Samuel Beckett and the Literary Marketplace

Stephen John Dilks' reading of Beckett and publicity
Samuel Beckett
Stephen John Dilks, an academic at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has some interesting perspectives on Samuel Beckett. An early essay, 'Portraits of Beckett as a Famous Writer', explored the way photography has been used to construct a specific public image of the Nobel Prize winning writer. Since then, Dilks has continued to research the way Beckett managed his public image through a series of deft publicity campaigns (if 'campaign' is not too strong a word).

The result of his research has been published in a new study, Samuel Beckett and the Literary Marketplace, which promises to shed light on some previously unconsidered elements of the writer's private and public life. This should be of interest not only to Beckett fans, but anyone curious about what it means to be a literary celebrity.

On the subject of publicity, The Kansas City Star has promoted Dilk's book in a rather sensationalist fashion:
In 2006, after three years of writing, University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Stephen John Dilks completed a manuscript, “Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace.” After reading it, the Beckett estate prevented its release, believing that publication would change the image of Beckett, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the 20th century’s well-known literary figures, as a reclusive writer who shunned the spotlight.

“He hated publicity,” Dilks says, “but he seemed to get a lot of it.”

Without the Beckett estate’s blessing — or the ability to republish any of Beckett’s 15,000 letters — Dilks rewrote his book, sticking with the idea that the author of “Waiting for Godot” and other modernist works took an active role in perpetuating the myth of a reclusive writer who cared little for money or fame.

Dilks’ book, just published by Syracuse University Press ($45), looks at the playwright’s life during 1929-1969, the period in which the majority of his works were published.

Beckett died in 1989, and Dilks got his idea after reading obituaries.

“All the obituaries said he hated to be photographed,” Dilks says, “but each one had a different photograph of him.”

As Dilks looked into this incongruity, he found that the way Beckett was photographed was similar to that of a movie star — posed and carefully crafted by his personal photographer, John Minihan, to perpetuate an aura of celebrity.

Dilks writes that the methods used for these photos “documents a moment in his private life in order to reinforce his public image as a man averse to intrusions into his public life.”

Aside from using photographs, Dilks looked at royalty statements, book contracts and other business-related documents archived in places like Trinity College in Dublin and Reading University. The documents show that Beckett worked with agents and book publishers to perpetuate a mysterious persona and gain a larger share of the literary marketplace.

Dilks’ findings have ruffled some feathers, especially on the other side of the Atlantic.

“In England,” he says, “they seemed interested in someone who had no interest in fame or money.”

A 1991 article on Beckett in the British newspaper Evening Standard contained a quote from Mary Bryden, a University of Reading professor and the current president of the Samuel Beckett Society, saying, “He was never very interested in money.”

To Dilks, his book just fills in the gaps left by other Beckett biographies, most notably James Knowlson’s “Damned to Fame,” which Beckett himself requested be written.

“It really is a biography of Beckett as a professional writer,” says Dilks of his book. “It supplements the other biographies.”

In June, Dilks, a British native who landed at UMKC in 1997, will be attending a conference at the University of York, in England, to present a summary of his work to possible critics like Bryden. He knows winning the support from other Beckett supporters will be a tough task. [Read more]

Who would have thought a study of this kind could cause such controversy? Keen to get the scoop on this latest piece of Beckett-gossip, I got in touch with the professor supposedly in opposition to Dilks' new book, Mary Bryden. She responded succinctly: 'Just to confirm that my feathers are perfectly smooth. Steve is a fine scholar, and I'm looking forward to reading his book.' So, I suppose that settles it. I would like to add, I'm looking forward to reading it, too.

Postscript: Stephen John Dilks has since been in touch with A Piece of Monologue (see comments), and added the following: 'As the author of this book, I must thank Noah Homola for the first review. Let me reiterate a point I made when Homola interviewed me: the book is intended to be a partial biography of Beckett as a professional writer (it surveys the period from 1929-1969; I am very aware that there is much to be done to develop a fuller understanding of Beckett's career). I wrote the book to supplement the existing biographies, not to displace them. I have great respect for James Knowlson, author of the authorized biography, as well as for Mary Bryden, who is, herself, an excellent scholar.'

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