Photo by Brunswyk, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Just imagine – you’ve got it made. You’ve climbed to the pinnacle of your career in acting, writing, music, or whatever, and now everyone in the world knows your name. This is what you’ve been dreaming about since you were a kid. A household name. Yeah, that’s you. You bet a hundred years from now, people still will be talking about you.
Wait a minute – what do you mean, that’s not a guarantee? Doesn’t being famous grant you some sort of immortality?
Strangely enough, it doesn’t. Just ask Rudolph Valentino, or maybe Joan Crawford. Both were hugely famous movie stars in their day, Valentino to the point that young female fans attempted suicide when he died. Nowadays, you’ve probably only heard his name if you’re into silent films or something. So will people know who Will Smith or Angelina Jolie are in the next century? Perhaps only as the answer to a trivia question.
This works for authors too. For example, when Jane Austen started out, Sir Walter Scott wrote a review of her work, praising her writing skill. This review was a big deal – if you see J.K. Rowling praising someone else’s book, and she’s telling you it’s the most fantastic thing since sliced bread, you’re more likely to buy the thing. So obviously his name on a review, praising her, meant he was a big deal, and he was trying to use his fame to help her out. Now, Walter Scott isn’t completely unknown (I’ve actually read Ivanhoe), but he’s not the first thing you think of when you think of ‘literary superstar.’
When I was a kid and the Harry Potter phenomenon was just starting, my mom mused about whether they’d be known as classics in the future or not. I was like, of course! How could they not be, when every kid I knew liked them? But now I’m not so sure. People’s opinions towards even acknowledged classics changed over time – Shakespeare had his audience in stitches, and Dickens was so popular people would line up to get their hands on the next installment of his serial novels, but nowadays your average reader finds them inaccessible. They’re still famous, of course. But tastes could change so much in the future that they find Harry Potter twee, or too grim, or who knows what.
Or maybe the Huns will invade and burn all the libraries. That’s happened before…
In the end, we have no idea what’s the key to being remembered forever. Building gigantic pyramids named after you is one strategy, of course, unless everyone else does it too. It is strange how some kings/generals/authors/famous people are remembered, whereas others who were more famous at the time were forgotten. Of course, I’d argue fame isn’t the most useful thing to pursue, anyway. While I’d love it if every kid in English class was forced to read my books in a hundred years (and dissect exactly what I meant with that metaphor of a tree), I don’t write because I base my hopes on that.
I write because I hope some people are entertained by what I write, and maybe even think a little more deeply about some of the issues I present. If I achieve that with my writing in my lifetime, I should be satisfied.
Why do you think some famous people are remembered, while others are forgotten despite their fame? Is being famous worthwhile?