Thomm Quackenbush, author

Looking at the Explosion: Truth vs. Fame

Fame an explosion in a Hollywood blockbuster and we writers are the daring heroes. We caused the explosion, either through careful planning or serendipitous accident with accelerants, but we are supposed to stroll away from it as though we are too cool to notice. Anything else and the audience turns against us. They get to be impressed, not us. We need to remain pure, as though we meant all to this and couldn't be more bored by it now.

The desire toward fame is seen as tawdry. If you are interest in bringing something true and beautiful into the world, having it be seen and especially receiving credit is secondary. (Artists can literally starve while waiting for your notice. As all reality shows and memes tell us, fame doesn't always equate to wealth or doesn't equate long.) "Sell-out" is often the strongest epithet lopped at an artist, implying we compromised our vision for more eyeballs.

Fame is not my primary driver, but it would be a lie to say I don't consider it in the point between finishing a piece and finding it a home. Something, when my work fails to land somewhere, I almost feel that its creation was nothing beyond a combination of exercise and masturbation. I may love it and it may have made me fractionally stronger as a writer, I may be certain that it is true and lovely, but it is a diamond deep in the dirt without an audience, simultaneously precious and worthless.

I don't want to be the cliché of an artist who is never discovered until decades after my death, when someone opens a dusty chest in my attic and realizes I was writing powerful and ignored prose. Though, this being the digital age, they would have to find a sub-subdirectory on a flash drive and - assuming the technology hasn't changed too much - read the files. If I am to be appreciated, I would like to be around to notice.

We live in a world where it is never easier to put material into the world or harder to get people to care. Most literary consumers (or, less crassly, readers) do not care about your harrowing self-published autobiography because they have a very finite amount of money and hours - and we can never forget as authors that were compete not merely with other authors but every other form of distracting media, a lot of which is easier to consume than staring at paper for hours. Almost every reader never ventures outside the catalogs of the Big Five publishers. Why would they bother? The food at the farmer's market might be delicious, but it is not available at your grocery store in packaging approved by a committee, so you are not going to buy it.

Most of what I read is famous. It is not beautiful or true, but it is popular and available. Occasionally, honesty sneaks through. Oprah or her ilk puts a sticker on the cover and we let ourselves enjoy something written out of artistic necessity, but only because we believe its fame is a testament to its quality. We know famous things can be terrible. I am certain that you can instantly name a dozen examples without pausing for breath. Yet we persist in believing this.

My first book, We Shadows, came out the same year that Snooki's Shore Thing was released. I could barely get the local corporate bookstore to notice I existed. Snooki, a former resident of the Hudson Valley, held a signing there that stopped traffic. Was her book better than mine? Probably not, depending how one feels about contemporary fantasy and The Jersey Shore, but it was beyond question more popular. While I complain about her fame in this sentence, any one of her books - and she has four - has sold more than all of my books will this month. However, books like hers, the sure things published purely because they will sell without effort, theoretically open the marketplace for our truthful novels about life under a South American despot or our biographies about raising war orphans.

When we write for fame alone, we do not write for truth. We can't. We write for a not-so-silent committee, what we believe the populous wants to read, not what they need to read or we need to say.

The truth is rarely popular because it can be ugly. At the very least, truth makes people uncomfortable. In our private lives, we want our broken-in easy chair, leftovers of our favorite meals, reruns on Netflix. Who are writers to break our audience of their comfort? We can have our artistic integrity, but we will be doing it alone, banging out a few paragraphs between full-time jobs.

I do not say this as a perceived artist. I dated a woman who did not like my writing. The greatest compliment she could afford me was that I wrote crap, but I wrote it well. In my bones, I am an author of speculative fiction. No one in my universe has yet faced cancer and it would feel hollow and cynical if I subjecting my characters to literal horrors rather than the figurative ones best combatted with spells and cleverness. By the nature of what I do, I am left free of the expectation that I am creating art. Sure, Tolkien is held up as our exemplar, but fantasy is only appreciated when it refuses to go away after fifty years.

I don't think my truth is revealed through my novels, because I wrote them because I wanted to launder my knowledge of the supernatural and occult. When I started my series, I was good enough to get published but I was not good enough to think about creating art. I did not feel ready to deserve to create. I would have published, that was rooted in my truth. I have written a blog for the last sixteen years, which allowed me to refine my voice and unlearn bad habits, but which I am keenly aware most people will never read - even the ones about whom I write. Bereft of financial gain or an audience, I write because I have things in my life I wish to put into words, so they no longer bounce around in my head. This is my unmarketable, unvarnished truth and I have contented myself with the fact that most will go unread.

Fame is a cage, but it's a nice one. The bars are well spaces and there's always enough to eat. It is rare that the famous can do anything more than repeat the stories and actions that got them famous in the first place. Why else would JK Rowling invent Robert Galbraith to write crime dramas or Stephen King devise Richard Bachman to prove that he was read because he was talented, not because he was famous? We support King writing outside horror, because at this point we will buy his work no matter what he writes. I would like to believe I would choose humble authenticity over vapid popularity, but being trusted enough to be published no matter must be a relaxing prospect.

Most do not have the strength of personality to strive for truth once we have granted them a whiff of fame and those who try are mocked as putting on airs because a celebrity trying to use their fame - our attention - in another way makes us uneasy. We want them to remain a known quality.

I don't know many who are famous who feel wholly liberated to create some version of their truth. Being a writer is already such a precarious sort of fame, as we can go unnoticed by our fans and met with a largely indifferent public, as we work in an art form many people do not indulge willingly after high school. It takes an almost suicidal bravery to switch from romance novel to literary fiction, from sci-fi to science textbook. Some luminaries manage, trusting their audience will support and follow them as they search for truth through their art. Most of us never get the opportunity to get in the cage for fame, let alone break out of it.


Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.


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