The Writer as Public Figure?



THE UNSTATED PREMISE of those who are touting the new movie about J.D. Salinger, “Rebel in the Rye,” is that his absence from the lit scene for decades created mystery about him. They’re hoping to capitalize on that mystery.

There’s something to be said for this viewpoint. There are multiple examples of performers and artists who achieved a level of lasting fame because they removed themselves from the scene at an early age. Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean jump immediately to mind. In the lit game, Sylvia Plath. Mystery has been an essential component of charisma for a long time. (See fan dancer Sally Rand. The brief, unsatisfied glimpse.) Or look at the most famous person in history. The mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection is the most compelling part of the Gospel narratives.
Yet J.D. Salinger was able to vanish because his literary celebrity had already been built. He wrote at a time when writers mattered.

How much more difficult the task is now, when even the biggest name writers walk around as virtual unknowns, not part of the conversation of general culture– a culture 1,000 times noisier than it once was.

Can one create mystery and charisma about a writer by keeping that person offstage– yet somehow still get the word out?

NEXT: “Star Power.” A Counter-Argument. 

2 thoughts on “The Writer as Public Figure?

  1. This is an excellent question and I don’t know how to answer it. Mystery is indeed what makes someone charismatic. I think immediately of Lorrie Moore. As for your mention of Jesus, I have written a ms. titled Jesus Minus the Miracles, and what I discovered is that without them, he becomes bland. So bland I probably won’t try to find a publisher for that ms. On the other hand, writers who retreat to become more in demand also find themselves not writing enough to forward their work to the top level. A writer has to write if he wants his work to keep improving. Maybe the writer who stands away enjoys being charismatic, but that same writer also is not pushing and polishing, and push and polish are essential to the venture.


  2. I should have added that the other component of charisma is a quick wit. Wit suggests that the one who has it is more intelligent than others. Nevertheless, the person who refrains from cracking a joke about somebody else, is the more empathic and intelligent. The person who quips rather than thinks is not at all more intelligent than others; it just seems that he is.

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