There once was a race of authors who had achieved a level of celebrity similar to that of movie stars. Even people who didn’t read knew these authors by sight. They became the “must gets” for the swankiest dinner parties and were topics of discussion at all lesser gatherings. Then it ended. Just like that. Inexplicably. Alas, few authors turn heads in the wild anymore. Stephen King might–then again his face is hard to forget.
The mysterious mass extinction of celebrity authors is a phenomenon that only I have noticed or care about. Which means I am either a trailblazer or just another deluded soul, a couple of moments of clarity shy of the asylum.
Taking only a sixer of Guinness and a pack of Marlboro along for company, I entered the YouTube time machine and set the dial for circa 1968. Upon arrival I examined the group of famous, extremely human celebrity authors of the era. The best place to view their ghosts was on the talk shows. The celebrity authors were as plentiful on TV talk shows in the late sixties as Stegosauruses were sixty-five million and one years ago; yet just as dead by 1975. I wanted to know why.
Once upon a time talk shows ran ninety minutes, five days a week–which is a lot of time to fill–and there were only so many Gabor sisters, Professor Irwin Coreys and Great Ballantines to go around. (The way I see it, handy Google has eliminated the need for explaining referenced people who were only slightly less obscure during their heydays.)
My YouTube exploration included The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson and three eponymous programs hosted by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett–the last appears to have been the keenest meeting spot for the celebrity authors.
The Big Three in the celebrity author species, talk show-wise, were Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. Vidal was suave, erudite and always had a bon mot up his sleeve. Although I spied a calculated, perhaps cruel aspect in his nature, he was interesting. Mailer, for some bizarre reason of his own, staggered into the spotlight as a paranoid, boorish bully. It’s difficult for me to believe that anyone would want to be thought of as a belligerent asshole by a national television audience, but it’s all there to see on the endless now of video tape.
And there used to be author feuds, like in rap and pro wrestling. Vidal and Capote loathed each other and even fought it out in court. At the end of this post I’ve included a clip of an intellectual dust up between Vidal and Mailer on the Cavett Show. It is a precious artifact. The wonderful, plain-spoken woman is Janet Fenner.
As interesting as Gore and Norman were, only one author was King, Queen and Jester of the circuit: behold a true one of a kind: Truman Capote. I have several of his works on my bookshelf, and I believe In Cold Blood to be one the ten best American books ever written. And yet despite his genius Capote is best remembered for being the stylized Truman Capote he presented on the gab fests. And for a long time he handled it and had fun with it until the various addictions that torpedoed his career, friendships and ended his life transformed his talk show persona into something pathetic and hard to watch. Even the two films about him were far more focused on his personality and decline than his work.
Upon exiting the time machine I arrived at the conclusion that past bad behavior, when viewed from a distance of years, and properly spun, can either vilify a writer (or anyone for that matter) who was exalted during his/her time, or canonize a person of dubious reputation. For instance, Ernest Hemingway, by people who I know have never read a sentence of him, mind you, is now viewed by many as a misogynistic, homophobic, animal murdering, hairy chested shithead, instead of a refiner of prose he was adulated as during the first half of the twentieth century. And as I’ve already mentioned, Norman Mailer did little to prevent an evil opinion of himself (he freely admitted to trying to stab his wife to death in 1960)–yet I’ve read A Farewell to Arms and The Executioner’s Song. Those are not the works of monsters.
Then you have William S. Burroughs. He’s always been a big counterculture hero even though he got away with shooting his wife in the head either by accident, or via a drunken game of “William Tell” (what was it these dudes had about the missus?) And although Capote had boundless wit and charm, he also often showed himself as a mean little, backstabbing son of a bitch and plenty on TV. And yet his image improves steadily.
I thought about it and came to not exactly an epiphany, but at least something that felt true. All were human. And I think that’s what’s really meant by the axiom “Write what you know.” The high and low. I guess if you’re going to examine evil in people, there’s one place in particular to start at.
Thinking such, I uneasily gazed my Shakespeare (or the guy mistaken for him) poster in the eye and said, “I bet you wenched and aled your way through those so called missing years, eh, Willie boy? Sorta surprised that Annie didn’t have an ‘accident.’”
But none of this explained the mass extinction until I happened to see the following out of the corner of my eye on Google, moments after my return to the present: “Seth Rogan is proud to have written a children’s book.” Eureka! I had found the smoking crater of the object which detonated in the popculture sky and wiped out the celebrity authors. It was the work of the author celebrities, those numbskulls and their insipid ghostwritten autobiographies that are updated every five years (like I’ll want to know about Justin Beiber at forty), their cookbooks, their fashion advice and those terrible kid’s books that each and every goddamn one of them must do–as though (besides banging the nanny) writing one is a part of parenthood. (For those of you asking yourselves if Hollywood bozos were “writing” children’s books in 1975, when I sort of claimed the extinction occurred, I remind you that I am dealing in the geologic time scale. No such thing as thirty missing years to a bug encased in amber.)
Since I had run out of Guiness, I considered the ancient mystery as a cold case solved.
That’s two L’s in Allison, Nobel Committee.
Ah, we have arrived at the point of this even-numbered wrap where I have once more painted myself into a corner. A doozy of a corner this time, too. One arrived at due to poor planning. After spending all this time more than inferring that a great many writers are mental defectives–or, at best, drunken, drugged out tests of faith, here comes a group of five writers that I must introduce as though each is as clean cut as Mr Rogers or Mary Poppins. Fortunately for me, the first four are spotless individuals who possess the highest possible moral character. Four exceptions to a rule followed diligently by the fifth.
Monday began the week with the latest installment of The Tom Sheehan Show. Before anyone spies anything facetious in that remark, I would like to point out that Tom is scheduled to appear almost every week deep into the summer and is currently producing new episodes as you read this. His moving The Vet gives high testament to why Tom’s writings have been “on the air” for an uninterrupted length of time that may yet reach the geologic scale.
Few of our writers approach the intricacy of Jane Houghton’s work. Her latest, Frank, appeared Tuesday. All Jane’s words tell–Not in the Show over Tell axiom, but as in the way they stack up beautifully and create deep and lasting images in the mind, and emotions in the heart. Now, the MC of this piece might not want you to, but you find yourself caring for old Frank, even though the odds of him finding happiness other than the peace that comes for us all, are long.
Michael “Mick” Bloor changed the week’s tone from realism to the fantastic on Wednesday with The Otherworld Hiding Place. As in his other works (which I encourage you to check out), he provides likable characters in this, but here something utterly, yet somehow oddly believable takes place. I can’t say more without giving away the farm, but I believe Rod Serling would have loved this one.
This week’s group of authors have all been here before and combine for somewhere between three and three hundred appearances. And in all those outings, few have reached the height of the delightfully absurd as Tim Frank. The Big Infight went down on Thursday. Never before has the word “infight” been as literally well used. Even if the piece fails to say a lot to you, it can still be enjoyed on many levels. And like the three which precede it I wish I had the idea first.
Speaking of myself, for at least five seconds have passed since that last happened, I slouched onstage, after obviously being dragged from a hotel bar across the street by an intern, on Friday. Roscoe and the Lightningglory: A Feeble Fable of the Fantasmagorical is what it is and in no way is meant to suggest that all weenie dogs are as murderous as Norman Mailer, Bates or Norma Desmond for that matter. Maybe only one in three are like that. Tops.
Anyway, before the clip of the Mailer/Vidal rumble, I close with a list of things that I find most people like, but I do not. Next time around I will present the opposite number, if I can think of any besides anchovies on pizza. If you are inclined to share your own unpopular dislikes, please do so. I call this list:
Things That Make Me a Bad Person: Thus Ineligible for Heaven
- Mayo (I hate the stuff. Dunno why. Just “grosses me out,” as we said in school)
- Fried eggs (I really don’t like eggs at all, but I’ll eat scrambled. But never those nasty looking alien blobs)
- Peanut butter (love peanuts, but not that stuff)
- Budweiser ( I am not a snobby drinker, I’ll gladly guzzle what I can get. But Bud always tastes warm to me, even when the can has been on ice for hours)
- Menthol cigarettes (I guess liking any type of cigarette makes me a bad person. I don’t care)
- Marijuana (It is the only “recreational” drug I do not care for. It makes me feel weird and I use stuff in an attempt not to feel weird. Glad it is becoming legalized throughout the land. But shortages cannot be blamed on me)
- Nuts in ice cream (I cracked an expensive crown on a pistachio once.)
- Walking in the rain, hand in hand with the one I love. (Syrup of ipecac is quicker; cancer of the pancreas just as thorough)
- Jazz (I suspect some people say they like it so they can be seen as hip. For me it just tootles on without much purpose)