Celebrity Writers: What Socrates, Stephenie, and Solzhenitsyn Teach Us About the Insight of Poets Outside Their Inspiration

Thank you to everyone who has sent me and my family Christmas greetings on Orthodox Nativity. Joyous Noel! On to business!

Although the meme survives that everyone who reads Stephenie Meyer with admiration or fondness is a loser (and the contrary, those who despise her work and her fans are by definition winners, at least in comparison), I confess to being a Meyer-Reader and an admirer. I don’t recognize myself in the people being ridiculed in the Twilight of Our Literacy posts — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10, thank you Alix —  and I do see my reflection, an unpleasant snobbish side, alas, in the attitude of those rolling their eyes at others who are beneath them in literary taste or acumen.

I say all that to introduce an aside Mrs. Meyer made in a recent interview about celebrities, politics, and the real world. And the wisdom of knowing when your opinion isn’t worth the consideration that many might give it for all the wrong reasons:

Stephenie Meyer on Twilight, feminism and true love

I ask whether she’s anti-abortion, and she says: “You know what? I never talk about politics, because that is one of my pet peeves, when people with any measure of celebrity get on their soapbox and say: ‘You should vote this way.’ First of all, celebrities don’t know anything about real life. They live in an ivory tower … I lived in the real world for 30 years, enough to know I’m not in it now.”

There are author-celebrities, alive and dead, whose view on political issues I do want to read. The two I think of immediately are both dead — C. S. Lewis and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn — and I can honestly say I do not hold with the opinions of either with respect to partisan issues of governance. Their ideas, however, on all things including politics are more than worth my time and serious consideration because what made these men great artists and Christians, their gravitas and spiritual achievements won the hard way, demands my respect and deference, if not total agreement.

Do such giants walk the earth today? I assume they do but their names do not come to mind (please educate me in the com boxes below with your literary-celebrity guru list). I will add that I believe that the muses of more than one artist are more perceptive and more edifying than the expressed political positions of those they inspire — and who believe their fame entitles, even obliges them to speak out, truth to power!, on issues and concerns having little to do with what made them famous and without the depth or breadth of understanding that such commentary requires, if only in order not to be just psychological discharge or another voice of the age in which we live. 

Am I saying celebrity writers need to shut up about anything beside their books? I don’t doubt that I will be accused of wanting the likes of Salman Rushdie and others to disavow their rights of free speech. What I am hoping, though, is not they will shut up as much as they will grow up. To realize, as Mrs Meyer, points out, that they’re not living in a real world. In the real world, the opinion of a novelist is worth only as much as, perhaps much less than Joe the Plumber.

I think, as you probably do, too, of Socrates’ lament in Plato’s Apology about his disappointment in interviews with poets when in search of a man wiser than himself:

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me – the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! – for I must tell you the truth – the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the “Herculean” labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable.

When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

That Solzhenitsyn, whom a professor of note at UChicago in my years there said  was without question “the greatest writer of the 20th Century,” would before his death, in disgust with the weakness of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, come to support a Stalin-esque strong man and thug who laments the end of the Soviet Union is indeed an Oedipal tragedy of blindness parading as vision. Does this fall as a very old man mean his historical vision, his critique of the West and modernity, and his monumental novels are less valid and important?

Hardly. If anything, his slip only throws into relief the greatness of his life and his work. Solzhenitsyn spent his every moment of a long and productive life in reflection on Russia, its history, character, and spirituality.

What does it tell us, though, that such a giant ended his time on earth in association with a monster of the same type if not the prodigiousness of the Communist leaders whose crimes he exposed to the world in histories and in novels?

It tells us that Socrates was right — and that Stephenie Meyer understands this, too, it seems — that what makes a poet or novelist valuable to a culture and to individual readers, as a rule to which there are historical exceptions, perhaps,  isn’t their opinion about topical issues, opinions they are asked to share only because of their status as celebrities. This is true not only of politics, but even, I think Socrates makes clear, in these writers’ opinion about the meaning of their own work.

Great Novelists that become news items themselves (as opposed to what they’ve written), i.e., who become tabloid celebrities, as such become aspects of news cycle and eventually, tragically, they end up as voices of the regime they previously understood and stood against via their art. Why is this?

I offer for your consideration that one cause is the dissipating and demeaning nature of the news cycle itself. When Ms Rowling admitted in 2007 that she had become fascinated, even consumed by the American Presidential election, what does that tell us? Regardless of her political leanings, it means her art must suffer. I give you Rolf Dobelli and his brilliantAvoid News,’ one of the two or three most important things I read in 2013 and which I cannot recommend highly enough, especially to those whose real faith is in the shared mind of news reports:

No 15 – News kills creativity

Things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. They are oblivious to much that has been tried before. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas. I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.

On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. The creativity- killing effect of news might also be due to something simpler we’ve discussed before: distraction. I just can’t imagine producing novel ideas with the distraction that news always delivers.

If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t read news.

Read the whole thing, please. Dolbelli is a secularist but his point is important and valid even in something as a-material as creative writing. Celebrity status, fame, means being consumed by news not only as the teevee watcher and newspaper/news aggregator reader is consumed (mental submersion) but also an identity-snatcher. As Mrs. Meyer observes pointedly, they begin to believe, because they are asked for their views, that their views have weight and substance, that they are important people, more knowledgeable and thoughtful than others, who are obliged, consequently, to advance their opinions.

Which is nonsense. As much as it is de rigueur to despise Mrs. Meyer, I think on this point she is well ahead of her fellows because, like Socrates, she understands that humility is the foundational virtue not only in the moral life but as thinking persons as well.

Your comments and corrections are coveted, as always.


  1. I guess this is supposing that offering one’s opinion is a negative thing. There is a difference to me between the sort of egos who continually seek a platform where they can pontificate publicly on any number of topics and those public figures who are often asked their opinions by an insatiable media. Unless you are from the JD Salinger school of life, then a well-known writer will inevitably be interviewed in print or TV nowadays. The time is past when a writer can remain holed up in their study, quietly at work on many pieces at once and minding their own beeswax. Publishers demand promotional access. As writing is a solitary task, I feel it’s likely that many writers find these interviews and tours a very uncomfortable experience. So I feel a little sympathetic when they are asked a lot of personal questions or required to comment on social or political issues. I imagine how easy it is to be misinterpreted or regret answering. At the same time they are made to feel churlish if they refuse interviews or shy away from media. Then there is also the guilt that sudden wealth can bring that might inspire some public figures to step into the limelight in support of a cause.

    In Joanne Rowling’s case, I think she found celebrity very uncomfortable and was thoroughly unprepared for the attention she received. But as time went on and she became more experienced, she was able to pick and choose what and how much she wanted to say. I, for one, was interested in her opinions.

    I don’t think it wise to suppose that anyone has a corner on wisdom, or that everyone is wise in all situations. We all have strong suits. But I like to hear the opinions of those I admire even if they are on unrelated topics. I feel free to disagree without risking my admiration for their work. In the case of Solzhenitsyn…I think it not uncommon that people change quite a lot in a long, complicated lifetime, and although their later positions may be disappointing, there is no need to consider their earlier work diminished in any way. Things change.

    So all in all, I feel sorry for writers (and actors too) because these tours, interviews and chat shows are now part of the job and a part for which they may be unsuited. I try to cut them some slack.

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