Stephen Fry (the actor and author) has a blog, and on it not long ago he complained about the way that cameras on cell phones have ruined literary readings (here’s an excerpt from Paper Cuts, the NY Times books blog).
His complaint is that people want him to pose for photos, so they get someone else to try and operate their cameras or cell phones, leading to hapless photographic attempts and a lot of standing around and grimacing instead of “agreeable exchanges and chats with the readers.”
Really, go read Fry’s lament and then come back. He does a marvelous job of describing it, far better and more detailed than my hasty summary. In the meantime, here’s a sample photo-with-the-author:
Grin and bear it!
In the comments to the Paper Cuts blog post, some jackass says the following:
My god. Be thankful you’re well-known enough to want other people to take pictures of you. You sound like a spoiled dilettante; you don’t know how many of us would kill to be inconvenienced by “200 hundred versions of the awkward and excruciating performance.” Spare us – quit yer whining!
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend jackass is actually making a valid point. I mean, you’ve got to be really successful before randomfolk come and want to be photographed with you (and jackass is clearly jealous he isn’t successful). Besides, there’s that implicit noblesse oblige of celebrity, meaning that part of being a star is the obligation to pose for photos.
I went to see the author Carl Hiaasen speak not long ago. The talk was part of Wordstock, an annual book festival. Hiaasen, who lives in Florida, flew all the way out to Portland to speak, explaining that he likes to go to good “book towns,” and for this reason (and for a presidential one), entirely avoids a certain flyover state that sits due south of Oklahoma.
After Hiaasen’s talk there was a book signing, and I bought a copy of Nature Girl, and had him sign it. As I worked toward the front of the line, I saw person after person hand their camera to someone else to take a photo. Hiaasen sat down and signed, stood up and posed, had his eyes blasted with a flash, sat down, stood up, smiled, etc.
Hiaasen was clearly tired. After all, his body was still on Florida time, so to him it felt like 1 a.m. … and he’d been on a jet for probably five hours that day. But instead of coming up and talking to him about books and writing and stories and life—the reason he said he’d come to Portland in the first place!—people were more interested in taking along a little image of themselves with him.
Maybe because Stephen Fry is also in movies and on TV, the jackass who left the comment thinks the rules of the game are different. I disagree. If you go see an author, the discussion should be about stories, and writing, and books … not about digital cameras. And when Stephen Fry is doing a reading of his book, that’s what the discussion should be about then, too.
The reason you write is to connect with people in some way, whether it’s to entertain, inform, amuse, persuade, or some combination thereof. True, there’s a perverse irony in the system, that to write you have to hole up alone in a room for a few hundred hours to produce a good book, which then gets shipped around the country and/or world, and read by people in their homes … in other words, to connect, you do so in one of the most lonely, disconnected ways imaginable.
Think about it from the writer’s point of view: Yes, it’s gratifying that people are buying, reading, and seeming to enjoy your work, but wouldn’t you want to talk to them? Get feedback? Find out all the surprising ways something you wrote touched or amused them? That was a big reason—maybe the main reason—you went through all that trouble in the first place.
And if you’re a reader, once you’re finally face to face with someone who’s written something meaningful, wouldn’t you want to talk to them?
Apparently not. Instead of a writer making meaning for a reader, or the reader making meaning out of a story, and coming together to share in that, people would rather hunt celebrities like big-game animals, nabbing a digital memento to put on their wall as some sort of testament to their egos.
If you agree with jackass, just by virtue of the fact that you’re a successful writer, you should not only not complain about being prevented from actually connecting to people on a human level, (because your image is all that matters), but you should be thankful for it.
The Barenaked Ladies have a song, “Celebrity,” which sums this up in a tidy, biting little couplet:
And all that you will see is a celebrity
All that’s left of me is my celebrity
When I got to front of the line at the Wordstock reading, I asked Carl Hiaasen for advice about writing novels, and he gave me a really good answer. I didn’t take a picture, but what I took away from the evening was something a whole lot better.