Saturday, October 24, 2009

Larger Than Life.

John Ramsey Miller

Recently I listened to, “Breaking Through The Wall Of Sound,” an audiobook about Phil Spector, and it was a very sad listen. I’m sure most people are familiar with Spector, if not for his unprecedented unbroken string of number one hits in the fifties that lasted through the eighties, then because he was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson.

Spector produced 25 top 40 hits: “To Know Him Is To Love Him, The Beatles White Album, Lennon, George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” album, A Concert for Bangladesh, The Ramones, the number one played song in history - “You’ve Lost That Loving feeling” and “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, and many, many more. There is no doubt that Spector was brilliant at what he did with recordings and sound, but he was, as best I can tell, a miserable human being. Now he’s in prison for between nineteen years and life, and since he’ll be 88 at his earliest parole date, he’s likely to die in there. Once the small man who wore four-inch heels and wigs was much larger than life, but by the end he was just lonely, pathetic, an alcoholic and a convicted murderer.

The book is a cautionary tale about success, fame, insecurity, and behaving badly because you have money and influence. But it’s more than that. No matter how good you are at what you do, you have a window in which to operate and when it closes, you move aside, or you are moved aside by talented comers. In his later years Spector did practically nothing because he was professionally frozen by the fear of producing a flop. He made a record with Celine Dion that he wouldn’t release to her label, Sony, and that he couldn’t release independently because she owns her vocals. He didn’t care. He was rich and had never failed, and by not trying he couldn't fail.

There’s nothing like being at the top of your game in the eyes of the world, but the world is always changing and looking for the next thing. Nobody gets to stick the world in place. It’s true in music and just as true in any profession. The up and comers produce the new work that the world turns to next. The young lions wait for the old lions teeth to dull and for them to grow lazy and then they move in. It’s the way of the world, and the way it should be.

In writing, success is all about the work, not so much the author. A lot of authors believe it’s about them, but I suspect most readers aren’t all that impressed with the lives of any of today’s authors the way they once were. I remember when authors were larger than their books. Once it was Hemmingway being a man’s man with deep-sea fishing, big-game hunting, bull fighting, hanging out around wars. There was the suave F. Scott Fitzgerald being a woman’s man and social butterfly whose exploits were legend, and Bill Faulkner who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was hanging out with the Snopes in Mississippi and the Bennett Serfs in New York and drinking to excess in whatever place he found himself in. I’m talking about men who were bigger than their books. I’ve been sitting around trying to think of today’s equivalent examples. I draw a blank after Mailer and I know there are some of us worth a mention. Any ideas on authors who are larger than life in the world of literature?


  1. Great post, John. Fear of failure is a debilitating disease, but an equally paralyzing one is fear of success. It has stopped many a great writer from venturing beyond the confines of the computer. As far as contemporary, bigger-than-life authors, I would respectfully suggest Tom Wolfe.

  2. Yes, Wolfe endured traveling with Ken Keasey and that bunch for ELECTRIC KOOL AID ACID TEST. I guess that would come under "Extreme Research."

  3. I agree that authors aren't seen as larger-than-life these days, and neither are books. Maybe there are simply too many types of media to choose from nowadays. Also, with the proliferation of media outlets, including the Internet, perhaps some of the mystique of writing has been lost in the public's mind.

  4. Outstanding post, John. I don't believe there is currently anyone out there whose reputation transcends his work. And you know, that's really as it should be.

    Hemingway was an anomaly, grist for the growing mass media of his time. Fortunately for him, his material broke through, opening up his personal life for exploitation.

    It really doesn't matter, though, whether or not an author is the macho reflection of his characters. It's the material that counts. The work is what's going to make him a name. Whether he or she has a personal life that is newsworthy is irrelevant. In fact, some of the best fiction I've ever read has been written by the unlikeliest of people.