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.