Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ruminations on Marquee Names

Cattle die, kindred die,
Every man is mortal:
But I know one thing that never dies,
The glory of the great dead.

Hávamál, trans. W.H. Auden and P.B. Taylor


I've been thinking about the concept of fame lately, viz. who's famous and who's not. This is mostly in the context of writing historical fiction, an area in which a longstanding debate continues to simmer: must a book have what some call a “marquee name” to sell, or is that not necessary? Agents and publishers largely seem to favor having someone in your book who everyone's heard of, whether that person is the main character or not, but various surveys and informal discussions suggest that this may not be as important to readers as it is to publishing professionals.

I don't want to wade in to this particular debate, which appears to be set to continue indefinitely. But I am starting to wonder exactly what constitutes a “marquee name.” And I've concluded that one person's famous person is someone else's “Huh?”

Part of this wondering comes from my own writing experience. While I can't remember a time when I didn't know the story of the headstrong knight Buondelmonte, the jester whose prank provoked him, and the cavernous split between the Guelfs and Ghibellines that resulted, I have had to come to grips with the fact that most people have absolutely no clue who these people were.

Buondelmonte, slain
Yes, they're mentioned in every contemporary chronicle; yes, some of them are in Dante's Divine Comedy; yes, Machiavelli cites the incident in his history of Florence. But it's understandable that modern Americans would not know the tale, unless they have, as I do, a particular interest in Italian history. And heaven knows there are plenty of people others consider famous who I've never heard of. You can't be an expert in everything, no matter how many crossword puzzles you work.

And it's entirely possible that a book about, say, Betsy Ross would occasion nothing more than a shrug from an audience outside the U.S.

But I have long believed that Buondelmonte is a household name in Italy, or at least in Florence, and now I'm not so sure.

What has made me doubt? I was reading about the making of Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome With Love. It's said that Allen hated that title. He wanted Bop Decameron, which makes perfect sense to me. But apparently when they tried it out on various groups of people, including Italians, nobody got it.

Okay, so maybe not so many people have actually read Boccaccio's masterpiece. I'd have to say they're really missing something, but so be it. That title wouldn't work.

So next they tried Nero Fiddled. And, believe it or not, nobody got that.

 They don't know about Nero? And his fiddle (even if it was probably a lyre)? And Rome burning? Even in Italy?

Well, then, who exactly is still famous?

If you throw in the preference many agents and publishers have for historical fiction written from a woman's point of view, you are then trying to identify the available field of women in history who an audience – an American audience, let's say – would actually know something about.

The Big Three
That, I figure, would be the Big Three. Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Anne Boleyn (described by a well-known literary agent as “the poster girl of historical fiction”). Check 'em out. You won't find any shortage of books about any of these three women.

But surely people know about other famous women, you say. Well, yes, probably; these runners-up would get high marks for recognizability:

They would be Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Marie Antoinette. Of those, Queen Victoria probably graces fewer books than the other two, but at least people know her name. After all, she and Elizabeth each had a whole age named after them. Marie Antoinette, of course, shares with Al Gore the predicament of being famous for a particularly dippy statement that she/he never actually said. (Hint: one of them advocated eating cake, and the other invented the internet.)

But I wanted to explore this idea of who's famous and who isn't, to see if I could make any sense of it. In the course of checking to see where a particular Italian was buried, I checked a fascinating site called Find a Grave. I went to the Italy version, and was interested to learn that they had two categories of well-known people interred somewhere in Italy: Very Famous, and Somewhat Famous.

(This reminds me of Miracle Max, in the movie The Princess Bride:  "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead.  There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."  I think there must be a big difference between Very Famous and Somewhat Famous, too.)

So I scanned Very Famous. I was expecting to find Dante there; how could the great poet not be Very Famous? I mean, he's so famous that people who've never read his work pretend they have. It doesn't get much more famous than that.

Dante is not there.

Boccaccio is (remember Boccaccio?). Enrico Caruso is. Luciano Pavarotti (or “Provolone,” as my former co-worker insisted on calling him) is there. Saint Francis of Assisi is there. Igor Stravinsky is there. (Yes, I know he's not Italian, but he is buried on Venice's funeral island.) And three guys who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their military heroism are there.

Very famous? Three men, no doubt heroic and in all ways laudable, but one of whom earned his award in a war I hadn't even heard of? (No, I'm not going to tell you which one that was.) More famous than Dante?

I don't think so.

So I checked out Somewhat Famous. Dante did at least make it to Somewhat Famous, I was relieved to see, but his presence there and that of some of his co-listees still surprised me. Is Saint Benedict really that much less famous than Saint Francis? Is Lucrezia Borgia really less famous than Marcello Mastroianni? And how is it that Boccaccio and Caruso and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all managed to be both Very Famous and Somewhat Famous? If they could do it, why couldn't Dante?

Lucrezia Borgia
It appears that there is a sort of voting system, a popularity contest, if you will, to determine levels of fame for this site. And poor old Dante only gets 4.5 stars out of a possible five. He must have been required reading for too many people.

On this site it is possible to leave messages for the deceased, as well as to post virtual flowers and candles, other appropriate pictures, and holiday greetings. Thinking that this might tell me something useful, I scanned the 204 notes various people have left for Dante.

Since I've taken a special interest in Gemma Donati, Dante's wife, I was pleased to see this one:

Happy Easter to you. (♥ Beatrice and Gemma also ♥)”

Hardly anybody seems to wish Gemma a happy Easter these days, so I was pleased. (She isn't any flavor of famous, at least not until I get my next book finished.) But my favorite was the note from the librarian looking for a good illustration from the Inferno so she could use it for a tattoo. I can think of some real doozies; wonder which she chose? There are some great ones by Botticelli, who was Very Famous.

If that's the best that Italy's great poet could do, I thought, I wonder how Shakespeare fared? Over to England we go...

…and you will be pleased, Gentle Reader, to learn that Shakespeare is Very Famous. Not only that, he merited no fewer than 900 notes, the most outstanding of which said “You write good plays, Shaky.”

So we have people I think are famous who apparently aren't, and people I know nothing about who apparently are, and yet we are supposed to be writing about marquee names.  
Is it any wonder we historical fiction writers get frustrated sometimes? I personally enjoy finding the obscure stories; they haven't been done to death. And as a reader, I love finding out about people and places and times that never really crossed my radar screen before. I read the Author's Notes. I look things up to find out what's real and what's invented.

And if the writer is really good, then maybe, just maybe, someone who I knew nothing about before becomes just a little more famous – maybe even enough to oodge her (or him) up to Very Famous.

Images in this post are all in the public domain.


Unknown said...

Is Joan of Arc only Somewhat Famous? (To have not made the Runners-Up list at least?)
When I was in Paris, I wandered the Musée d'Orsay, and found a few statues/portraits/whatever of Napoleon Bonaparte--which didn't entirely surprise me--but only one depiction of Jeanne d'Arc. When I asked our hosts about this, Laveanna (who is Australian) said, "Well, the French don't really like her, because she was a woman."
But I LOVE her. So I'm just curious.

Tinney Heath said...

Hi, Rowan. When I was perusing Mostly Famous vs. Famous, I was just looking in Italy (with a brief foray to England), so she wouldn't have shown up there. As for her role in historical fiction, there are books about her, but she doesn't seem to be as much in evidence as English queens. In general, in my (not totally scientific) ranking system, I was ignoring several categories, including saints, people who are probably legendary, and Biblical women. I'm surprised you didn't see more of Jeanne in Paris; I would have expected her to be well represented there.

Shelley said...

I'm always wearied by the great writers my college students don't know, have never heard of, will never read.

All the more reason libraries are sacred.