Recently I’ve been pondering the influence of celebrity culture on the life of an ordinary artist, in other words, the majority of us who have not “made it big,” but merely continue to create with more down-to-earth rewards like a publication in an anthology a few times a year. While our society has supposedly done away with hereditary aristocrats, we seem to have created glittering replacements whom we alternately worship and depose: actors, musicians, very rich businessmen, and the occasional throwback scion like Paris Hilton or John F. Kennedy, Jr. The perks and pitfalls of celebrity are of course most pertinent to the famous themselves, but I think the values and fantasies that support it affect us common people, too. Venture into the creative arts and you are immediately judged by the standards of national stardom. This was brought home to me when my novel was published back in 2008, and a good portion of the congratulations were spiked with questions such as “When will it be optioned for a movie?” “How is it selling?“ or “Are you rich yet?” In other words, instead of celebrating what I had done—actually finished and published a novel I was proud of--I was being reminded of the definition of “true success” that only comes to a tiny percentage of writers.
Back in 2008 I could argue that erotica was a ghettoized genre, and Big Money would go nowhere near such a frankly sexual story as mine. But now along comes E.L. James to prove that a lie and to rekindle questions as to why I’m not making as much money as she is when I know more about U.S. geography. Although Remittance Girl’s latest post here is chiefly a thought-provoking discussion of how erotica and erotic romance are binary opposites, due to my own recent musings, her opening sentence in particular lingered in my head:
“There are probably a number of outstanding erotica writers out there who have written delicious novels full of BDSM kinkiness wondering why their royalty checks don't look anything like those of E.L. James.”
There is, of course, the issue of popularity (meaning tons of money) versus quality of writing (what we’re told is important but often apparently is not), which is another column, but I’ve also heard/read many authors off-handedly remarking that they would certainly like to be raking in that kind of dough. But, surprisingly perhaps, I most definitely would not. I have a number of reasons for this, which I would like to share in the hope you may take heart and possibly use these arguments the next time a drunk at a party corners you and asks when you are going to dethrone the lady who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.
Reason #1: Rich people have to buy nine houses.
I’m serious. Rich, famous people seem to be required to have residences all over the country, nay, the world. Once I tried to work out why anyone would need so many houses. Okay, so there’s the main residence, then the ski cabin and the beach cottage. Possibly an apartment in a city where you visit often for business. A castle in Ireland, that would be fun. But then what possible need would you have for the other four? I have trouble keeping my two-bedroom bungalow presentable as it is.
Reason #2: The kids of rich people are destined to be miserable.
I had my first taste of this phenomenon my freshman year at Princeton when I encountered the children of U.S. Senators and famous writers as well as the descendants of legendary industrialists. These kids had tasteful, expensive wardrobes and the habit of leaving dirty coffee cups around for weeks for the maid. They spent summers studying art in Florence or sunning in San Tropez instead of working as a secretary at the IRS like I did. But in spite of having everything they wanted, they seemed perpetually dissatisfied. Could it be that having less makes you appreciate what you have?
Reason #3: Rich people suddenly see distant relatives for the first time in forty years.
I once read that Oprah was constantly fending off relatives and old friends who tried to hit her up for “loans” once she had ascended to fame and fortune. I come from a large Catholic family with thirty cousins, all of whom have families. If I did my duty by them and their doubtless valid needs, the E.L. James-sized royalty checks would shrink to nothing as fast as you can say, “Nice to see you again, Cousin June... and Ben... and Jim...and Karen....” Better to keep the contact to Christmas cards once a year.
Reason #4: Contrary to what you think, rich people always have to worry about money.
Sure, you’d think those royalty checks would mean the end of money worries, but the problems are just beginning. Not only do you have to buy eight more houses, you have to pay folks to manage them, plus your twelve vintage cars and your yacht. (You don’t want to be a cheap-looking rich person, do you?) And that great agent who always returns your calls? Do you think that will continue if your future doesn’t look as lush as your past? You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, nor do you want to make of fool of yourself like J.K. Rowling, naively attempting an adult novel with actual sex in it. Shudder. You’re famous now and you have a reputation to build higher and higher to the stars.
Reason #5: To keep those checks coming, you will have to let others define your success. Indefinitely.
In his memoir Who I Am, Pete Townshend ruefully described how every time he wanted to go off and do an independent project, his business advisers would try to convince him to involve the other Who members which would automatically make the endeavor a financial success. Sometimes he succumbed, other times he didn’t. He still made money solo, but not Big Money, enough to make those who skim off a percentage really, really happy. And remember, even if you try your best to give your audience what they want, not everyone responds with adoration. Very successful writers may have their time in the limelight when all the mean kids they knew in middle school will regret their bullying because said new celebrity obviously really was cool deep inside (and maybe old Donna will be good for a loan now that she's rolling in it?). But success always brings out the sharks and critics. Soon enough the insults will be hurled again.
I don’t know about you, but after all considering all of these rich people woes, I feel relieved I typically get $50 per story sale. Think of all the problems I don’t have! Instead I can love my little house, teach my kids the joy of economizing, and write what intrigues, amuses and inspires me. Some writers do make a living with words, albeit that very few of them are fiction writers, and I respect what they’ve achieved. I do have my own particular yearning—to connect with readers who “get” me. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some. But in the end, the greatest luxury is to travel to a space where money and “success” don’t mean nearly as much as creating new worlds and reveling in the beauty and power of words and ideas. Those royalties flow every time I sit down at my computer to work on a story, tax-free.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor