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Embarrassments of Obscurity (Part 23)

I usually never let it get under my skin when I hear that some young hotshot has published a book or some celebrity has gotten invited onto a talk show to tout a book.  I don’t let it get to me because I convince myself that people like Bret Easton Ellis peak early and never are heard from again. At the same time,  it’s hard to explain to nonliterary people that because  commercial success offers  more financial support for future projects, these pseudo-authors appear to be massively more productive than writers like myself.

While cleaning up my apartment, I was half-listening to a talk show where  a 23 year old actress/fashion star is bubbling with cute anecdotes and humor about general Hollywood stuff. Right before the show went to commercial, the talk show host plugged the woman’s new book. Ok, I could live with that. Star of a hit MTV show, ghost written book…these things happen. Then the host mentions casually that the woman had signed a 3 book deal with Harper Collins. A 3 book deal! Holy shmike! Do the two of us inhabit the same cultural universe?

Naturally it would be easy to poke fun at Lauren Conrad’s book. But look. At the age of 22 (when she must have finished the rough draft), I was still a fledgling writer and probably couldn’t write a decent novel if my life depended on it. And this girl published a substantial novel (of 380 pages). Granted,  it was probably flabby and needed a lot of editorial massaging. But still it was a novel…and certainly not ghost written (as I had previously thought). She must have worked hard on it – even if she wasn’t well schooled in American literature or Shakespeare. The book has been out  for two days and already has received reviews (sort of) from People magazine and US Magazine . It helps of course that she’s been on the cover of Cosmopolitan and Seventeen and Entertainment Weekly and that she has 309,781 Myspace friends.  Of course, I’m jealous, but it’s more than that. Everyone is running a different race; everyone has  a different motive for writing and  brings a different set of talents and challenges to the table.  Lauren is basing her novel on her Hollywood life adventure. Even though that is an easy and obvious subject, there is certainly no shame in writing about  what you know. I have no idea what this TV show The Hills is about, but I’m sure the experience must have given her a sense of how to make a story and how to grab a viewer’s interest. Perhaps this kind of experience  sounds cheesy, but it’s  invaluable to have access to so much feedback from fans.

At the age of 22, I had started a small literary magazine at my college and had gotten accepted into a graduate creative writing program. At the time, I thought my writing was outstanding (only to learn in grad school that this was not the case). I thought writing was everything (and I still do). Especially now, I think that writing is all I have – maybe the only thing I have.

It would be nice to say that I am the “true writer,” but who am I to say?  The ability to write a good novel depends a little on god-given talent, but mainly on  perseverance and drive (and financial support). My prediction  is that she will fulfill her 3 book contract admirably (with the requisite decline in sales for each additional volume) but  later  focus on TV projects. For her a book is  a calling card for  TV interviews  between  TV gigs; I doubt it will make her enough money by itself, and that ultimately is why she will probably abandon the role of novelist.  On the other hand, think of the opportunity! If she wanted, she could use the time and money to perfect the  writer’s craft, maybe even to write scripts and screenplays.  Even if she ends up wasting this opportunity, it is still reassuring to know that such opportunities  exist (for those lucky to be caught in the right time and place). I wonder: should the writer devote himself to the craft of writing or to promoting past or future projects?  Fortunately for Ms. Conrad, her telegenic presence makes it easier to gain attention and visibility in a crowded media ecosystem. By now,  promoting creative projects (which actually  is an important skill to have) must seem like second nature to her.

Young women have a builtin advantage of being able to attract public attention (and even adoration).  Let’s not dwell on the inequities; instead let’s focus on how people harness this  advantage to  pursue their personal dreams.  Conrad’s secret dream might actually be to become  the next Edith Wharton or Jane Austen… using MTV as a  stepping stone towards becoming a tenured academic in an MFA program.   I know;  this suggestion sounds  ludicrous, but if I  were in Ms. Conrad’s shoes,  I would certainly  have used my  celebritydom to pursue my dreams.

Receiving extra attention used to happen only to females, but the Internet makes it easy for some young males to do something to attract a lot of attention. If a baseball star or CEO of Twitter wants to write a sci fi novel, by all means let them. Maybe something good will come of it.

The real question: how much time and energy  should artsy types spend on self-promotion? Let’s say you’re fat and old and ugly; what do you do? Cultivate a charming persona?  Try even harder to promote yourself at book fairs?  Curry favor with literary bloggers in the hope of receiving positive coverage?  For the celebrity or athlete, fame already happened – writing a book was simply a way to capitalize on it. So they didn’t have to work really hard to acquire it. The unknown author has to work twice as hard to achieve 1/10 of the fame of these celebrity authors; why bother? Yes, there is a difference between avoiding the limelight and living like a hermit; some authors cultivate this isolation as a good in and of itself, but that is just silly.

Many respectable authors spend time writing how-to pieces or rants about the publishing industry or copyright reform or political issues.  They are simply using pet issues as a way to get their name out there; no shame in that. Over the last few years I’ve written many a piece for TeleRead. I enjoy writing these pieces, but every time I finish one, I decide it’s a total waste of my writing time and energy. Even now, as I conclude this blogpost, I think,  I should be writing Story X; why am I instead blowing my energy on this blogpost instead? Time is a-wasting.

I notice that Ms. Conrad’s book tour brings her to Houston on June 26. Amazingly, the bookstore where she will be speaking is only a few miles from my house. I could ride my bike there. I’m not inclined to attend, but I will extend an open invitation: if during her brief visit to Houston, Ms. Conrad wishes to meet at some cafe to discuss the craft of writing, I would consider it (she would have to contact me by  emailing me).   Ms. Conrad  could  tell me what she has learned about storytelling, and I could tell her what I’ve learned.  It would be fun and instructive. The old can teach the young, and the young can teach  the old.  The well-known can teach the unknown many things (and vice-versa).  Any decent writer can learn something useful from everybody.

If Ms. Conrad has other things to do with her time, I certainly will understand.  But I will leave June 26 open on my calendar.

July 13 Update: Regrettably, this meeting never occurred.

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