Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, July 18, 2014

What’s “Good” about Paris Hilton? (Fame and Fortune, part 2)

by Donna George Storey

Celebrity culture and the often unexamined assumptions that slither into our brains because of it are not good for writers, whether aspiring, veteran or even genuinely famous. I firmly believe this. And yet, as I sat down to write this month’s continuing meditation on fame and the writer’s imagination, I felt drawn to talk about what’s actually “good” about the role of the famous in our ordinary lives. There is clearly something deeply appealing about glamorous, rich, but most of all “seen,” people we don’t know. Weird Al’s new song, “Lame Claim to Fame” is a hilarious illustration of the strange enchantment of even the most tenuous connection to these magical beings.

It’s easy enough to claim immunity, but none of us are, really. (Even academics have their “stars” with endowed chairs and faculty positions reserved for spouses.) There is something rooted in us, our ancient hierarchical programming perhaps, that compels us to seek an aristocracy of some kind. Yet the celebrity aristocracy occupies a much different place in our lives than the kings and dukes of earlier times. Our stars are exposed to us in endless “intimate” images and details of their private lives, some controlled by their managers, some not. We can easily pretend we “know” them and have a stake in their stories as well as the right to judge them. In that sense, stars unite the national and even global community (at the level, say, of Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan). They make the world a village.

The combination of intimacy and distance is important. We can enjoy the dramas of the British Royal Family as entertainment; if our tax money were at stake, it might not be quite so fun. (Overheard on a train to York back in 1989--an English woman commented drily to a fellow countryman, “The Duchess of York is pregnant again. Of course, we’ll have to pay for it.”) We can smile or roll our eyes at the endless cycles of celebrity life—innocent young star rises, corrupted young star falls victim to drugs and engages in drunken criminal acts, older, repentant star graduates from rehab and makes a come-back—without enduring the actual pain and disruption of addiction or an eclipsed career.

The familiarity of celebrity touches us writers in more mundane ways. I try to resist, but I am still swayed when a book gets a positive blurb from a writer whose name I recognize. At the very least, I admire the author’s luck in getting that plum endorsement. Such a blurb feels like a positive recommendation from a friend, an opinion I can trust, saving me the trouble of deciding for myself where I should direct my time and attention.

Except, of course, it is none of these things.

That’s because celebrity is above all a fiction. Overnight successes, models who “eat lots of fruits and vegetables and work out with a personal trainer” but never diet harmfully, fairytale weddings, bestselling writers who find contentment relaxing on their estates by the pool while they idly type out their latest ticket to immortality. None of this is real, and if ever it is, it doesn’t satisfy for long.

Celebrities are our dukes and duchesses, our heroes, our villains, our inspirations and cautionary tales. They allow us to watch drama at a remove, both in space and relevance to our lives, but they remain images, never full human beings. In the electronic media age, we need an ever-renewing visual “face” for the myths, symbols and fantasies our minds feed on. Celebrities themselves are most keenly aware that their personhood is subsumed in an image others project upon them. Some, in various ways, benefit from this position (money, professional power, invitations to the right parties). Fortunately for the scandal sheets, just as many lose their way in the hall of mirrors. Finally, I get to you, Paris Hilton!

Yet, ultimately, celebrity culture is about us, the ordinary folk, not the bodies in designer clothes parading on the red carpet. Without the mediocre masses, who would need the velvet rope, the security guard and bouncers? In next month’s installment, I’ll explore the deeper needs that are masked by the yearning for fame. Until then, stay cool!

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman 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

5 comments:

  1. "Simple minds talk about people. Average minds talk about events. Great minds talk about ideas." Eleanor Roosevelt

    I couldn't care less what any celebrity is doing with his/her life. I'm too busy living mine and looking after those I love.

    I've written 2 romances where a famous actor falls in love with a non-famous person. In both the actor regards his celebrity as a part of his job, and the personna created by his agent to be just another role he has to play.

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  2. As I mentioned in my first column, I also could care less about Jennifer Lopez's new diet. BUT I am interested in why this seems to sell magazines and drive our popular media. And I'm interested in why your characters, a famous actor and a non-famous person, are compelling choices for a romance. In a sense, celebrities are "ideas" rather than people. At least they can be seen as such! (And Eleanor Roosevelt is a celebrity I find fascinating, she was famous for the right reasons, imo!)

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  3. It does seem to me that authors are less likely to be raised on the false pedestal of celebrity than rock musicians, movie or TV stars, models, or sports figures. Part of this has to do with the regrettable decline in reading. (What fraction of the American public has any idea who Nadine Gordimer was?) Part relates to the fundamentally private nature of writing. We are far more separate from our work than, say, Angelina Jolie, because no one watches us create it. We can pursue our vocation without ever stepping into the spotlight (unless that's something we crave).

    Very few authors in this day and age are actual celebrities. Who has any idea what E.L. James looks like? I've seen Anne Rice on talk shows, but she's a tiny blip on the media radar compared to, say, Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber.

    Sure, there are names that one recognizes (though how many Americans would?) but the sort of enduring fascination with celebrity ups and downs rarely occurs in the world of literature.

    And for that, I'm grateful!

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    1. You are absolutely right, Lisabet. Shy of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and maybe Greg Mortenson-style scandal authors, few people who are following Paris Hilton care very much about authors. However, I do think this kind of thinking bleeds into every area of life (even academia) and I know that even in the mostly irrelevant world of literary fiction, there are hierarchies and cool people and celebrity culturesque things going on. I think it's helpful to talk about the dynamics, and let's face it, if we acknowledge to people we are writers, we will face the "have any of your books been made into movies?" question. Sure, it's a small thing, but why is the question "who would star in a movie made from your book?" a staple of blog interviews? In the end, I think looking more carefully at these dynamics can give perspective on the things we are told to do to promote ourselves. "Creating a brand" is a way of tapping into the advertising industry and the comfort of a star-like blurb to categorize ourselves. It's the same thing that goes on with classy, technically excellent Meryl Streep or adventure hero Bruce Willis, etc. So, no, I'm not saying we need worry about Justin Bieber's problems, but celebrity culture does affect us all, whether we want it to or not.

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  4. I think some of the readers might be misreading this as a general cultural editorial. This is a very useful article for writers. For one thing, the economy of power that operates in erotic and mainstream publishing rewards writers as much for their name recognition as for their work itself. Few how-to-be-a-writer forums will broach this reality. Becoming a star, or a known entity in the erotic or literary writing scene (think Best of Erotic anthologies, and in literary, the NYTBR, NYer, etc) is a prerequisite to small and large publishers remaining loyal to your work. Celebrity culture, once more of an escapist element in daily life, has BECOME daily life. What are Facebook Likes and Tweets other than small scale claims to celebrity "status"? Take a look at half of the coverage on Huffington Post -- celebrity headlines are banner news. So it is beside the point that Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber may be a more widely known "celebrity" than is JK Rowling or Jonathan Franzen or E.L. James. The point of the article, as I read it, is to bring to our awareness how we as writers relate to fame, how we think of our own on-celebrity status. It encourages me to think critically and realistically about how I negotiate the inevitable economy of celebrity as we plan and advance my writing career. Congrats on a great, thought- provoking piece.

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