From “Like” to “Legend”: The transformative power of literary fame

Acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni recently celebrated her 71st birthday. This was the same day of the funeral service for the late, great, Maya Angelou (Ms. Giovanni even wrote a lovely poem in memory of Ms. Angelou).  While updating my Facebook page with a link to Ms. Giovanni performing one of her most famous poems, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)”, I went to bookmark it so that I can revisit it later on. My dilemma came when I went to select the appropriate folder for the bookmark; I hesitated on “Authors” before deciding on “People”.

My choice gave me pause. Yes, Ms. Giovanni is an author. She has penned many critically acclaimed collections of poetry, the most recent being Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. She is a contemporary of poet activist Sonia Sanchez and literary novelists Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Yet she is also a Person. By dint of the popularity of her writing among fans and critics alike, she has gone beyond being just an author. Indeed, her name is spoken with the same reverence as those of Angelou, Morrison, Walker, Sanchez.  She is no longer Nikki Giovanni, poet and activist. She has become NikkiGiovanni (one word), or sometimes just Nikki, literary icon.

What is it about our literary folks that propels them from the pool of mere mortal authors into the stratosphere of literary royalty? What gets them to the level of one-name-only recognition? Much as those who are familiar with movies and TV automatically know to whom is referred when the names Oprah, Denzel, Gwyneth, Charlize, Angelina, Brad (other than their occasional uniqueness) are uttered. So does this occur in the literary realm, except there are few first-name-basis authors. Instead, we meld their first and last names into a litany of fervor, to be repeated ad infinitum–or until they fall off in their writing quality.

NikkiGiovanni. SoniaSanchez. MayaAngelou. AliceWalker. ToniMorrison. StephenKIng. JamesPatterson. DavidBaldacci. NoraRoberts. ChimamandaAdichie. EricJeromeDickey (okay, he has three names).

What these authors all have in common is not only reign on the New York Times best seller list, among others, but also lots of sales in general. And book awards: Pulitzer, National Book, National Book Critics Circle, PEN . These writers are practically guaranteed to hit the NYTBL upon publication. Their advances are gleefully handed over by their respective publishers, because the publishers will earn it all back within the first week of sales.

Perhaps it is the lot of writers that we have to rely on first and last names due to relative lack of visibility; when was the last time you saw an author’s face splashed across promotional material as a focal point? Most marketing tools showcase the book cover (because that’s what the reader is most interested in), and leave the author pics to websites and the like. That being said, readers are much more likely to remember the book rather than the person who wrote it. No one usually geeks out and says, “Oooh! XYZ is releasing their latest book today!” Since book titles are promoted months in advance of publication, it’s more common for readers to say, “Ooh! This New Title is being released on this date!” Supplantation of the author by his or her work is the nature of the beast, and lends to the reinforcement of identity via the use of whole names. We’re glad that you like our work, but authors are people too: check out the person behind the curtain. This requires authors to have personality. For those on all-one-word basis, they also have the persona that engages readers during book signings, and this in turn encourages readers to keep up the fandom (people buy from people that they like).

Perhaps that’s the magic ticket: sales plus sparkle. It’s a good start for those seeking to transcend the boundaries of mere book sales.

Thanks for stopping by.

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