To kill an author's mystery is a terrible thing

The world now knows not only what Harper Lee looks like but how she likes her eggs
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'll share a little secret with you: when I grow up, I want to be Bernie Taupin. Not because of his wealth, necessarily, though living on a ranch in California would be nice. And it might be fun to be called Bernie. But the best thing about being Bernie Taupin, I've always thought, is being one of the most famous and popular people in the world while remaining almost anonymous. For, while his musical partner Elton John can't leave the house without full hair and make-up, Bernie, the writer of some of the 20th century's best-loved lyrics, can probably pop out to Lidl incognito any time he likes. In fact, I bet it's him buying up all that posh wine that Lidl says it's started selling to lure in the middle classes. One day, when I am Bernie Taupin, I will skip around Lidl buying all the Tempranillo and laughing. When I'm not on my ranch in California.

This is why I feel sorry for Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and subject of a controversial new biography. The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is written by Marja Mills, a journalist who befriended the reclusive 88-year-old and her sister, Alice. The book was published in America last week, with a newspaper serialisation telling the story of Lee's hearty appetite for eggs over easy, a side of sausage, a biscuit and gravy. Immediately, the novelist disowned it, saying that she is "hurt, angry and saddened" by the book and did not collaborate with it. (The writer and publisher maintain that she did.) I'm not surprised that she's upset, though. There she was, in Monroeville, Alabama, going about the quiet business of being the Pulitzer prize-winning author of one of the most popular books ever written, when all of a sudden the world knows not only what she looks like but how she likes her eggs. That's torn it.

Last week also saw the publication in paperback of Salinger by David Shields – a "definitive biography" of the enigmatic author based on eight years of "exhaustive research" and "exclusive interviews" with "more than 200 people" on "five continents" to get "beyond Salinger's meticulously built-up wall". It coincides with the international release of a major documentary film from the Weinstein Company. And all Salinger ever wanted was to be left alone.

The sad thing is that most contemporary authors are not allowed their anonymity: they're supposed to have a brand presence on television and radio, their own Facebook fan page and a huge Twitter following, all fitted around tours of libraries, bookshops and literary festivals up and down the country. In a sad twist, a fake J D Salinger currently has over 7,500 followers on Twitter. David Mitchell only has 13,000, and he's live tweeting a novel as we speak. Perhaps today's writers should take a leaf out of Salinger's book: refuse all contact with the world, and watch their popularity soar.