Writers’ invisibility has little or nothing to do with Fame, just as Fame has little or nothing to do with Literature. (Fame merits its capital F for its fickleness, Literature its capital L for its lastingness.) Thespians, celebrities and politicians, whose appetite for bottomless draughts of public acclaim, much of it manufactured, is beyond any normal measure, may feed hotly on Fame – but Fame is always a product of the present culture: topical and variable, hence ephemeral. Writers are made otherwise. What writers prize is simpler, quieter and more enduring than clamorous Fame: it is recognition. Fame, by and large, is an accountant’s category, tallied in Amazonian sales. Recognition, hushed and inherent in the silence of the page, is a reader’s category: its stealth is its wealth.
And recognition itself can be fragile, a light too easily shuttered. Recall Henry James’s lamentation over his culminating New York Edition, with its considered revisions and invaluable prefaces: the mammoth work of a lifetime unheralded, unread, unsold. That all this came to be munificently reversed is of no moment: the denizens of Parnassus are deaf to after-the-fact earthly notice; belatedness does them no good. Nothing is more poisonous to steady recognition than death: how often is a writer – lauded, fêted, bemedalled – plummeted into eclipse no more than a year or two after the final departure? Who nowadays speaks of Bernard Malamud, once a diadem in the grand American trinity of Bellow-Roth-Malamud? Who thinks of Lionel Trilling, except with dismissive commemorative contempt? Already Norman Mailer is a distant unregretted noise and William Styron a mote in the middle distance (a phrase the nearly forgotten Max Beerbohm applied to the fading Henry James). As for poor befuddled mystical Jack Kerouac and declamatory fiddle-strumming mystical Allen Ginsberg, both are diminished to Documents of an Era: the stale turf of social historians and tedious professors of cultural studies.
Yet these eruptions of sudden mufflings and posthumous silences must be ranked entirely apart from the forced muteness of living writers who work in minority languages, away from the klieg lights of the lingua franca, and whose oeuvres linger too often untranslated. The invisibility of recently dead writers is one thing, and can even, in certain cases (I would be pleased to name a few), bring relief; but the invisibility of the living is a different matter altogether, crucial to literary continuity. Political shunning – of writers who are made invisible, and also inaudible, by repressive design – results in what might be called public invisibility, rooted in external circumstance: the thuggish prejudices of gangsters who run rotted regimes, the vengeful prejudices of corrupt academics who propose intellectual boycotts, the shallow prejudices of the publishing lords of the currently dominant languages, and finally (reductio ad absurdum!) the ideologically narrow prejudices of some magazine editors. All these are rampant and scandalous and undermining of free expression. But what of an intrinsic, delicate and far more ubiquitous private invisibility?