For reclusive authors such as JD Salinger, shying away from publicity has never harmed book sales. Lucy Scholes peeks into a secretive literary phenomenon.

In Alex Ross Perry’s latest film Listen Up Philip, Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, a moderately successful Brooklyn-based author with a serious chip on his shoulder and a hugely elevated sense of his own ego. After a grand book falls through, the decidedly obnoxious Philip makes a complete U-turn and flat out refuses to do any publicity for his forthcoming second novel. On hearing this, his publisher’s face drops. Watching this scene in the cinema, all I could hear from around me were snorts of laughter. Many of the audience clearly knew the perils of the modern publishing world: publish and be damned, but publicise or be damned.

But what of the infamous literary recluses whose work sells like hot cakes? This month sees the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice. Pynchon is famously reclusive – something of an oxymoron in itself – in fact, he’s probably America’s most famous living literary recluse. A title that, until his death in 2010, was held by J D Salinger, a man who hid himself away from his fans after the phenomenal success of his now cult classic The Catcher in the Rye.

The role is something of a tricky balancing act, though: one has to have reached a certain level of fame and notoriety in order for the mantle of ‘recluse’ to be worn successfully. Thus Perry’s Philip, poised as he is at the beginning of his career – sure, he’s been named one of the ‘35 Under 35’ writers to watch by some noteworthy magazine, but he’s also suffered a recent hatchet job by an eminent reviewer – is jumping the gun a little. 

That said, Pynchon has legendarily never courted publicity, and the details about his private life, not to mention photographic images of him, are few and far between. In 1973 he memorably sent a vaudeville comedian to accept the National Book Award for his third novel Gravity’s Rainbow in his stead, and even though he has made cameo appearances on The Simpsons, he still remains a largely mysterious figure. On the first occasion, his animated avatar wore a paper bag over his head so his features were obscured, but Pynchon did do his own voice (and not long after, he also provided the voiceover for a video trailer made to promote the release of his novel Inherent Vice).

Courting publicity?

Without wanting to sound too cynical, the question must be asked: How much of the classic ‘famous literary recluse’ image is itself a publicity stunt? Writing in the Independent newspaper just after Salinger’s death, Andrew Martin proffers this exact theory, suggesting that the American author, realising “his talent was ebbing,” simply “decided to cut his losses” (he published his final work in 1965 – a short story in the New Yorker – then lived out the final 45 years of his life riding high on the success of the first 46). “It’s surely possible that The Catcher in the Rye would not have sold 65 million copies if he had been knocking out a novel a year ever since,” Martin concludes sceptically. Sales figures so astonishingly high, that he suggests that as Salinger’s heir apparent, perhaps Pynchon is just “emulating the master” – and rather successfully so if that’s the case!

The flipside of the story is that suggested by Pynchon himself: in 1997 he vocalized his belief that the term “recluse” was simply something of a “code word” used by journalists to mean “doesn’t like to talk to reporters”, the implication being that the very idea of a media-shy recluse is merely an invention of the self-same media; a sort of last-ditch attempt to uncover a story where there is none. Just because a writer refuses to court the attention of eager journalists, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a recluse on the scale of, say, an actual hermit. Take the 19th-Century American poet Emily Dickinson, for example. She’s a woman often featured regularly on ‘celebrity recluses’ lists, but really she was a recluse first and foremost and a literary celebrity thereafter, especially since her poems were not very well regarded, and barely any were actually printed, during her lifetime. By the standards of the day she was considered an eccentric – she barely left her room, let alone the family home in 20 years, communicating with even those closest to her mainly by letter – and would most likely be diagnosed as suffering from extreme agoraphobia if she was alive today.

By its very nature, writing is a solitary profession. Sure, writers want some kind of public recognition of their work, but to assume they all want to become well-known public figures is jumping to conclusions. At least three (Man) Booker Prize winners I’ve spoken to all independently complained that the publicity tours and events they were thereafter forced to embark upon distracted them hugely from their work – think, for example, how delayed Hilary Mantel has been in finishing her Cromwell trilogy.  

Hidden talents

No one represents this phenomenon more clearly, and eloquently, than the enigmatic Italian writer who publishes under the name Elena Ferrante. One of Italy’s best loved authors, she’s recently become one of their hottest exports too, garnering critical acclaim and praise across America and the UK for her incredible Neapolitan series. In a letter she wrote to her Italian publishers Edizioni E/O back in 1991, just prior to the publication of her first novel Troubling Love, Ferrante makes it clear from the very start that she won’t indulge any publicity machine goaded into action:

“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient. I won’t participate in discussions and conferences, if I’m invited. I won’t go and accept prizes, if any are awarded to me. I will never promote the book, especially on television, not in Italy or, as the case may be, abroad. I will be interviewed only in writing, but I would prefer to limit even that to the indispensable minimum.”

She politely apologies for the inconvenience this might cause her publishers, but refuses to compromise, firm in her conviction that books, “once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”

Following her incredible success – thus proving her point in its entirety – this letter is the first of a collection of correspondence and interviews collected in the small volume Fragments: Elena Ferrante on Writing, Reading, and Anonymity that has recently been made available as an e-book. As the interviews show, she has remained unwaveringly private in the 23 years that have passed since she first professed her desire to remain unknown. Yet, and as with the case of Salinger and Pynchon, this only intrigues journalists even more – myself included given that I spent much of this autumn trying to get an interview with her (conducted via email, needless to say). In a conversation with Francesco Erbani that appeared in La Repubblica in 2006, regarding the publication of Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter, he asks her continual questions about her identity – Why she keeps it a secret? Do the male identities the press continually propose for her bother her? Does she mind that this “problem” overshadows literary questions about her books? – but she proves herself a formidable, and scathing, opponent, turning the tables on her inquisitor:

“I’ve published a book, but, despite knowing that I would only answer in very general terms, you have focused the whole interview on the theme of my identity. Up to now, if you will allow me to say so, there’s been nothing that touched on The Lost Daughter, its subject, or its writing. You ask me how to keep people from talking only about who I am, and neglecting the books. I don’t know. Certainly you – forgive me – aren’t doing anything to reverse the situation and confront what you call the literary questions…”

Conspiracy theories abound that Ferrante is really a male author writing in disguise – just as there are those who claim that Pynchon is really Salinger. The press abhors a vacuum, retaliating with exactly what it does best – creating an interesting story. The literature lover in me wants very much to use these authors’ impressive sales figures as evidence for Ferrante’s insistence that “For those who love reading, the author is purely a name.” The journalist, however, hopes for something hidden behind the façades these authors project outward towards the world – something tangible, exciting, and ultimately a bit of a scoop!

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