Reader Request Week 2008 #7: Fame or Lack Thereof

Since we seem to be on a kick about my career today, this question from J:

Me and my friend were discussing the type of fame you have, and we decided you have the perfect type of fame. You are unlikely to be mobbed in the streets, however, at certain places (ConFusion, for example, we were on our way there when we had this discussion), you are among the most famous, most recognized, and most well-respected people in the room. Do you agree that this is the perfect fame level, or would being just a little bit more, or even a little bit less, famous suit you better?

Well, before we begin, let us note that to answer a question like this, I have to dispense with any usual mode of modesty. We’re all agreed about that? Good. Let’s begin.

And to begin, J pretty much exactly pegs my level of fame. I am famous in a very constrained and limited way, to a small number of people, who have to go to a certain place at a certain time in order to see me at all: usually a science fiction convention or a book signing. Outside these constrained and limited circumstances, I am distinctly unfamous; indeed, as a late-thirties balding man of modest height, weight and physical attractiveness, I am practically invisible to anyone under the age of 30, and visible to anyone over that age only to the extent that they have to walk around me, or have to have some limited amount of social interaction with me as we stand in a line or some such. Since I’ve been a published author, I have never been recognized by someone unknown to me outside a convention or book signing. And even at conventions, I often go unrecognized, partly because that famously scowly picture of me in my novels gives people the impression that I’m a six-foot, four-inch serious badass, instead of the five-foot, eight-inch goofball that I actually am.

The level of fame I have isn’t actually fame; at best, it’s notability, which means a small chunk of humans know what I do and among them I’m recognized (or my name is, anyway). In my case, I’m known in science fiction circles and in blog circles. Where fans and cognoscenti of both media congregate, I’m occasionally a topic of conversation. Were I to get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’d get a write-up in Locus and Boing Boing and possibly the Dayton Daily News (“Area Author Flattened”).

And this suits me just fine. When I was younger, I wanted to be famous — that is, “people recognizing you in the supermarket”-level famous — and then I actually met people who were that famous, and after a while you notice that it’s actually a hell of a burden and you start to feel sorry for them, despite their celebrity. Really famous people can’t, in fact, go to the supermarket without being accosted, can’t eat at a restaurant with the expectation that they’ll get through the whole meal unmolested, and can’t walk down the street without some idiot texting Gawker about it. Then there are the starfuckers, stalkers, passive-aggressive grovelers, and so on and so forth. Yes, you get to be famous, but you also lose a lot of your life. That seems to be the deal, in any event.

At this point in my life, even if I wanted to be that famous, I doubt I could actually manage it. For one thing, I’m too old; all the really famous people these days started being famous in their early twenties, when they still had hair and/or perky breasts, neither of which I have. For another thing, I’m in the wrong line of work; the genuinely famous in our culture are actors and musicians. There are famous writers, to be sure, but with the exception of four or five megasellers (Rowling, King, Rice, Grisham) their fame accrues to their name, not their face. You could stand next to a best-selling author and not even know it, even if you were reading their book when you were doing it (trust me on this one).

For a final thing — and this is really the key — I don’t want that level of fame. When I did my book tour last year, I had a hell of a lot of fun getting up in front of people and signing books and meeting readers and fans, and when my two hours were done, I was spent. I wanted to hide in my hotel room and not see anyone. When I go to a convention, by the Sunday afternoon of the convention, no matter how much of a good time I’ve had, I am done — I want to go away and be alone and not be on. I am fairly extroverted and socialized for a writer, but eventually I want you all to disappear. And if I was really famous, you all would never go away. This is why celebrities eventually crack up, you know. There’s only so long you can be a monkey on display before you start throwing your poo at people.

So, yes, J: I do have just about the perfect type of “fame” for my own sanity and ego. I’m glad you noticed.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

45 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2008 #7: Fame or Lack Thereof”

  1. Well, that didn’t take long. I posted that comment at like, 3 in the morning yesterday/today (prior to the most recent time I slept, so, I’m gonna say yesterday, it was technically today), and here’s an answer. Awesome.

    See you at Penguicon. Where I will most certainly recognize you. Of course, I’ve met you a couple times already and am now preparing to be starstruck by Randall Munroe. Who I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a real picture of. Is he taller?

  2. I can’t even begin to describe how disturbing it would be if I had perky breasts, Nathan Too.

  3. This is why celebrities eventually crack up, you know. There’s only so long you can be a monkey on display before you start throwing your poo at people.

    –>This is the most hilarious line I’ve read in a month. And yes, it’s funny because it’s true.

  4. So, are we to take it from your response that you HAVE stood next to a famous author, whilst reading their book, and not recognized them? Please explain…

  5. My fiance, my brother, and several of my friends work in the roleplaying game industry. Some of them are strongly associated with a particular product or setting, and are known as “the [insert setting/product name here] guy.” This is exactly the kind of fame they have. They often (but not always) get recognized at cons, and have moderate-to-strong internet presences. But most people would walk past them on the street and never know they were “famous.”

  6. I’m confused. Do you classify me in the starfucker, stalker, or passive-aggressive groveler category?

  7. None of the above. You’ve known me since the old days. So you’re a hanger-on. Congratulations!

  8. “There’s only so long you can be a monkey on display before you start throwing your poo at people.”
    That has to be, hands down, the best analogy every written about the celebrity crack up.

  9. I had that supermarket thing for a little while when I was a teenager.

    It. Sucks. Balls.

    And everyone knows that Burns is a goatfucker. Durr.

  10. John, I would totally recognize you anywhere.

    As long as you were wearing the Tiara.

  11. I live in the same city as Orson scott Card, and I both have seen walked past him in Barnes and Noble and waited next to him at the salad bar at the local Brazilian steakhouse. In both cases, I simply nodded a greeting and left the man alone.

    BTW, Card is like Scalzi in lacking both hair and perky breasts.

  12. After the SFWA and Hugo (mis)adventures of the last couple of years wouldn’t you qualify as infamous rather than notable?

    Or does that require a goatee?

  13. Mr Scalzi; according to my son, you’re now famous amongst the Marines in Iraq who love “Old Man’s War.” So, it’s not just the Con-goers and the author-stalkers who think you’re famous. Enjoy the fame. It will only grow.

  14. I’ve just gone and looked at a bunch of pictures of you, so I will recognize you the next time I’m in Ohio and standing in line at the supermarket. You’ll know me because I’ll be saying “Oh, my god! YOU’RE John Scalzi!”

  15. If you would like a stalker, I’m sure one an be created.

    Which brings up an oddity. I was commenting to a friend of mine a couple years ago, when we were considering going to the big mystery writer convention, Bouchercon, that they have a Guest of Honor, and a Toastmaster and a Fan Guest of Honor, and he told me:

    I’d be glad to go as the Official Stalker.

    And y’know, sometimes these conventions do have that feel to them.

  16. All that’s left now is to pen the story to and attach your name to a video game. John Scalzi’s Colony Wars. Or something like that.

    I’d prefer it to be a Real Time Strategy game. Those always have the best story. And I want John Perry and Jane to be selectable Hero units that I can attach to squads. Yarr.

  17. Ever hear of a man named Mike DeWalt? I work with him on a regular basis. He is my DER. And he is a very famous man….

    …that is to people who are involved with writing software for aircraft.

    He was the National Software Resource Specialist for the FAA for many years and was intimately involved with the creation of DO-178B which is the Bible for FAA acceptance of safety critical software especially in commercial aircraft (though it has now also been adopted by the military).

    To meet him at a party of a random collection of people, you never know. To meet him at a software FAA meeting or a software symposium about Safety Critical Software and you’d know who the big dog in the room is.

    So I know whereof you speak.

  18. No matter how famous someone is, I never recognize them out of context. On a movie set, yeah I recognize all the stars and usually a lot of the bit players. In a grocery store, I’d walk right past Jenna Elfman.

    The last time I actually recognized someone famous completely out of context was when I was 15 years-old and on a summer bus tour with a youth group. We were at the Muir Woods in Sausalito and two friends and I walked by Groucho Marx. We all knew who he was but the closest I could come to a name was Karl Marx.

  19. To return to the grossly underdeveloped topic of the perkiness of your breasts, you mentioned that you are too old to become famous: “all the really famous people these days started being famous in their early twenties.”

    In his essay on fame Stephen Fry touches upon age for a minute when he observes that sudden fame often happens to the young, who promptly cannot bear it and end up doing drugs/sex/pottery/etc.: “And over those same years it became more likely that they would know my name as well as my face. In other words I drip-fed into the public consciousness by a sort of osmotic absorption. My pheme was a slow attritional one. I was not like a soap star, teen idol or reality TV participant who, in the (famous) words of Lord Byron, wake up to find themselves famous. Their phemes rage and they are the people who usually find fame hardest to handle. They are typically very young and, by definition, they have not had four or five years to habituate themselves to the experience of being recognised. Rudeness, sulky gracelessness, drugs, drink, temper tantrums and so on are often the result.”

  20. I find it interesting that, of the four mega-famous authors you named who have face recognition, I am only reasonably certain about what one of them looks like (King). And even that’s probably due to his appearances in several of his filmed works.

    (Rowling and Rice I have vague ideas about, without going to Google Image Search to check. Grisham, no idea.)

  21. John has spoken wisdom here.

    I’m a notch or two higher on the celeb food chain than he is; larger fan base, longer-established notoriety. (There are more Linux geeks in the world than fans of the sort of SF John writes.) The objective confirmation of this is that I *do* in fact occasionally get recognized in restaurants and on the street.

    It truly messed with my head the first time this happened, not in Silicon Valley or someplace with a high geek concentration, but *where I live*. It felt obscurely like being violated, like I didn’t have a private life any more.

    John is right: fame mostly sucks. I took it on only because there were things I needed to accomplish for which it was a useful tool. I do not recommend this course to anyone who can avoid it. It has perils that can eat your soul; it attracts people who will start by feeding on your fame and end up feeding on you. I have been damaged by this in ways too personal to describe.

    I differ with John’s account in only one significant part: he is not disqualified from fame by being short, balding, and over 30. I’m not much taller than he is, only slightly less balding, and 50 — but people under 30 do not ignore me. The key variable is not age and appearance but (seriously) body language and self-presentation. Danny deVito knows how to own a roomful of people when he walks into one; so do I. Charisma is a learnable skill.

    That said, I repeat my advice to all reading this that you are probably better off not cultivating it unless (as in my case) there are urgent change-the-world reasons that you think you have to. You *will* pay a price, and it is likely to be a heavier one than you can imagine going in.

    (I, too, will be at Penguicon.)

  22. I drive entertainers around the country on tour, and am an aspiring author with a personality makeup similar to yours. The more I do this, the less I envy famous people– it’s so nice to be just the anonymous bus driver. It’s astonishing that people actually lust after fame, evidently not realizing just what it entails.

  23. I’m Keri’s semi-famous fiance–and my only real brush with being recognized in public turned out to not even be me.

    I arrived at work one morning and my boss asked me if I’d met one of the posters on our message boards the previous night. Having spent the night at home, I was understandably confused, but he pointed me to a post about how I had been at the Seattle Film Festival (to see Ju-On), holding a copy of a magazine I had written for (Star Wars Gamer). Apparently, I had struck up a conversation with this poster about my book (the Star Wars Roleplaying Game), and, after the movie, he rushed home, looked up my photo on the Wizards of the Coast website, and told everyone that he was pretty sure he’d met me.

    Of course, as with many gamers, he’d been too socially awkward to simply introduce himself, and, in return, get the name of the person he’d been talking to: in this case, Dave Gross, then-editor of Dragon Magazine.

    My only time being recognized in a public place–and it wasn’t even me.


  24. It’s not just how you play the game. It’s how you play the crowd that watches the game. Barry Bonds always played baseball very well but never knew how to appeal to the crowd. I think a better liked athlete would have weathered the steroids revelations with greater ease. The grace with which athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan handle their public persona only burnish their professional credentials. In literature there is a different crowd and a different way of handling the crowd. I think the paradigm is Byron (who was himself a variation on the Achilles archetype). In my lifetime the writer who played the crowd with the greatest dexterity was Norman Mailer. His literary skills were significantly less than those of many of his peers, but his sulkiness and extremism sold more books than their quiet professionalism. In the end, though, isn’t man’s quest for money, fame, and power just a cover for his real quest: accessibility to perky breasts.

  25. Big time college professor/researchers have about the same level of fame. I use to work with a “Big Timer” and he was internationally famous to maybe 5,000 people. The funny thing was he even had groupies. When we would go to conferences there would be women throwing themselves at him. Of course, they tend to be older female professors so, like John, they were lacking the perky breast. I don’t remember any of them as being balding though.

    But it was always fun being an academic hanger on at conferences with him. He could not walk down a hall without being stopped so someone could shake his hand and visit a little. A few people would even have their picture taken with him although that was rare.

  26. I think the perfect level of fame would be that which would get you free pints at your local. The sort of thing one gets by, perhaps, rescuing a family from a burning building or some other selfless, noble act that doesn’t rate coverage by major news media.

    Otherwise, rich and anonymous is my dream.

  27. Unlike Nathan (#22), I’ve actually recognized famous people IRL occasionally. A few weeks ago, we were vacationing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and I saw Lyle Lovett in the lobby more than once. Know what I did ?

    Left the man alone.

    Heck, I figure the best way to show my appreciation is to buy his CDs :)

    Now since our gracious host is more “notable” than seriously famous (and seems like more of a “regular guy”), I’d probably feel free in similar circumstances to go up, shake his hand, and tell him how much enjoyment I’ve gotten from his work. But that’d be in addition to buying his books.

    (BTW, Samuel L. Jackson was also at the hotel then, tho’ I didn’t see him. But my 11-yr old son was quite impressed. “Mace Windu is staying at our hotel ?! Cool!” ;)

  28. Back in ’96 at the Dem Convention I went to Sea World with Dave Barry to see Newt Gingrich, and I really wish the anecdote had the payoff the setup suggests. As we were leaving a few people recognized Dave; he started talking to one, and a small line formed. Hey! It’s Dave Barry! That wasn’t entirely surprising – he had his mug in a billion papers back then – but anyone who wants to be famous should take note of how he handled it: he stood there and talked to everyone until every person could take away the memory of chatting with Dave Barry for a while. He was gracious and funny and appreciative.

    Not all authors are so kind; talking to Garrison Keillor can be like trying to pull a mouse from the claws of a very large owl.

  29. Of the “Big Four” John mentioned, I too think I *might* recognize Stephen King out of context & certainly not the other three. In fact, I worked at a bookstore from 1990- 1992, Anne Rice did a booksigning there & I *didn’t* recognize her when she came to the back room & asked me where the bathroom was (found out after I exited the back room that she was Rice). So ,Mickey Mantle, yes; Anne Rice, no.

  30. Revel in your fame! Through the books (including the Old Man’s War trilogy) I sent to my daughter, an Ensign in the U.S. Navy, I made you famous on the USS Denver during their deployment in the Gulf last summer/fall. Your books were circulated from hand to hand and eventually became confetti when the 400 book-starved marines of the 13th M.E.U. got on board for the leisurely month long trip back to San Diego. I suspect you are HUGE at Camp Pendleton and your series runs just behind Gates of Fire in popularity.

  31. “all the really famous people these days started being famous in their early twenties, when they still had hair and/or perky breasts”

    Wait a minute . . .

    Just where are these famous young women with perky breasts but no hair?

  32. Dave Gibbons once said something similar about his relative fame. He was being interviewed outside the San Diego Comic Con, and he said something about how “in there” he was treated like a star, but then he could come outside and have a smoke and relax with nobody bothering him. Best of both worlds.

    (And if you have to ask, “Who’s Dave Gibbons?”, that’s exactly his point.)

  33. David, recognizing Lyle Lovett in public is not evidence of perspicacity but only of the absence of uncorrectable blindness. It is akin to announcing that you too noticed the solar eclipse yesterday :-)

    And John, my wife’s a plastic surgeon. We could rectify the whole “perky breast” problem in a day. Betcha be more famous then!

  34. ::chuckles at BladeDoc::

    Yeah, but the first sighting went like this:

    ::notices hot chick walking arm-in-arm with goofy looking guy::

    ::says to self:: “How is it that guys who’re much goofier looking than me get such hot babes ?”

    ::couple passes by, then says to self:: “Oh. That’s how. The goofy looking guy was Lyle Lovett.” ;)

  35. When I owned an FBO, which is essentially a service-station for private airplanes and the people who travel in them, I picked up one very high-profile customer (a name you’d all recognize) who travels by NetJets, because the (bigger, slicker) FBO across the way screwed up the Famous One’s single special request: to be left the hell alone. He was asked for an autograph, which he gave graciously; then he told his pilots “we’re never coming back here again.” Bing! I had a customer. I treated his pilots like kings and left him the hell alone. He didn’t tip but I was happy to fuel the Citation X at a profit of about a dollar a gallon.

    Unfortunately I went out of business, leaving the autograph-seeker alone in business on the field. When the Famous One comes to Boston now, he does not fly into that airport, but to another one, which is less convenient to his destination, but which treats him as he’d like to be treated, as a private person.

    It must be hard. He has the kind of fame that gets its teeth in you and does not let go, thanks to commercial success that began in his youth and continues today. I recall an interview with another such famous cat, Paul McCartney, wherein he grew wistful about things he can’t do, like ride a bus. The poor guy can’t even have a marriage blow up in private.

    I encountered a very famous actor at the first US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. I started to say, “Hey, I know you…” and he got “that look” (you know, “oh, no, a fan!”) and then said, “you’re a helicopter pilot!” (He actually is, as a hobby). He laughed and said, “Busted, yeah… thanks,” and we went our separate ways.

    Who you recognize is a function of where you are, once you get past the thousand or so inescapably famous faces. I’m one of those guys who probably wouldn’t recognize Scalzi or ESR in the “wrong” setting, and I wouldn’t recognize Wil Wheaton at all (which I hope pleases him. I have no idea who he is, sad to say, even after looking at his blog).

    I myself have been a “big frog in a small pond” in that my byline and face were ubiquitous in trade news (aviation) for over six years. Even now, I can fly into any airfield in the world in complete anonymity, unless there is an airshow going on, in which case I’ll probably get “made” and tagged by autograph hunters. Unlike the Famous One in my story, it doesn’t bother me — it’s only a shock once — although it’s very weird to see my name in an autograph book alongside names that are justly famous for actual accomplishments, not mere media exposure. Writing is strange in that it is a profession that can raise your profile into at least suborbital fame, without a concomitant rise in your income.

    PS — I would second the recommendation posted above, to read Fry’s essay. It’s good and deep.

  36. Just to be fair, it should be recalled that early in his career and before having kids, Orson Scott Card had a fabulous rack.

  37. I’d prefer it to be a Real Time Strategy game. Those always have the best story. And I want John Perry and Jane to be selectable Hero units that I can attach to squads. Yarr.

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