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net.wars: Fame (and the Strange story of Susanna M)

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 10 September 2004


You really only find out how small your world is when a friend's world suddenly expands to a bigger size.

Wendy M Grossman

Of course I knew that everyone in our circle of friends agreed that Susanna Clarke was hugely talented, and that Bloomsbury had spent a small fortune acquiring the rights to her first novel (which took her ten years to write) and would therefore promote the book in a way most authors would eat their laptops for. From unpublished, Susanna was going to leapfrog all of us into the most successful career.

I did not know that there would be a second Susanna moving into Susanna's house and taking up residence in a shadowy corner: Susanna M.

She stares at me above Salon's review of her novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I know from looking at the picture exactly what this woman is like. She is tall (either naturally or through wearing heels) and glamorous. She wears meticulously tailored black pants suits with the most tasteful of cap-sleeve, tight-fitting, shiny knit tops and silk scarves from brands my parents admired, like Hermes, but that I snobbishly look down on as sure signs of a phony. I am certain she wears gold jewelry - a bangle or six, and perhaps a chain necklace - and has a thin, hard voice. I do not know her.

Our Susanna - Susanna C - has a comfortable face, and wears what I think of as ordinary clothes.

In one of my online discussion groups, an online friend sees that photograph or another one, and observes, "She has a remarkable face."

Susanna C. giggles over that. In the last month we've learned that her grey hair is luminous, that giving a journalist a hot water bottle is a sign of an exceedingly kind nature (I'd rather have central heating, thanks), and that she would have made an excellent if exacting school headmistress.

We have also discovered that it takes a village to support a Famous Person. Right now, the village full-time resident is her partner-the-science-fiction-novelist Colin Greenland. But I have a suspicion that the demands of Fame expand to fill all the time of the number of people allotted to deal with them.

Until last week, I thought I was famous because when I type my name into Google my Web page is the top hit. I have more accurate Google hits on my name than Susanna does (my name is less common) and more even than Rebecca Mercuri. But fewer than Danny O'Brien or Richard Stallman.

But judging fame that way is like deciding you're famous because when you go out on the streets near your house some people recognize you. Mercuri was famous on the Net for years as a leading expert on electronic voting before chad started hanging in 2000. Big Media noticed her when she was put on a list of witnesses to give testimony about electronic voting machines. They warned her there'd be media attention, and said it would move on after a few days. They didn't warn her to lay in a supply of food because she wouldn't have time to go shopping for three days and nights or that her cat might have to move out to find a clean litter tray.

When she did finally get to the grocery store, it was a relief in that although her name was everywhere, her face wasn't. "You're famous, but not like Britney Spears is famous. I felt a sense of anonymity." But since then, Newsweek ran a big four-colour photograph on an inside page. Mercuri saw copies of the magazine everywhere, including in the hands of a woman sitting opposite on a train.

"It was very creepy to me, to see her looking at me when I could tell she was wondering, 'Is that the person?' When she got off, she left her copy - and I felt compelled to pick it up."

In fact, it turns out that being recognized on trains is a relatively minor issue. The bigger, more pervasive problem is that Mercuri finds far greater weight given to off-the-cuff comments she makes at conferences, even if she's not there as a speaker. "I feel now that I have a responsibility and that people take what I say differently, especially on the Internet. My words carry more weight. Plus, I worry about the press, who are happy to take quotes out of context."

What she's saying is more understandable if you saw her at this year's Defcon, where she was one of the stars. Over breakfast the second day, she was quoted in two different stories in the local newspaper, on CNN, and in a number of national ones besides.

You can see this process already happening to Susanna M. Imagine if she read the first chapter of your novel and pronounced it inadequate? Or if she came to your party and left early? Or - my God - refused you an autograph? Susanna C. might be wrong, tired, or suffering from RSI. Susanna M. has no such human frailties. Plus, she knows everything. She's even going to figure out how to get more Google hits than I have.

P.S.: the book is, actually, wonderful. Though in some of the reviews, I don't recognize it, either.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).