By Stephen Fry
When I wrote my first couple of books back in the late eighties, I found one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an author was the Event. This is publisher-speak for appearances in bookshops, talks, readings, lectures, literary festival on-stage interviews, plenary sessions, symposia and other such author-related public appearances. Each event would end with a signing. The queue would shuffle along, each customer would plonk a book down in front of me, we’d shoot the breeze for a while, author and reader in merry harmony, then they’d biff off to be replaced by the next in line. All very pleasant and genial. Occasionally, just every now and then, someone in the queue would have a camera and there would follow a rather complicated and painful procedure: the one with the camera, A, would have to find someone, B, willing to take a picture. Sometimes B would be the next person in the queue, often a member of the bookshop’s staff. B would be given the camera, while A would go behind the signing table to put an arm round me or a hand on my shoulder as I signed the book with a flourish while looking up into the lens grinning soupily. Of course B wouldn’t be acquainted with A’s particular make of camera. In fact B would give the impression of never having taken a picture before in his or her life. Wrong buttons would be pressed, extra shots would be taken ‘just to be sure’. The flash would fail to go off. A would have to go round the table again to twiddle with knobs and eventually, after much delay the business would be done. It wasn’t too disastrous, at most one or two people in the whole signing queue would be armed a camera. It wasn’t too awful an imposition.
But today …
Today everyone has a camera. They have a dedicated digital machine or something built into their mobile phone. As a result of this ubiquity the signing queue has become such a living hell that I don’t do them any more. All the pleasure has been sucked out. No agreeable exchanges and chats with the readers, nothing but the unspeakable horror of having to put up with 200 versions of the awkward and excruciating performance described above. The agony is especially exquisite given that the type of people who attend literary events and are interested in my books are precisely the type least competent at operating other people’s cameras. They may be able to use their own, but that’s of no importance because the crucial prize (which has all the point, purpose and value of twitching or train-spotting) is for the camera owner to be in the picture with the poor sap of an author. Given that the one thing that actors, writers and performers most hate (and I’m an extreme example) is having their photograph taken, life has now become a kind of living hell. It’s bad enough with professional photographers in studios (and believe me, it really is bad enough, I loathe the experience), but to have to freeze the face into something akin to a smile time after time after time while the bewildered operator footles uselessly about with the tiny little tits hat pass for buttons and switches. The photo software is so diabolically crap on most phones anyway (I have to say the Apple iPhone is astoundingly good in this respect, even a literary woman could operate it, and it is better quality than cameras with twice the pixel count) that you can hardly blame people for not being able to use it. It’s hardly surprising they switch it off every time they mean to shoot, or that the screen goes black or it’s in video mode or some other problem. It’s hardly surprising because as a piece of kit it’s bollocks. In the meantime the frozen smile fades, the queue behind gets restive and all the good vibes turn to bad.
But it doesn’t end there …
The camera and all its horrors are by no means confined to the literary events which one can (as I now do) decide to leave well alone. The fact is everybody has a camera whatever the time of day or night.
So ... a conversation is a rarity these days. Today it’s the crushing embarrassment of standing in the street like a gibbon while a total stranger accosts other total strangers and asks them to take a photograph. Crowds gather, what could have been a quick anonymous chat has become a full-on photo-op. ‘Me too!’ ‘Hold still!’ ‘Oh, and can you do a General Melchett “Baaah!” so I can use it as a ring tone? Hang on, where’s the recording app?’ ‘Say hello to my girlfriend, she doesn’t believe I’m talking to you.’ ‘Could you say in a Jeeves voice, “this is Kevin’s phone, the master is out so would you please be kind enough to leave a message?” Blinder!’ etc.
Oh, bring back the days of the simple autograph.
An excerpt from the hilarious "blessay" called "Let Fame" on Stephen's blog, and thanks to him for his permission to reprint. ©stephenfry 2007.