I’ve been meaning the write a column about our culture’s obsession with celebrity for some time, as I believe this inescapable aspect of American life affects even humble erotica writers. However, the subject always seemed too huge and I was never sure where to begin. I finally realized that I can extend the discussion of fantasy and celebrity over several installments, which leaves me the leisure to begin with an explanation my own relationship with celebrity culture.
On the face of it, I’ve always been more bemused than enthralled with celebrity worship. I first remember seeing its dangers at around age 9 or 10, when I heard that TV viewers used to write to Robert Young, the actor who played Marcus Welby, M.D. on television, asking for medical advice. How could people be so stupid as to confuse an actor with a real doctor? Yet not long after Ronald Reagan was elected president, followed by Arnold Schwarzenegger winning the California governorship in a recall election. Again I wondered how so many people seemed to believe an actor’s heroic triumphs on the screen could translate into real-life competence where there was no script, no studio pressuring for a happy ending.
I’ve never made it a priority to know which celebrities are trending or who’s the hottest new leading man or lady—in fact I’m rather proud of my ignorance. As a democrat and an iconoclast, I don’t really see why someone deserves special treatment just because they starred in a movie or TV show. Celebrities usually seem to attain their place through good looks or “lucky” parentage. (My loss of innocence as to the value of literary celebrity was a slower process, but certain recent blockbusters proved the final blow to my belief in the publishing industry as a meritocracy.)
Yet, as much as I might want to ignore celebrity culture, it isn’t ignoring me, in particular in my writing life. I first experienced this personally when I put together a book proposal about my mother’s death from the diabetes drug, Rezulin. In retrospect, the effort was as good a way to deal with grief as any, but I learned that it would be quite the uphill battle to get such a memoir published even if the safety of pharmaceutical drugs is an issue critical to everyone. Nobodies do manage to find publishers, and sometimes their books sell, but bookstore research showed that celebrities had cornered the market on personal tragedy memoirs--Brooke Shields is the voice for postpartum depression, pundit Morton Kondracke had enough recognition to publish a book on his wife’s Parkinson’s disease. Granted I surely could have worked harder to get my story published as a book, but I followed the advice of the standard agent’s nonfiction rejection and wrote an article instead.
But the secretly corrosive effect of celebrity culture really hit home when I published my first (and thus far only) novel, Amorous Woman. I’d always wondered if I had it in me to write a novel, and with a little help from my friends and numerous cases of Snapple, I managed to finish a book I felt told my truth about my experiences in Japan. Many people were very appreciative and supportive, but plenty more hit me with “Is it on the bestseller list? When will it be a movie?”—all reminders that I was not a “real” writer because it only counts if your writing makes you rich and famous.
This was more an annoyance than a dark crisis, but I do remember feeling miffed that all the effort and life-research I put into writing the book didn’t seem to count if it didn’t become a national sensation like, gee, about .001% of books published. I distinctly remember thinking how ridiculous it would be if you had to be a celebrity to matter at all. No food, no water, no basic human dignity allowed to anyone who didn’t at least have a small part in an HBO drama. In a sense, that’s what we do to writers when we assume only the rich and famous are worthy of consideration.
Maybe there are some writers who are so well-grounded that they are immune to our society’s definition of success: riches, fame, invitations to the best parties, and most important of all, having an agent who returns phone calls. I’m more than halfway to being that writer, but I still find that the assumptions of a celebrity-worshipping culture distort my sense of what to write, in particular, the value of writing to the market. I’ll talk more about this in next month’s installment, but for now I invite you to think about the ways you embrace (me: a guilty purchase of a magazine with an article on darling little Prince George) or resist (me: reading academic deconstructions of fame in the mass media age, which actually do help bring sanity).
As spinners of fantasy ourselves, the fantasy of celebrity is a relevant issue to our work and our imaginations. I look forward to discussing it with ERWA blog readers in the months to come.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a 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