‘You Might Not Know Me, But I’m Famous’

The curious case of David Gordon, the struggling American novelist who found he was a hit in Japan

Kris Ligman
Jan 21, 2014 · 4 min read

New York City-born novelist David Gordon published his debut novel, The Serialist, in 2010. For the most part, this was an unremarkable event in Gordon’s life.

“It did fine for a debut, which is to say well enough to warrant a second, but my daily life didn’t change much,” Gordon reflects in The New York Times. “Then a Japanese translation came out.”

Localized as Niryuu Shousetsuka (The Second-Rate Novelist — a title the author found he could relate to), Gordon’s book went on to sweep Japan’s literary contests, earning him three highly-prized awards and enthusiastic press he couldn’t begin to translate. Then came a film adaptation. In the summer of 2013, Gordon found himself being flown to Japan for the premiere. He was followed by cameras and fawned over by readers. When his follow-up novel, Mystery Girl, was poised for release, it turned up on Japanese bookshelves sooner than by his American publishers.

“Readers admired my views on literature and my deep understanding of women — things few readers (or women) think here [in the States],” Gordon later recounts. “I traveled everywhere with an entourage, signing books aided by two assistants, one who held the book for me, another who blotted my signature with tissue. People toasted me.”

If it all sounds a little too unbelievable, like a story that you’ve heard somewhere before, that’s because it is—but it doesn’t come from fiction.

In the early 1970s, Detroit-based artist Sixto Rodriguez released two folk rock albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. They sold poorly, and for years afterwards Rodriguez would languish in relative obscurity—until the 1990s, when he was put in touch with two devoted fans from South Africa, where (unbeknownst to him) he had somehow become bigger than Elvis Presley.

Just as, decades later, novelist David Gordon would find he had developed a successful alter-ego in another land, for years Rodriguez’s work adopted a regionally-grown persona quite different from the life he led at home. While Rodriguez toughed it out with rare gigs in Australia and his native United States, in South Africa his music became a rallying cry against Apartheid. Local artists compared his work to that of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. When Rodriguez turned away from music to pursue a more reliable career in construction, South African fans speculated wildly about his alleged suicide. It wasn’t until Rodriguez’s daughter, Eva, discovered a fan site devoted to her father in 1998 that Rodriguez learned anything about his overseas stardom.

From there, Rodriguez’s life changed. After contacting his South African superfans, interest in his music soared once again in the country, and this time, North America paid attention as well. Concerts and tours were booked. Revival albums and new singles were released. Now in his 70s, Rodriguez continues to tour actively, and in his 2012 profile at The Independent journalist Kaleem Aftab described him as “looking every inch the veteran singing superstar.”

The 2013 Oscar for Best Documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, chronicles the entire saga of Sixto Rodriguez’s celebrity. But a future biopic of David Gordon and his own unlikely tale of stardom seems a little less likely. With the world so increasingly interconnected, what took decades of Rodriguez’s fandom gestating in isolation in South Africa occurred as a flash in a pan for Gordon’s novel—from publication to movie premiere in three years, then a whirlwind book tour through a country of adoring fans, Gordon soon found himself plopped back into his cramped North American home in seemingly as much befuddlement as before, grasping for a way to relate to the entire experience.

“I live alone in book-filled rooms smaller than my Tokyo hotel suite… I sit and write all day in silence,” Gordon shares at the end of his New York Times piece. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine, but once in a while… I wonder how that other, more glamorous writer, David-san, the Second-Rate Novelist, is doing over there, where it’s already tomorrow.”

We may be reaching a point where there will be no such tomorrows—where even our most remote successes remain germane to us; where there are no far-flung corners where our name has spread but our ability to Google ourselves has not. In this future (which is, by the way, happening as we speak), we as creatives are able to connect with our fans and they with us in a way that renders the apocryphal tales of Sixto Rodriguez’s on-stage suicide impossible. What we’ve gained is the ability to shorten the distance between ourselves and our audience—but perhaps what we lose is the ability to create enduring legends.

    Kris Ligman

    Written by

    Non-binary newsie/CM, waiting for my robot body.

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