In the Evening Standard today, the poet Ruth Padel is described as ‘the only household name’ left in the race to become Oxford Professor of poetry. I’m sure Padel is an excellent poet, and a perfectly good candidate for the chair, but despite all this, she is not a household name; I would go so far as to say that there isn’t one in the whole wide world of contemporary poetry, and hasn’t been since Pam Ayres stopped appearing on television with any regularity. What proportion of UK households could name the new Poet Laureate, or the old one, or any of them?
Household name recognition is difficult to achieve for any writer. I know, from the conversations I’ve had over the years with people from all areas of life, that I am a long way from achieving this distinction: anyone who has ever been published will recognise the question ‘Should I have read any of them?’ (The ‘should’ indicates the sense of moral obligation people feel when it comes to books; it is invariably used, like the Latin word ‘num’, to introduce a question expecting the weary, mumbly answer ‘No’.) I still remember an Observer article (on the news pages!) from a few years ago, which confidently predicted that a minor British novelist would become a household name by the end of the year, after a production company belonging to a famous British director bought the film rights to her novel. As if!
Who can name the author of, say, ‘Sideways’? Or ‘The Graduate’? Or the book that became ‘Slumdog Millionaire’? (The film that so excited the Observer’s arts correspondent never got made, by the way.) Certainly the films of ‘High Fidelity’, ‘Fever Pitch’ and ‘About A Boy’ haven’t helped slake my unquenchable thirst for global recognition. Indeed, I once found myself involved in a mortifyingly undignified argument with the person sitting next to me on a plane, who disputed my claim that I’d written ‘High Fidelity’. ‘I’ve watched that movie loads of times,’ she said. ‘If it was a book, I’d have noticed on the credits.’ I am used to anonymity; being called a fantasist was a new low.
Shakespeare is a household name, and Dickens; Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes are more likely to illuminate light-bulbs than the names of their creators. Who else? Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, maybe Austen. It’s a very select list. None of this means very much. Plenty of people are reading, and, more importantly, plenty of people can read; this is all that matters, in the end. But when newspapers start describing somebody as a ‘household name’ when that name is known to maybe a five-figure section of the population, it’s a sure sign that they have lost touch with reality.