Once upon a time fame was something that came after you published a fabulous book. Or at least, that was the plan.
It was certainly the dream and desire of thousands of aspiring authors who sought fame not for its fan mail or feted awards as such (although those were not unwelcome, let's face it) but for its ability to enable them to keep on doing what they loved doing best—writing.
Well, not anymore folks. At least, not always.
"Did you hear about the great lineup in the kids' tent at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival this year?" gushed one mum on the soccer sidelines the other day.
"Oh?" I replied, my pulse quickening at the thought of my son's favourite authors, past and present, littering the stage; people like Andy Griffiths, Mem Fox and—dare I think it?— J.K. O. My. God. Rowling?!
The woman nodded her head, deliriously. "Yes! They've got Richard Roxburgh and Peter Helliar!"
Huh? Last time I looked, Richard was a famous actor better known for playing a philandering drunk and Pete a stand-up comedian with a TV news show for grown-ups. "In the kids' tent? Really? At the writers’ festival?"
"Oh, yeah," she squealed. "They've written books. I love those guys. Isn't it exciting!"
Like ordinary writers are so very dull. I didn't dare ask her if she'd read their books, I knew it was irrelevant. Who cares? They're famous!!!"
Now, at risk of sounding like a disgruntled and very unfamous author, let me just say, WTF?! How has it come to this?! How has infamy become the drawcard, not output? How do those bozos get a chair on the podium instead of so many kids' authors I've read whose books are probably just as worthy? Because, and here's the disclaimer I’ll get roasted for, I haven't read Richard or Pete's books either and they're probably absolutely wonderful, but let's be honest here, that's not the point. Those blokes are in the much-sought-after program because of who they are not what they've written, and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.
The changing face of books
Today, it seems, fame is often the precursor to scoring yourself a book deal. A prerequisite in fact. No name, no contract, no writing deal. And, I'm sorry, but it breaks my heart.
I don't write children's books, couldn't do it if I tried (and I did once, it was not pretty), but I can't help thinking of all the budding children's authors who attend my self-publishing classes with stars in their eyes, not on their director's chairs. They've worked so long and so hard on their stories and, from what they've shown me, their material is often wonderful, their stories delightful, their illustrations exquisite.
Yet chances are they will never see the light of day, let alone the inside of a book shop or the podium at a national book festival because they're missing that one vital ingredient—fame. Maybe I'm just unkind. Maybe it's sour grapes. It's definitely not novel. This move to celebrity started a long time ago. Just ask any sports journalist whose job has been replaced by a thuggish ex-footy star who can barely read the words being fed to him like mashed banana from a teleprompter. Or Donald Trump.
A forgotten calling
Call me old-fashioned, and many do, but I long for the days when writing was still considered a craft, a calling, a career that was respected and admired, albeit poorly paid, and that poor bastards devoted themselves to for decades upon decades, struggling to pay the bills, maintain relationships and retain their sanity—all in the name of art. Not something that's whipped together as a PR exercise between takes on a flood-lit sound stage.
I sound harsh, and with good reason. I wrote my first 'novel' at the age of 13. It was tripe but that didn't matter. I couldn't help but write. I'd been telling stories to anyone who'd listen since I could talk. I had no choice. Writing was what woke me up in the morning and kept me awake long into the night. And it still does. Whether I deserve fame for that depends completely on the writing, and nothing else. And that’s what I’m cranky about.
I will be judged on my words. I should be judged on my words. But what about those guys?
Did Richard Roxburgh conjure up adventure stories his whole life? Did Peter Helliar dream of publishing the Great Australian Novel? Maybe, maybe not. I suspect that came later. I suspect that came after a nudge from an antsy agent or after a brainstorming session in a publisher's office. I could write that script in my sleep:
"Who can we get to write a children’s book? Who's hot at the moment? Oh, I know! Let's ask that jolly guy from that top-rating TV show! He seems like fun. Kids'll love him!"
I have no qualms with anyone wanting to tell their stories and everyone's absolutely entitled to do so—the famous, the infamous and the great unknown. But let’s respect a book for its content, not its creator. Let’s look at the content first.
And please don't expect me to drag my son to watch you chat about your book when the real reason you're sitting there, the main reason your book ever saw the light of day, comes down to two simple words—your name.
And you never even came up with that yourself.