FIRST-TIME AUTHORS often write me, asking how they might achieve the sort of breakaway literary success that I have yet to sniff. I give them the same advice I was given: solicit reviews, blog everywhere, visit booksellers, do events, engage your audience, tweet like nobody’s watching, and, oh yeah, it helps if you have a decent book.
What I don’t usually reveal is that there are four foolproof ways to become a rich, famous, and critically-acclaimed novelist. And not one of them involves blogging. Here they are, the Illuminati secrets of the industry, presented here for the first time, a Weeklings exclusive:
1. Become a recluse.
When famous people—musicians and novelists, actors and poets, terrorists foreign and domestic—leave the public eye at the height of their success, it amplifies the magnitude of their renown, it adds to their legend.
J.D. Salinger is the most prominent example. We still don’t know what made him quit Manhattan and repair to his New Hampshire redoubt—Rejection by Oona O’Neill? Fear of war crime exposure? Boredom with the Upper West Side social scene? The heartbreak of psoriasis?—and we probably never will. Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey would have moved units even if Salinger had joined the circus, but his self-imposed exile certainly helped fuel the collective imagination.
There is a certain romance to vanishing. We project our own escapist fantasies onto the vanished. We imagine that they are happier than the rest of us, that they’ve put one over on society, that they’ve successfully escaped, that they fill their days and nights doing what you and I only dream of. We pretend that they are immune to life’s drudgeries. Details that might contradict our reveries—Salinger didn’t even have cable, let alone a Facebook page; how wonderful could the quality of his life have been?—we conveniently ignore.
On the other hand, Thomas Pynchon has managed to be a recluse and live in New York City with his agent wife, so I guess you can have it both ways…but only if you use W.A.S.T.E.
Added bonus: No obligation to “like” the posted reviews of literary acquaintances in your Facebook feed.
2. Insult Oprah and all of her Book Club disciples. Then, to make sure people know you meant it, spend the rest of your career trying to raise the pretentiousness bar.
I’ve written about The Great American Novelist before, so I won’t rehash my qualms with him here. Suffice it to say, few people who are so in bed with me politically pique my ire as much as Jonathan Franzen. Michael Moore, maybe. That’s about it.
My new theory is that the whole thing is an act. Franzen knew exactly what he was doing when he performed the most incendiary act on Oprah’s couch not involving a declaration of love for Katie Holmes. Every subsequent public statement he’s made since is intended to produce the same headshaking effect. He doesn’t really go birdwatching. He loves Facebook. The Twitter handle @EmperorFranzen? That’s really him. (Either that or Bret Easton Ellis is behind what has to be the greatest literary prank of all time.)
In any event, brazenly insulting your target audience really does work—ask any successful punk band—as long as the insult is sufficiently resounding.
Added bonus: Can say whatever’s on your mind, without fear of offending anyone.
3. Take one unusual detail from your personal life—preferably one involving molestation, alcoholism, prison, drug abuse, sex addiction, prostitution, psychotherapy, cancer, being orphaned, or running with scissors—and embellish it like crazy. Write lurid and provocative novel about it. Then, claim the novel is a memoir.
Publishing’s dirty little secret is that the bar is lower for memoirs. It is. Victor Cruz wrote a memoir; I rest my case.
People buy memoirs because they are interested in a) the author of the memoir, or b) the memoir’s subject matter. Literary considerations are a distant third. If you have a great story and write halfway-decently, you’re golden; if you have a halfway-decent story and you write well, same deal.
The only drawback to this method is that eventually, word will get out that you’re full of shit, and some readers will smash your idol into, ahem, a million little pieces. Fortunately, most readers won’t. And you can reflect on the former while you choose the custom paint color for your new Lexus.
Added bonus: Publishers will now pay top dollar for the clumsy novel in the desk drawer that every literary agency in New York rejected ten years ago.
4. Have a deranged, reactionary ayatollah declare fatwā on you.
Midnight’s Children, the magnum opus by Salman Rushdie, won the Man Booker Prize in 1981, as well as “Best of Bookers” in both 1993 and 2008. The novel cemented Rushdie’s reputation as a novelist of the highest order, and rightly so. Many of Rushdie’s contemporaries, great writers all (but, it must be said, men mostly; I suppose it’s called the Man Booker Prize for a reason), have also won the award: J. M. Coetzee, Ben Okri, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few. Coetzee won twice. And yet Rushdie has far and away the highest Q rating of any of them. Hint: it ain’t because he’s a better writer.
In September, 1988, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, his fifth book and fourth novel; it was reviewed favorably in Britain and won the Whitbread Award. Its controversial interpretation of Islam was viewed by many Muslims as blasphemy. Banned in Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela, Pakistan, and his native India, The Satanic Verses took controversy to a new level on Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Iran’s spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, speaking on Radio Iran, issued this proclamation:
I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah Willing.
(And I thought some of my Goodreads reviews were bad!)
The fatwā was not without teeth. The Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death by “valiant Muslims”; the Italian and Turkish translators, as well as the novel’s Norwegian publisher, were seriously injured in assassination attempts. Several others were killed either trying to defend or trying to kill the author. The United States and Iran suspended diplomatic relations because of the fatwā. Rushdie himself spent the next nine years in hiding.
The controversy made Rushdie famous beyond the world of letters. Today, he’s a knight of the realm. He’s BFFs with Bono. He’s been married four times, most recently to a gorgeous model 23 years his junior, who also happens to be Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi. But we have to ask: without the fatwā, without Khomeini as PR agent from hell, does that happen?
Added bonus: When you emerge from hiding, major media outlets will all run magazine stories about how you’re suddenly everywhere. Also, Padma Lakshmi.
And if, for some reason, those four avenues are not open to you, you can always try writing a really compelling novel that is both literary and popular, funny and sad, lighthearted and profound, and that appeals to almost everyone, and that touches a nerve in the popular culture. You know, something about boy wizards, glittering vampires, or The Story of O watered down.