What Does It Mean to Be a Cult Writer?

In this post, Ian Haydn Smith looks at what it means to be a cult writer, including a breakdown of six different categories of cults for writers.
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It's a strange word. Cult. To some, it's an identity. A badge of pride. A way of standing out from the crowd. To others it might suggest strangeness. Something different. Abject, even. It could represent corruption or rebellion, denote coolness or imply threat. To label something cult is to open that thing, whatever it is, to various meanings or interpretations.

(Ian Haydn Smith: Be Distracted By Your Subject.)

So, what makes a cult writer? As with any use of this word, it's not so easy to pin down. One might argue that to be a cult writer is to have limited appeal. And yet there are plenty of writers who, though their work is considered offbeat and readership selective, would never be classed as cult. Likewise, some writers have attracted a sizable audience and commercial success but nevertheless seem to exude cult appeal.

Like the other volumes in the Cult Figures series (Artists, Musicians and Filmmakers—the latter of which I wrote, and which proved immeasurably easier than this volume to assemble), the remit was to pick 50 individuals who come under the banner of "cult figures." 

Some boundaries were required. Each entry had to focus on a writer from the 20th century and primarily be known for long-form fiction. That discounted many from an original list, including nominees from previous centuries (Mary Shelley, Laurence Sterne), poets (Allen Ginsberg, Rupi Kaur), short storytellers (Jorge Luis Borges, Mavis Gallant) and writers celebrated for their nonfiction. (Yes, I'm looking at you Hunter S. Thompson.) 

It still left me with a few hundred nominees from around the world, each one deserving of an entry. At that point it was necessary to take a breather and accept that printing off multiple versions of the same list was proving more damaging to the environment than it was helpful in edging towards a final 50.

What Is a Cult Writer?

It brought me back to that initial question: what is a cult writer?

The final list doesn't offer a definitive answer. Instead, it highlights a number of the varieties of cult writers out there. These categories aren't separate from each other—most writers' appeal lies across two or more categories. (And many more that aren't mentioned here—but the editors of this piece asked that I write something shorter than the book itself.) However, this provided a basic framework. 

Next was to decide if there were certain writers who could not be left out of those who represent a whole genre, style, or movement. And as the notion of cult has too often been the remit of white male writers, it was important to aim for gender parity (the final split is 23/27 female/male) and to widen the landscape beyond the English language.

As with the other volumes in the Cult Figures series, all the entries in Cult Writers are accompanied by Kristelle Rodeia's illustrations. If finding the right list of 50 writers was a challenge, Kristelle had arguably the tougher task of locating an element of the writer's work or life that could be used to represent them. 

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Some, such as Franz Kafka (the book's cover image) came easily. But what about Haruki Murakami, Juan Rulfo, or Carson McCullers? The results for some are surprising. Others inspired. And they all succeed in representing both the figure and their work.

The 50 writers tend to fall into one or more of the following categories:

Classic Cult

This runs the gamut from the literary to the popular, figures who have become such a part of the "canon" that their place here is a given. Hence the inclusion of Virginia Woolf.

(9 Virginia Woolf quotes about writing.)

She could have been joined by James Joyce. Both writers have cult appeal not only for their work, but for their lifestyles. Joyce also has the added value of his fiction being the subject of obscenity charges, which were battled in court. (See controversial cult.) This factor also made D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller possible candidates. (In the case of the latter, I opted instead for Anaïs Nin.) But Woolf won out as the high priestess of Modernism.

J.R.R. Tolkien also fits in this category, as well as genre. Some might grumble that he's now too big to be cult; that we should have included Mervyn Peake for his lesser known but equally imaginative Gormenghast trilogy. But ask anyone who is a dedicated fan of Tolkien's work a question about an obscure aspect or trivial event in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings and the passion—and immense pleasure in sharing their (usually) encyclopedic knowledge—is all you need to acknowledge that the writer remains a "cult favorite."

(11 J.R.R. Tolkien quotes for writers.)

Genre Cult

This is the largest category and the most problematic. It would have been too easy to fill this volume with a whole universe of speculative, crime, and horror fiction writers. But a small number not only exuded cult appeal, they have been elevated to iconic status. So, Jim Thompson wasn't just one of the darkest of crime writers (and in his own life a total badass), he was the crime writer's crime writer. The same goes for Octavia E. Butler, the Strugatsky brothers, and Ursula K. Le Guin with sci-fi and speculative fiction. And, of course, the dark prince of all our futures, Philip K. Dick.

(12 Kurt Vonnegut quotes for writers.)

There were also the writers whose fiction placed them outside any simple category, whilst employing recognizable genre tropes. It's in this inter-zone, to choose one of his favorite fictional locations, that William S. Burroughs resides. He's occasionally been joined in the speculative world by Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino.

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Lifestyle Cult

Burroughs scores big here. There are few writers whose lives have been as large—and reflected in their own fiction—as this literary icon. In having to choose between Burroughs and Kerouac as the representative of the Beat era, Burroughs' extra-curricular activities—a walking pharmacy of illicit substances, his knowledge of addiction was nothing if not encyclopedic—as much as his wildly imaginative writing that guaranteed his place. 

The same applies to Ayn Rand (who went 10 rounds—in my head, at least—with L. Ron Hubbard and came out the winner) for a life committed to the cause that she espoused so fanatically in her writing. As it does for Janet Frame, whose troubled life found its way to the page with such honesty. And the Harlem world of Langston Hughes was only marginally trumped by the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston, while Colette's jubilant evocation of Paris and its society has been the source of constant fascination since her Claudine books first began to appear.

Chris Kraus and Michel Houellebecq fascinate for the blurring of the line between their lives and those of their characters. Likewise with Eve Babitz, who made a virtue out of distilling her observations and experiences of 1960s life in Los Angeles into an alluring hybrid of fiction and documentary.

Controversial Cult

Ayn Rand definitely deserves a place here, along with Yukio Mishima, whose brand of nationalism edged too close to fascism. And while few American writers have proven as divisive as Charles Bukowski, Jean Genet is the exemplar of the literary criminal. It's also a term that would have suited Burroughs, who was described by one biographer as a "literary outlaw."

*****

Read Like a Writer

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*****

Aura Cult

Not the best term, but one that perfectly suited those authors whose cult appeal is partly based on their shunning the world of celebrity. J.D. Salinger was an early pioneer. Pauline Réage also did well, ultimately choosing to reveal her real self years after The Story of O had been published. 

Thomas Pynchon mastered the art. So much so that the author once posed as himself at a Thomas Pynchon look-alike contest in the US. No one then knew what the author looked like, so entrants turned up in all manner of guises. Pynchon clearly didn't fit the judges' image of an anonymous literary icon, because he lost. 

But even his position as the world's most famous unknown writer has been challenged by Elena Ferrante. After all, she has managed to sustain the mystery of her identity in our increasingly—and invasively—mediated world.

Perennial Cult

Finally, there are the authors it would be unthinkable not to include in this collection. Burroughs? Definitely. Acker? Absolutely. But there is also Sylvia Plath, whose The Bell Jar many might consider a quintessential cult favorite. And Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Ralph Ellison, and Julio Cortázar (who could easily have been joined by Roberto Bolaño).

It would have been easy to expand these qualifications, just as it would have been possible to come up with a different or larger list of cult writers. This collection is less an end in itself than a beginning—a provocation. It's now up to whoever reads Cult Writers to define what a cult writer means to them and to create their own list.

Editor's note: Have a favorite "cult writer" of your own? Share his or her name(s) below and why you favor them.

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