In response to Tim’s last post, one person mentioned the phenomenon of “celebrity scholars,” and how they, alone among English professors, are able to finance lavish and jet-setting lifestyles. Although surely not all celebrity scholars are bad (I’m afraid that I can’t say here that some of my best friends are celebrity scholars), I have taken a class with one and it involved neither a syllabus nor the learning of a single student’s name, which meant that very little learning of any kind happened. Thinking about celebrity scholars, though, made me wonder in what ways these superstars of academia compare to other types of celebrity. These scholars have been able—because their work transcends niche publishing markets—to turn themselves into desirable commodities within a market that is otherwise stacked in favor of the academic institution. Such scholars can move around from university to university apparently at will, garnering well-paid temporary contracts during the term of which they may or may not do very much work, and landing up at prestigious institutions of higher learning where all they have to endure are the glowering looks of their colleagues and their possible appearance in an academic satire.
Any affinity with general celebrity culture is short-lived, however. For good or ill, celebrity culture is obsessed by physical appearance, forcing those who would maintain their place within its ranks to endure a punishing routine of exercise, dieting, teeth-whitening, hair-dyeing, and couture-following. One would expect, given the shiny desirability of their names, that celebrity scholars would be positively Barbie-and-Ken-esque in their plasticky-ness. Not so. They are likely to be as cardigan-ny as the next English professor (if not a little more so, since they need to assert membership in a community of the oppressed). Not all of them, of course. Some wear expensive sport coats and look like they just came from lunch at the country club. In either case, though, it’s hard not to feel a sense of dislocation on meeting a “name” in person.
This phenomenon is not restricted, though, to celebrity scholars; it’s simply more pronounced for them because we are so over-exposed to their work and names. Every time you meet a scholar whose work you have previously read, you experience the disconcerting sense that they “don’t look anything like their book.” Yes, we can read oodles of post-structuralist theory that explains all this, but however much we know about author functions and implied readers and narrative voice etc. etc., upon being confronted with the physical form of an author whose books we love or hate (or have just spent a lot of time with), we are still going to think, “Ooh, I thought he would be fatter/better looking/more elegant/hairier/a woman.” It just can’t be helped. Prose has a personality; it has a shape.
And then there’s the fact that you, the reader, feel that you know this person, the author, because you’ve spent so much time hanging out together in coffee bars and libraries respectively annotating and being annotated. Meanwhile the author doesn’t know you from Adam. It’s a phenomenon similar to the type of “social surrogacy” that researchers at SUNY Buffalo and Miami-Ohio have recently demonstrated results from watching your favorite TV shows. This study–one section of which, “The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale,” gave me the title for this post—finds that “thinking about valued television programs appears to yield the experience of belongingness.” Watching Friends, in other words, makes you feel like you have friends, even if you don’t (which you probably don’t if you spend your whole time, well, watching Friends). Reading academic books, especially those you return to repeatedly, makes you feel as though you know, in some sense, their authors. In reality, however, even the authors themselves don’t know the version of themselves that you know, since they actually wrote the book you have been reading long ago, have moved on to other projects by now, and can’t remember for the life of them what they wrote on page 251 or what chapter four was about.
Anyway, it’s always exciting to go to a conference and get the chance to talk with those scholars who wrote the books that excite your interest in your field. If you liked their books, you’ll probably like them too. And until then, you have shelves full of “friends” (OK, and some acquaintances and, let’s be frank, some total strangers) waiting for you.