Maybe there comes a time in every writing career when quiet, solitary writer-person gets curious about the literary world’s version of hype — popular, public, celebrity hype.
It’s true for me, anyways. So before they were sold out, I bought a ticket to see a celebrity author passing through my city. He’s a Canadian now living in the United States who appeared before a crowd of 500 people a few blocks from my house.
The author and I are strangers. I haven’t read his books. I didn’t go to see him as a fan or as a friend. Maybe I was falling back into my social science habits – acting the clinical outsider, coolly observing the phenomenon of celebrity enacted literary-style. There’s something nobly aloof about telling it that way. It lifts my delicate, fretting artist’s heart out of the story.
I arrived at the theatre just as “please find your seats” was announced. Arriving late at a sold-out event means making a rough, rude spectacle, crawling over people to lone seats in the centres of rows. I hadn’t dressed up and I arrived smelling like the onion I’d diced making dinner. That was me — rude, sloppy, late-coming, envious spectacle.
Goodwill and admiration don’t negate envy. Envy, my dad taught me, is different from jealousy. Envy is simply wanting the same thing other people have. Jealousy is wanting to get it by taking it away from them. Jealousy is hating them for having it. Those were the semantics I was raised on.
I knew sitting in a crowd gawking at a celebrity author wouldn’t get all the people who read and talk about his books to read and talk about my book too. Still, reading seems to work on a positive feedback cycle (social science!). The more people read, the more they keep reading. Reading is always good for writers.We lose nothing in supporting our colleagues — even when we’re just a tiny, anonymous faces on the far side of the footlights. There’s something slightly less noble about telling it that way.
Onstage, he read from his latest work. It was masterful and when I applauded, I felt like I meant it more than anyone else in the theatre. Then he talked. He talked about choices he’d made in his career that I wish I’d known to make in mine. He talked about disadvantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring and advantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring. He has more sisters than me. That stung. He must’ve mentioned his sisters three times — just like I would have.
Near the end, a book club leader from the audience asked him what he’s been reading lately. This isn’t the kind of amazing story where he answers, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. Check it out.”
That’s not what he said. He answered he doesn’t read other writers’ fiction very often. Especially when talking to a book club member, it’s a claim that demands defending. The author explained, “You read it and it’s like, ‘ah, they’re so good, why do I even bother?’”
That’s what a celebrity author looks like, lit onstage with his delicate, fretting artist’s heart. He looks a lot like the rest of us – rough and envious, unsure. I hadn’t known when I left my house that night, but this was what I’d come hoping to see for myself. There might not be much that’s noble about telling it this way.