On his overlong interview with Howard Stern, Bruce Springsteen did say something interesting, perhaps by accident. (I really do like the guy. Such a nice guy. But my barber is a less conventional talker.)
In any case, Springsteen said something offhand and matter-of-fact about how being a rockstar simply requires that you have a huge ego, and causes you to need people—his wife, in his case—to reintroduce you to earthly reality on the regular.
I thought back to two years ago around this time, when I sat in a little living-room fortress of teetering stacks of hundreds of my own books to sign.
I was only beginning to understood that launching a book—or any artistic venture that you want succeed with any quantifiable portion of the public—simply requires one to become a temporary narcissist.
It might have been different 30 years ago, when most of the marketing was up to your publisher, and the writer could mostly focus on the next project. But now, even if you have a great publisher who supports your efforts in ways operational and artful …
… ultimately, it’s your job to sell your own words, with your own words. Through media interviews, and on social media. In book talks. And on podcasts, by the dozens. I hired my own publicity firm, for godsakes.
You must spend at least a couple of months breathlessly gassing on about yourself and sincerely portraying your book as a just-in-time intellectual bulwark between civilization and its opposite. Everything in Western history has led up to this book and everything in the future of Western thought will emerge in its wake.
Meanwhile, during that exact same time, you are having more praise heaped on you and your book—in private, and on Amazon—than you can absorb, all at once. From people who mean everything to you, and people who mean nothing to you. And from those same two crowds, some criticism, too—that surprises your tender heart.
For me, that was a period of several months in the spring of 2021. And yeah, even my 52-year-old personality got warped, and had to be warped, to do the things I needed to do, with the fervor that doing a good job at it required.
For Bruce Springsteen, the situation I describe here has been every single day from about 1972 to present.
Having an inflated ego, permanently or temporarily, doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole to your family, colleagues or restaurant servers, or that you even want to be. (And you’d better not be, because the first question everyone asks everyone who meets a well-known person is, “Were they nice?”) It just means you’re living quite alone in a world where an incredibly high proportion of what matters in the universe is the promotion and distribution of your creative product.
And that warps a person. And what’s worse is that the warped person it creates is likely to need ever more attention, be it in the form of another book, another album, a podcast with Barack Obama or a two-hour log-roll with Howard Stern.
And that’s the benefit of being my age when I got the first really disorienting taste of even my relatively tiny bit of fame—not even fame, just lots of concentrated attention: When the circus abruptly dwindled into a Summer About Other People—helping my daughter find a college while caring for my wife who was caring for her dying mother—I did not feel the loss too keenly. (Or, at all.)
I’m glad to have had that heady feeling once in my life, and I wish everyone could. It brought pride to my family and gave me insight about myself (and Bruce Springsteen).
But if I ever publish another book, I promise you it will not be to feel like the center of the world again.
(Any more than I usually do.)
P.S. Thanks to a crazy December deal from Kindle, an An Effort to Understand can be had for $1.99 for the rest of the month. This more than a happy holiday read. “It’s the just-in-time intellectual bulwark between civilization and its opposite,” according to its own iconic Chicago author, who added, “Everything in Western history has led up to this book and everything in the future of Western thought will emerge in its wake.”