This month my study of stardom comes to its long-awaited conclusion. I’ve argued that celebrity culture is the media age’s expression of a deep-seated human need to create mythical figures in our mundane lives, modern-day gods and goddesses who are in the end visions of our idealized selves. Indeed fame is more about the needs of the fan than any inherent superiority of the famous—if we all can become famous for fifteen minutes, then it’s fame itself that matters more than anything else, even truth.
Accordingly, although I’ve enjoyed throwing around names like Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton (and tipping my hat to Nancy Reagan) for comic effect, I do believe the most significant aspect of celebrity culture is its function as a mirror of our society’s yearnings, fears, and values. The dramas of the famous are our hidden hang-ups and fantasies projected on the screen for all to see. And while few readers of the ERWA blog probably invest much interest in the latest doings of Angelina Jolie, I believe that the illusions of fame impact every creative artist to some degree.
Even if you yourself have never dreamed of mobs of fans winding around city blocks, waiting for you to sign their treasured copy of your novel, perhaps you’ve dealt with the annoying responses at parties when you mention you write. “Are you published? I haven’t heard of you. Has your novel been optioned for HBO?”
Too many people confuse celebrity with quality. If you aren’t famous, you aren’t good. “Success” must be measured by spots on the bestseller list, Pulitzer Prizes, major motion picture adaptations. Or perhaps your party acquaintance is satisfied with a more modest appearance in Best American Erotica. Yet we’re still playing by the rules of fame. I for one was slow to figure this out. When I first started writing, I longed for the validation of publication, then of winning a place in the best-of’s. My circle of acquaintances would ask, “How’s your writing going?” and slowly but surely I had progress to report. Ten stories in a year. Fifteen the next. A novel.
It was never enough. “What’s next?” they’d ask. “Do you have an agent yet?”
I no longer give a list of the year’s accomplishments when someone asks me how my writing is going. Because I’ve realized at long last that those measures of success are an effort to find satisfaction in others’ opinions of me. That is what fame is—the opinion of others. Sometimes it is based on a good reason. Often it is just their distorted projection with no relation to who you are or what you’ve actually done. Frankly, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve accomplished in my writing. I don’t need to prove anything to myself anymore. That is indeed enough.
Thus the most important way to say no to the insidious influence of celebrity culture even in the lower ranks of writers: Never lose sight of the pleasure and aliveness of your creative process which can never, ever be properly valued by another person. If you write, you succeed.
Not unrelated to this point is the relatively passive role fame assigns us, whether fan or celebrity. Sure, a fan can be quite active in terms of chasing down the object of her worship or collecting memorabilia or the latest gossip. But the decision about who matters is made by the vagaries of the “star-making machinery” (to quote Joni Mitchell). Is there any other rational reason why Kim Kardashian is a household name?
The other day I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and I came across an inspiring antidote to this passivity in her essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” Solnit describes her attempt to find or make a language to describe the things in our lives that can’t be quantified or categorized, an effort that lies at the heart of the revolt against capitalism and consumerism (the engines of modern fame). In short, Solnit urges us to become producers rather than consumers of meaning.
I like that because producing meaning is what writers do every time they create a story. So of course, the best way to do this is to keep writing. At the same time, whenever we encounter assumptions about success, fame, and what constitutes “good” writing, we can interrogate those assumptions, agree or disagree, and better still make up our own new measures of value. In other words, we move from letting the market and celebrity culture define creative success to, at least sometimes, defining worth for ourselves.
It takes a lot more energy to think rather than let someone else make the decisions for us, but it’s the easiest way to become the star of our own universe.
Thanks for bearing with me through Justin Bieber and Dolly Parton. Keep writing and shine on!
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