Peter Popham: Today I discovered how the other half lives

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The Independent Online

Everyone has been talking about celebrity since the Leveson Inquiry opened – about the stresses and strains of fame. So, here is what it is like to be on the first rung.

I recently published a book. By happy fluke, the timing turned out to be good. The publisher's publicity team knew what it was doing. And, as a journalist, I experienced a strange, looking-glass moment when I found myself switching from being the asker to the asked; from the interested to the interesting.

Within a short time, your diary fills up with readings, interviews, book signings – not many, not starry or splashy, but enough to keep you interested, gratified and essentially glued to the spot. You develop new pastimes: keeping your website freshly fuelled, keeping tabs on the book's subject so you can add new lines to your talks – and compulsively checking your Amazon page to see how you are doing in the rankings, and how your friends and enemies are doing. The dire Gore Vidal dictum keeps coming to mind: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." My book may only have inched up to number 2,451 in Amazon's hit parade, but poor old X has plummeted into the twelve thousands!

You didn't write the book out of vanity, but its warm reception is hugely enjoyable – like Christmas arriving out of season. But, simultaneously, you learn about the chilly underside of that cosy glow. At the book's launch, my son gave me a card in which he had written: "Congratulations." Then, in small letters underneath, it said: "Now I feel even more of a failure. Thanks a lot." It was a joke, but the nerve it touched was real.

Acquaintances greet news of your success with studied indifference, mechanical satisfaction or signs of incipient panic. Your pleasure unlocks closets full of other people's frustration. It is useless to point out that the achievement has been a hell of a long time coming, that it's not making you rich or that the acclaim means next to nothing to you. You will not be believed.

Perhaps it was for reasons such as these that Samuel Beckett, despite waiting decades for the Godot of literary success, was so firm in his refusal to perform the normal authorial undertakings when it finally came. A newly published volume of his letters reveals that his partner Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil wrote to Les Éditions de Minuit, the publisher of his novel Molloy, in 1951 to explain why the book was not to be entered for a prize. "What he dreads above all," she wrote, "is the publicity which would then be directed ... at the man himself ... It is impossible for the prize-winner ... to refuse to go in for the posturing required by these occasions."

This was not mere shyness, mulishness or misanthropy, let alone false modesty. Beckett regarded his compulsion to create as a sort of illness – he compared the process of writing to vomiting or excreting – and of the cordial gratifications of fame, he wanted no part. The old eagle knew a thing or two.