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And the prize goes to…
BOOK FOR BOOK'S SAKE

Turning authors into celebrities is bad for reading

Thu-Huong Ha
By Thu-Huong Ha

Reporter

Today the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich 8 million Swedish kronor (approximately $970,000 US) in recognition of a lifetime of excellence. The 67-year-old author of Voices From Chernobyl and War’s Unwomanly Face was praised by the Swedish Academy “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

Prizes like the Nobel inspire much ado—in the weeks leading up to the announcement, people give their best guesses as to who will win, look back on past “snubbed” winners, and even place bets as if spectators at a Derby.

Hours before the scheduled announcement this morning, a tweet claiming to be from the real Alexievich thanked the Swedish Academy for her prize. The account has since been revealed to be a hoax, but not before the message was retweeted hundreds of times as prize-speculators wondered if Alexievich had let the secret out hours too soon.

Literary prizes reward artistic brilliance. They help writers earn a semblance of a viable living. But is the public’s attendant fascination with prize-winning authors healthy? Our laurel-heaping impulse seems increasingly to contribute to a culture of turning authors into celebrities, where readers follow the author instead of the book.

A story should stand on its own, as a considered, complete work, without biographical information or addenda from author. It’s an idea perhaps best encapsulated in literary theorist Roland Barthes’s iconic 1968 essay, “The Death of the Author.” “The image of literature to be found in contemporary culture,” railed Barthes, “is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions.”

Nearly 50 years later, a few still agree. ”I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors,” New York Times bestselling author Elena Ferrante once wrote in a letter to her publisher. Nobody knows the real identity of Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym; she communicates almost exclusively by email and letters.

“If [books] have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t,” she continued. “True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished.”

But the rules for submission for the Man Booker International Prize, for example, strongly encourage authors to “make themselves available for publicity and events from longlist stage on,” which includes recorded interviews and podcasts. The foundation behind the National Book Award requires finalists to participate in their “website-related publicity.”

In 2007, a reporter who showed up uninvited at Doris Lessing’s house was the first to inform her that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Today the Twitterati came knocking on Alexievich’s digital door hours before the award was even official. To be considered for a prize is to be a public figure.

Some authors indulge, and even encourage, their fans. Harry Potter series author JK Rowling, with over 5.6 million Twitter followers, has actively addressed readers through public appearances and social media, revealing much more than we could have imagined when we closed the dust jacket on the final Harry Potter book.

We now know the house Harry’s children will be sorted into, that Dumbledore is gay, “Voldemort” is actually pronounced with a silent “t,” and a whole host of other minor and major trivia about the backstory of the characters. From Rowling’s own site Pottermore, which frequently publishes new information about the Harry Potter world, we learn from a listicle that the character Minerva McGonagall would be the “best work mentor ever.”

The magical world Rowling created in her books–a relatively tight mystery with well-laid clues and red herrings that led to a satisfying conclusion, which had to prove their merits to the reader based on an internal logic—is being unraveled by her own hand.

Of course, public attention also has very important benefits for authors. For three months after receiving the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad sold about triple its print sales from before the prize, Publishers Weekly reports. The 2010 winner, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, sold only 40 books the week before the prize was announced; following the prize, the weekly sales grew to about 5,000 and stayed there for another 10 months.

On Oct. 5, in the domed Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library, the first FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards was held to recognize excellence in the arts from countries in emerging markets. As Nigerian-born Chigozie Obioma accepted the prize for fiction with an easy smile, his excitement was palpable. Given the cash prize of $40,000 for each of three winners (the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awards $10,000), it’s hard to downplay the importance of such an honor. Such awards bring necessary visibility and funding to writers facing a literary landscape dominated by white men.

But our culture of celebrity is often too wrapped up in the way we read: How might the meaning of a work change if the author really didn’t grow up in a poor neighborhood, or if she was abused in childhood, or if she is really a man? Even the anonymous Ferrante has been made the centerpiece of her books’ success. Speaking at an event on Oct. 6, Ferrante’s publisher Kent Carroll said that speculation about the author’s true identity paradoxically drove interest in her. Readers studied her life as if it were the key to interpreting her novels: Who was Ferrante? Who were her influences? Was she even a woman at all?

Behind our fandom is the question that drives all such questions: What did the author intend? By all means, let us praise brilliant work—and in doing so trust that the author has already told us enough, and that the story she meant to tell ended with the final page.

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