What the “brown recluse” spider can tell us about the condition of modern celebrity

J M Coetzee, award winner of the Nobel Prize 2003 for Literature, posing in Rome during a literature festival. Photograph: Getty Images.

A local news channel in Evansville, Indiana recently reported a story about a family who moved into a new house in south-east Missouri and found it infested with spiders. “I’ve counted over a hundred in the house right now,” said Darren Bockhorn, the new owner. “Over 200, total, with the ones I’ve killed and thrown away.” His wife looked in the mirror one day and spotted one crawling out of her hair; Darren found them wandering over the floor of his daughter’s bedroom.

The house, it turned out, had been vacant for a year before the Bockhorns moved in. The spiders – identified as “brown recluses” – had months to bed in and breed. There’s nothing the brown recluse spider likes more than an empty space, an undisturbed corner. All the advice says to watch out for them in unoccupied bedrooms, abandoned outhouses or piles of wood or clothes that haven’t been touched for a long time. They like quiet and solitude, and while they’re venemous, they only tend to bite if provoked or suddenly squashed up against human skin.

I got thinking about the brown recluse after a little spate of stories about other recluses in our midst. The human kind. In appealing synchrony, three celebrated literary recluses – J M Coetzee, Donna Tartt and Thomas Pynchon – are publishing novels this year. (Or so they say – you can never fully trust the promises of a recluse; often it’s better simply to wait to be surprised, David Bowie-style). In Tartt and Pynchon’s cases, the books come after a relatively long period of silence. What all three share, though, is the way they’re talked about, as if they are odd, otherworldly loners who choose to live on the remote coasts of existence.

Is it a fair depiction? I don’t think so. Coetzee’s reputation seems to rest fairly heavily on the fact he didn’t show up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes. He avoids publicity and interviews and lives in Adelaide, where it’s said he likes to cycle, keeps a strict routine and lives – so rumour has it – a puritanical, vegetarian existence. Does this make him a recluse? Perhaps he’s simply someone who likes to live according to his own rhythm, where the work comes first and the attending circus of celebrity is evaded to the greatest possible degree.

Tartt and Pynchon, similarly, are cast as off-kilter eccentrics. It was said she’d bought an island off Tahiti and lived in total isolation (journalists obsessed over a recording of T S Eliot she supposedly had on her answerphone). Meanwhile, people breathlessly record sightings of Pynchon on New York streets in the way a crank might chronicle a UFO fly-by. There are few photos of him in existence and no one seems entirely sure where he lives. But over the years, Pynchon himself has both satirised and dispelled the idea that he’s a recluse (“my belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists,” he once said, “meaning, ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters’”). After CNN surreptitiously filmed him in the 1990s, he contacted the channel to ask not to be identified in the footage and, surprisingly, they obliged. “Let me be unambiguous,” he said. “I prefer not to be photographed.” Some, inevitably, are sceptical about his motives, wondering if his mystery helps to cultivate an obsessive following and boost a lucrative mystery. But Pynchon seems to take a lighter view.

In 2004, he made two cameo appearances on The Simpsons wearing, in yellowskinned, animated form, a brown paper bag over his head. He endorsed a book written by Marge: “Here’s your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book, almost as much as he loves cameras!”

They’re hardly a new phenomenon, these artistic hermits. Emily Dickinson, Greta Garbo, Harper Lee – all lived their lives as cut off from the roar of public life as they could. By the time of his death, in January 2010, J D Salinger had driven the Holden Caulfield devotees of America half mad by his reticence. After The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and some short stories, he stopped. Not writing – Salinger claimed he continued to work every day, and an acquaintance once said the author had told him of a stack of unseen novels – but publishing. He loathed the frenzy of it and preferred to live as anonymously as he could in the small town of Cornish, New Hampshire.

A few days after Salinger died, the New York Times sent a reporter up to Cornish. Here, he was known as “Jerry” and, said the librarian, was very much “a townsperson”. He frequented the library, the local church suppers and Plainfield General Store, and even attended town meetings in the elementary school. None of which sounds like the activity of a diehard recluse. When fans and journalists bowled into town in the hope of meeting the author, neighbours would do their best to steer them off the scent, offering wayward directions that spirited them back out again. The owner of the general store described Salinger as being “like the Batman icon. Everyone knew Batman existed and everyone knows there’s a Batcave, but no one will tell you where it is.”

I wish, in some ways, there were more Batmans in the world. Perhaps the reason we’re so tantalised by these recluses is simply because they are so rare in a culture that feeds on the shimmering ephemera of visibility and publicity. That someone should choose to protect themselves from the seductions of fame, should choose not to partake in the whole jamboree at all, seems to go marvellously against the natural order of things.

There’s a picture of Salinger as an old man taken through a car window so that his face is framed by metal. He looks anguished, appalled, and his fist is raised as though he’s about to strike the car, the photographer, the camera – as if to defend himself against the violation. It’s the brown recluse spider again. Left alone, he lived peacefully. When disturbed, he bit.

Ed Smith is away