  • Nick

    if we know what writing will do to us (rather than for us) will we still write? doesn’t writing at the end of the day just make us more introspective, more analytical, more inclined to dissect rather than connect and participate with the living?

  • sidakwa

    is writing a means of escapism .

    i am not journalist or writer , i am actual an engineer , but i find myself commenting a lot on thought leader and other blogs which i run personal .
    am i doomed to have bags under my eyes as well as i burn the midnight oil wanting to be heard as well .

    lol .

    keep on writing charlene , your words will out live you.

  • Charlene Smith

    Nick – oh no, writing makes us more fascinated by people and the words and ideas they can give us. We become voyeurs, we watch everyone and everything constantly. It alerts us to living. It’s only self centred phonies who think they can sit in a garrett and it comes out – writing comes through experience, through completely living and loving… Try it, it’s fabulous.

    Sidakwa – writing helps us to escape from the past and enables us to confront the future better. It’s the way I make sense of the world and I think many other writers do too. But yes, it’s hell on the looks – at the moment I not only have bags under my eyes but they are red because I’ve been spending so much time writing. I look as though I’ve been consuming too much of SA’s export products. But off to Kenya tomorrow and there through being with others, engaging with them, seeing, hearing, feeling … I will hopefully learn more and not only become a more competent writer, but with a bit of luck a little better as a person.

  • Eagle

    Hi Charlene,

    Now here’s the rub, and the reason whereas I first thought that Thought Leader may be a good idea, I am now becoming more and more disillusioned and am starting to eye the more realistic blogs, shall we say.

    The question is, which master/s will you choose to serve?

    What if your work for, say, an university. And you are a learned academic, (is there such a thing?), in a subject such as Constitutional Law.

    You know and some of your readers know that there is a lot wrong with, say, Constitutional Law. It allows the marginalization, suppression and decimation of a minority race group, for argument sake.

    You and your readers know that you are ideally placed to highlight these discrepancies and do millions of citizens in this country a tremendous amount of good, including the much maligned poor.

    However, your bosses at the University, say, the Dean of the faculty, the Rectum (sorry, Rector) and the Board will have your proverbials (figuratively speaking) for ‘mieliepap and vleis’ should you allow any unpolitically correct comments on your blog. My question is twofold.

    • Will you take the pc (politically correct) route or will you stand up for your convictions and take the career-limiting fall-out like a man (figuratively speaking) and,
    • if you take the pc route then what value will your writings really have?

    Now that you are already sorry that you have raised the subject of writing, “some damn bloggers will make a meal of anything”, let me tell you there is a bottle of Ice-Cold Cold Duck Red for an honest answer.

  • Peter-John

    I really enjoyed this article and I just have to say that even after a night on the town with no make-up on you would still look like a million bucks, your “inner being” is so sparkling and that’s who I see. As for the politically correct, I think you would rather take it like a man (so to say). Your an excellent writer and person without a doubt, even if that is only my opinion.

  • Charlene Smith

    The problem is this Eagle – Ice-Cold Cold Duck Red is a truly low grade awful drink – you’re not serious in offering that as the lure are you?
    Bottom line: the world is filled with issues – your passion is constitutional matters. Great issue. But I’m not an academic, have no interest in being an academic, I am a writer, I write what I like as I mentioned in the piece and at this moment constitutional issues, though important, are low on my agenda. At another time they may be critical, but not now. There is a constitutinal academic who writes on this blog, Pierre de Vos, red him. But also, these are blogs darling, we’re not writing to serve anyone’s interests but our own. Now are you sorry you offered an incentive? :)

  • Sue Krige

    I’m going to copy this blog into Word and savour it, and send your link to my daughter in London, who works in advertising related to book publishing. At one of many launches, she was able to leave leave the crowd around the champagne and canapes and to stumble upon a fellow smoker on the balcony, a small, silver haired elderly lady , rummaging in her untidy handbag for a lighter. She was lucky enough to strike up a short, quite ordinary conversation before discovering who she was; before stumbling into a kind of fawning awe brought on by the recognition of fame, even though she is a veteran of book launches and the like. She’s 26 and has friends from eight to 80. She’d also like to be a writer but the money in advertising so much better.
    I love and respect your column, and I devour every piece Margaret Atwood has written. I’m not going to try to meet her, though I’d like to hear her read her work.
    Please keep writing.

  • Nick

    when is voyeurism ever healthy? i mean, isn’t it like watching tv? it may be enjoyable, i’m just arguing against the case that it is ‘good’.

  • Nasdaq7

    The problem with life is that you only have seventy years or less to become famous as a writer.

    If you look back upon the story of your life and you write your memoirs, inadvertently you would want to remember and emphasize the loving parts. Giacomo Casanova, April 2, 1725 – June 4, 1798, the world’s greatest lover.

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  • Mandrake

    Thanks for motivating me, at least i’m not the only s0-called writer who fears embarassing themselves with their minor scribblings. off etch my mumblings and conspiracy theories on parchment and hurl them at the world…

    under a pseudo of course, till i get my petty fame and recognition

  • Lehlohonolo

    The part about NOT keeping your work is soooo true… having been enticed by Gevisser and Suresh Roberts on Mbeki’s presidential machinery, i applied for a position to be a specialist of a sort for speech writing, research, etc. The thought of being paid for rummaging through all sorts of reading material… feeding it to the chief, who in turn inflincted vengeance on those i did not like but wasn’t brave enough to say them myself… presumably access to better 3G… not the shit i use at work… i’d be able to go through so many readings and the tax payers would probably have to pay for it, not me… i fancied all that, until….

    …to my surprise, i was asked to provide a portfolio of my writing, and i was like…do people keep those? (to myself that is). And then it striked me that i’d never get the job, for even though i write, i hardly ever keep my work. If not because i always regret writing them once they’re published (seeing all the wrongs in them), then because, i always thought they exist to communicate something at that particular time – pity i won’t be the President’s man now!

  • Fred Khumalo

    Charlene is right. We writers are boring sods… until you give us a piece of paper and a pen. Or perhaps a glass or two of whisky or wine…

  • Noko

    Charlene, I enjoyed your article on the persona of writers. More so that it triggered in me the questions I have long been asking of me without a valid answer. I am not a writer, but an avid and a voracious reader of political and economic books and articles. I like to engage daily on these issue, both ito of national and international issues. It’s a ‘virus’ in me, without which my life would be meaningles. Like you write that fame is not your thing in your being a writer, it is sure true that since a reader may be regarded as what Atwood labels ‘singular’, being an ardent reader never brings fame, but helps one to connect with his/her world, and thus contribute significantly to general life improvement. Your comments would be appreciated on this connectedness between a writer and a reader..

  • chitrangada

    A writer is always writing. This is one truth, I really can not deny. I often tamper with the impresssions that I store in my mind for future reference. I have always stored an impression which I liked and not the one which represented the event best.

  • Rob

    One gets the feeling that you are perhaps afraid that you do not live up to the supposedly enormous expectations of your readers. Self deprecaton is possibly the only reason you might come across as unsatisfactory, because your writing does possess a great deal of lucidity and fluidity.

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