In the aftermath of the death of noted English writer, mystic, and eternal outsider Colin Wilson, when, as Nick Mamatas remarked, the dearth of good death notices showed that the newspapers didn’t have canned obits ready to go for the inevitable day, The Independent has run a handy guide on to how to achieve literary obscurity, Wilson style. For all self-publishing, self-promoting and otherwise fame-hungry writers out there, it’s a useful shortlist – but perhaps one that one can take issue with. Which is what I’m going to do, right now.

colin wilsonSo here is Terence Blacker’s list, with qualifiers and exceptions duly noted:

“1. Don’t be too successful when young.” I doubt Sylvia Plath, dead at 30, is losing too much sleep over that one. Or Alec Greven, in print by age 9. Even if you explode on the scene like Wilson at age 24, then crash catastrophically, just take it whenever you can get it.

“2. Don’t create silly myths about yourself.” But any publicity is good publicity, no? From Ernst Hemingway’s erect stance at the typewriter to Gérard de Nerval’s perambulations with a lobster, what great writer’s reputation hasn’t benefited from a dash of charlatanism?

“3. Don’t belong to a literary pack.” Well, in the end did membership of the Angry Young Men do Colin Wilson any harm? Plus a little backscratching never hurts. It’s hard to imagine that many literary members of the Algonquin Round Table besides Dorothy Parker would be that well remembered if it wasn’t for their membership of … the Algonquin Round Table.

“4. Don’t allow the literary establishment to make a fool of itself over you.” Some would say that Jonathan Franzen‘s career has been built on that and nothing else. Or on them not wanting to appear like fools by backsliding on their previous hype.

“5. Don’t write too much about sex, or crime, or the occult.” Well, it hasn’t done E.L. James any harm. Or Ian Rankin. Or Stephen King. But I suppose it depends on how seriously you want to be taken.

“6. Don’t move to the country.” Well, does Edinburgh count? Because that would rather rule J.K. Rowling out of the whirl of “book launches, literary  societies and the presentation of prizes, all of which take place in central London,” according to Blacker. And J.D. Salinger’s removal to Cornish, N.H., didn’t seem to do his rep too much damage. Never mind Thomas Pynchon’s comprehensive disappearance off the map – so complete that Google Maps now presents: “Mapping Thomas Pynchon – Results of a 3 year study on the whereabouts of Thomas Pynchon, Jr.”

“7. Don’t, when in your late seventies, discuss your panty-fetishism with Lynn Barber.” Alright, on that one, I concede defeat. Should we aspirant literary unlegends line up and volunteer to do this when we’re old enough?

So there you go. How not to play the literary fame game like a champ. Learn from it. Or not.


  1. There are thounds of paths towards literary fame; most double back to obscurity, some allow copycats to follow trail blazers on bandwagons, but, really, it’s more a roll of the dice. Bad authors can hit the jackpot with movie deals and other franchises while good authors must wash dishes at a greasy spoons to pay the rent.

    Personally, I think more authors should feud like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.

  2. Point 7. – What about James Joyce? Thanks for a thorough refutation of that godawful attempt at ill-timed humour in The Independent. The author and the editor should be very ashamed of themselves. Their sense of comic timing was dreadful.

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