Willa Cather’s Love/Hate Relationship with Fame

Willa Cather

While laboring in obscurity, many writers dream of doing radio shows, granting interviews, going on author tours, and appearing on television. If and when this becomes a reality , however, these fame-themed flights of fancy can morph into sheer panic. Me, a public person? That’s not what I signed up for!

Willa Cather’ love/hate relationship with fame the press was fierce. She courted fame in her youth, but expressed discomfort with it once it arrived.


Yet, she left a wealth of public pronouncements, derived mainly from interviews she granted and public speeches she made. She also wrote many autobiographical sketches, press releases, and even semi-reviews in the third-person as a way to promote her work. Still, the more known she became, the more irritable she grew with loss of privacy.

For someone as ambivalent about publicity as Cather claimed to be, she granted tons of interviews, and judging by the vigor of her responses, she gave the impression that she was enjoying holding forth on subjects dear to her heart—to wit, her writings.

 

Mixed signals

For one who claimed to treasure her privacy, she gave dozens of speeches, many of which were transcribed for posterity. “In this country a writer has to hide and lie and almost steal in order to get time to work—and peace of mind to work with,” she said in a 1926 interview. But of course, few writers really had that “problem” — and might have craved that kind of attention Cather was spurning.

If the phrase had been invented in the era of her heyday (in which the only forms of promotion available to authors were print media and lecturing), Cather would have been the model of a media-savvy author.

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Willa Cather quotes

You might also like: 5 Pieces of Writing Wisdom from Willa Cather

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More than ever, publishers want authors who can spring into actions as fully formed media mavens. And that no longer means knowing a few local newspaper reporters or having a friend of a friend at Vogue.

Publishers love authors who come with a solid “platform,” which may include tons of fans and followers in the social media world, a popular blog, video channel, or podcast, and who are schooled in the techniques of networking in this virtual realm.

 

Imagining a modern Cather

I can almost imagine Willa Cather being interviewed by book-loving Oprah Winfrey, these two dynamic women having a stimulating conversation about the former’s more controversial views (“Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts talent in the hands of women,” she proclaimed crankily in 1895, “they usually make such an infernal mess out of it.”).

But I can’t picture her interacting with fans on social media sites; she likely would have considered these a waste of time and an invasion of privacy.

At one point, while working on her next-to-last novel, Lucy Gayheart, Cather felt so besieged by the press, public, and Hollywood, that she shut her phone shut off during work hours and hired a secretary to pen impersonal responses to the many letters she received.

 

Fame is always a mixed blessing

To gain recognition for your work is a blessing. To achieve fame is a mixed blessing. Before you start wishing for fame, find a way to test how well you handle recognition.

It’s not as easy as the fantasy version, to be sure, but it can be fun if you’re able to muster grace under pressure.

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Willa Cather

See also: On the Art of Fiction, According to Willa Cather

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