As a teenager I was really into lifting weights for a while. Part of it was believing that exercise would be good for me physically and mentally, and of course part of it was the overwhelming insecurity that leads people to spend an inordinate amount of time in the gym. This was in the mid-to-late 90s before the Internet was as valuable of a resource as it is today, so to keep from getting bored with exercise I would get things out of fitness magazines. You know, the ones with the shiny, freakish musclemen on the covers. "Muscle and Fitness" and "Modern Douchebag" or whatever.

Believe it or not, those magazines had (no idea whether this changed in the last fifteen years) pretty useful instructions and workout plans in them. I learned a lot about how to eat healthy from those stupid magazines after a childhood of frozen dinners and typical Midwestern fat people food. The strange thing was that working out did improve my physical condition and hell, maybe it even made me feel a little better too. But no matter what I did, I didn't look like the people in the pictures that accompanied the articles. I followed the diets to the letter, threw weights around like a champion, and generally led a physically healthy lifestyle.
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But I still looked like a normal person, probably because I am one.

As I got a bit older (and the internet pulled back the curtain) I figured out that, yes, someone who looks like a bodybuilder does eat healthy and lift weights a lot. That's not why they look that way, though.
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That's the metric buttload of steroids they're all on. The magazines conveniently forget to note that. Kind of an important piece of information. Of course none of the "athletes" if they can be so labeled will admit that. When asked, their superhuman physical condition is a result of Hard Work and clean living. Eat your vegetables, kids!

In a rare example of perfect timing on the heels of Monday's post, Salon ran a piece about the dirty little secret of the publishing industry and journalism: a lot of people are only able to succeed at it because they have someone (living or dead) supporting them financially. And in all but the rarest cases, they absolutely refuse to admit it. They do that thing Americans excel at – attributing their failures to others but claiming full credit for their successes. I found this example useful:

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

You wonder if the author actually believes that her success wasn't virtually handed to her or if she realizes it and simply thinks it would be gauche to admit it. Or maybe, as the writer of the Salon piece suggests, nobody wants to admit that because to do so would be to destroy the myth that published Authors are better than everyone else who writes.
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The difference between the award-winning author in this anecdote and some waitress trying to write a novel around the sixty hours she works every week to stay afloat might be talent. Or it might be the luxury of sitting around and devoting 8 hours per day to writing while someone else pays the rent.
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That might have something to do with it.

The reality is that writing – literary or as a journalist – pays so poorly these days and is so often expected to be done for "exposure" rather than money that only people who don't need a paycheck can afford (pun intended) to do it. The effect on the kind of books and news stories we see is obvious; call it Lena Dunham Syndrome, a self contained world of writing by trust fund kids for other trust fund kids. The number of "voices" to be heard in the literary world is limited by the fact that the voices that actually need to work for a living tend not to write nearly as many books.

61 thoughts on “DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS”

  • As a workout-a-holic in my 50's, doing p90x in the mornings and weight training in the evenings after work, my experience has greatly differed from yours in the gym. Couple it with whey protein and brown rice and boiled chicken for almost every meal before summer comes along and yes, you can easily get that kind of body for when you need it. It's just not maintainable throughout the year. Dual daily workouts + tasteless food just leads to not being able to actually enjoy life, but once u tell yourself it's just for a season, it's a lot more manageable.

    The rest of your point probably stands. I don't know many writers but brony fanfic on youtube seems to have more literary value than some of the best sellers I've read.

  • @beergoggles:

    BS. And I say this as someone who works out damn hard — my total is a little over 1050 pounds at 240lbs of bodyweight. That's not particularly impressive, but squatting 400 pounds — a full squat, crease below the knees — is hard no matter what you weigh. So I know a little about what I'm talking about. You don't have to be around the lifting scene that long to meet lots of people squatting in the 500s and deadlifting in the 600-700s. None of those guys are natty. And all that bullshit in lifting mags about diet is just that; bodybuilders drop fat by changing up their stack. It's not diet.

    *None* of the pro bodybuilders since even Arnold have been natty.

    Here's an ifbb pro being honest

    Here is Boston Loyd being honest about what a year of steroids do

    Hell, I just looked at the front page of muscle and fitness. It currently features Jeremy Hoornstra who just benched 675 pounds raw. He's natty, just like my natty bro Ronnie Coleman.
    Come on, we can all have 22in arms and sub 5% bodyfat at 240 pounds; it's just diet and exercise (and steroids and an anti-estrogen and growth and insulin).

    ps — all those bodybuilders with huge bellies, herniated bellybuttons, and a gap in their abs — that's just ab growth, definitely not a side effect of hgh and igf making their intestines grow or anything.

  • ps — none of the above is meant to diminish in any way their accomplishments. If people want to have a total of 2k pounds — and my coach does — more power to them. If bodybuilders want to get that look, that's great.

    My only problem is none of the above happens without drugs. There's not a single natty competitor at the international strongman level. Or powerlifting. Or olympic lifting (ever wonder why all the east europeans / iranians post better numbers in their national events than in the international? Look who does the drug testing. At the olympics, you can't have your own national testing org looking the other way.)

  • It was ever thus. Emily Dickinson wrote extraordinary poetry while living as a recluse. Family money allowed her to do this without needing to wait tables or scrub floors for a living.

    The big, recent change is the demise of the local newspaper as a source of paying work. Authors from Mark Twain to George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson could make a living from journalism while practicing their writing skills and having time to write books on the side. For the most part, that is no longer the case.

  • There's a great experiment using a Monopoly game (check out http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-jan-june13-makingsense_06-21/ 3:20 in the video, search "monopoly" in the transcript) in which one player (determined by coin toss) is selected as "rich" (receiving twice as much starting cash, collecting twice as much at "Go", selecting a fancier play-piece etc.). Invariably the rich player wins the game, yet when after the game players are interviewed about the factors that led to their victory they invariably cite their own prowess and ability and never mention the fact that the game was rigged.

    Wielding power blinds you to the powerlessness of others, I have no other explanation.

  • RE: Weightlifting – I quit when I was outbenching the muscleheads by 20 pounds but still looked like a gangly white guy with no chest. You can build strength but still look like shit if you're built wrong.

    As for you larger point, I had the same thoughts about grad school. Sorry, I can't go away for six weeks to conferences or help a professor with their field work. I have to work at Trader Joe's 40 hours a week to pay my rent.

  • I was a pretty good writer as a kid–I won a few local awards, and had creative ambitions. My sin (other than modest talent) was that I was born into the lower middle class and had to choose eating or practicing my craft. I tried journalism for a few years, and had the soul crushed out of me by the sausage -making that passed for writing in late 20th century dailies. Good typing practice–but little else.

    I ended up a petit buorgeous mid level business executive, with a wife, children, and various mortgages that kept me hopping. My life in business was a crashing bore–and I often found myself wondering how different things might have been had I been born on third base instead of at the plate. I wonder if, given that, I would have claimed to have hit a triple as so many do.

    I'm one of those Ed-despised boomers. I've retired from the active fray with a decent income. Very few things in my life can match the wonders of retirement–the need for constant striving and approval are gone. I feel like the idle rich. Alas, the years have dulled the edge of my talents. How I wish I could have been like the trust fund kids who did this in reverse–retired first, and then had a working life.

  • English Thorn says:

    I saw this, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/james-blunt-has-misunderstood-the-relationship-between-privilege-and-artistic-success-9989541.html written by someone I was at school with in the Independent (UK) the other week. I agree with her. I've also had plenty of discussions about working in the creative arts & being a mother. The trouble with motherhood is that it involves a shit ton of wiping up & legwork which at the least will leave you with a decade where you just can't reasonably spend most of your day/energy being hugely creative. Of course you can outsource childcare, cleaning, food prep etc. but then you're going to have to earn the cash to pay for that so we come full circle.

  • Both Sides Do It says:

    Within a few years, the justification will be that there can't be interesting tellers of stories outside the cohort of the rich. That a hardscrabble existence dulls life down past the point where anyone but its owner could care. That the only people who can experience the full range of human possibility, and that can tell complex stories of human flourishing, come from the prep schools, boardrooms and yacht clubs.

    Complete non sequitor:

    Few years ago, went to a reading by a recently-published debut author. The book had already been optioned for a movie. She was feeling good about herself.

    "What do you consider the key ingredient to your success?"

    "Writing. Every day. Make time for it. Everyone can. There are no excuses. I wrote on the subway on the way to work."

    "What kind of job did you have?"


    "Oh I'm in advertising now." Sometimes lies can be used to get at the truth. "How long were you in the field?"

    "A few months while my husband negotiated his book deal."

    The obviousness of it. Worse than pathetic, it's boring.

  • It's a shame because the writers write what they know and when they are all of the same strata, it will be stultifying for all of us who love to read. Where will the next Angela's Ashes come from or A Confederacy of Dunces? There is only so much of one genre one can stand to read.

  • @dianne

    Many years ago I read a parody of the New York Review of Books entitled "The New York Review of Us" .

    It was a rondelay of articles with each author praising the other authors who were writing about other authors in the Review. Summed it up pretty well.

  • Academic here. I guess I see my publishing as feeding into my merit pay raises (when we get them) and into promotion (I'm at a non-tenure school) so while I don't get any money for the actual publication, it eventually pays off. Textbooks are the only way to make money and they're such a scam I can't even handle it.

    I wanted to be a writer. I have a creative writing degree from the University of Montana (same class as Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, yay?) but realized that career path was a) not dependent on degrees and b) likely impossible. So I tacked on an MA and a PhD and I do write everyday, I get to see my name in obscure journals, and I'm fairly satisfied with that. I still do creative writing, just not as diligently.

  • Behind every busybody journalist/author/blogger is a silver-spoon trust fund that enables them to spend all day pontificating about the inadequacies of others. This has been the case for a very long time. The ironic part is that the vast, overwhelming majority of those that crow the loudest about 'privilege' are themselves the most privileged people in the most privileged nation on earth. #firstworldproblems taken to the next level.

    RE: Weightlifting and appearances. It's possible without 'roids, but it depends very heavily on one's goals and, in any case, is not sustainable. Building strictly for volume and appearance involves a lot of "gym strength" where one is very good at very specific motions, but basically useless in real-world applications. Low-weight, high-rep work activates the kind of hypertrophy that looks very big, but isn't actually all that strong. High-weight, low-rep work with free weights and compound motions builds real-world strength and smaller, denser muscles — getting a lot more work done with a lot less bulk, and looking less like a magazine model for it. There's also the fact that magazine bodies are running at dangerously low body fat percentages. Everyone has that coveted six-pack, that's just how human abdominal muscles are shaped — but you won't SEE that six pack unless you're rocking 10% body fat or lower for a guy, and that's unsustainably low in the long term, and impedes your lifting performance. Cover shoots are always at percentages that are very temporary for the models involved, achieved specifically for that shoot.

    Which is not, of course, to say that 'roid use isn't rampant in the industry. There's no such thing as a clean competitor, because they are an advantage and to compete is to make use of every available advantage.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Once a person "makes is" in a field, they think of themselves as a special little snowflake who worked harder than everyone else.

    And it all started when they were a kid.
    They walked to and from school through the woods in rain, snow, sleet and hail (it's never sunny in a special little snowflakes youth) – UP the hill both ways!

    Politicians are particularly good at this.
    Listen to former VP candidate Paul Ryan who says he worked hard to get to Congress.
    He's a self-made man, he says.

    His family made millions over the decades getting paid for doing work for the government.

    And yeah, his father died when he was young – but this special little snowflake says he persevered through those tough times, and put himself through college, because he's an Ubermensch!
    A self-made political Jack Galt!!!

    This former VP candidate, who despises safety-net programs, never tells anyone that he used the Social Security money that he was "entitled" to when his father died, to go to college.

    And the Ryan family had a lot of political connections, so as soon as this special little finished college, he got a job working for a – wait for it – politician.

    And this special little snowflake asshole hasn't worked in the private sector since a couple of bullshit jobs when he was a teenager, and he HATES any form of government – even though that's where he's drawn a paycheck from his entire adult life.

    So, here's your self-made man – Paul Ryan:
    -A man who wants to eliminate Social Security – despite the program helping HIM when he was younger.
    -A man who hate any and every form of government, outside of the military – yet, outside of speaking fees and some political payola, EVERY working paycheck since he graduated from college, has been one issues by government.
    -And, – while campaigning for Mitt R-Money as his VP candidate – a man who had a homeless shelter open up so he could have a photo-op of him and his wife washing pots and pans – which had already been cleaned and stacked by the volunteer's there.

    Now, everyone loves a good Horatio Alger story.
    But the truth often sullies the story that today's Horatio Alger's tell.

    Many of these wannabe and claim-to-be Horatio Alger's didn't grow-up on the street and fought their way to the top.
    They were raised in a penthouse far above the street, and were handed their position at the top.

    Sometimes, the best work of fiction are by the people born with silver spoons in their mouth.
    And they don't always have to be writers…

  • It's very much the same in Indy software development. We all have ideas tucked away, I've got notebooks and spreadsheets with pages of outlines and diagrams… but after a demanding 9-10 hour day I'm home to an old house with geriatric plumbing, an equally exhausted wife and kid, cars that need maintenance, social obligations to fulfill… these days getting a full night's sleep is an accomplishment. I think many people with successful “side projects” actually have inattentive employers and do their “work” while at “work” if you know what I mean.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Dick Nixon:

    Similar history here, albeit later. My favorite toy was a typewriter. I *always* wanted to be a "real" writer, but as a middle-middle-class child of divorce, it was off to journalism school I went, right as Craigslist was decimating that market.

    I remember taking a long car ride with another writer and doing the math on what it would take to make a living freelancing.

    I've scraped together some couch change on the clickbait grind, cheapening my byline in the process, but writing has never been Job Number One anywhere but in my mind.

    In the meantime, I was briefly trying to "make it" as a comedian in LA. I had a different long chat with another "industry" guy. He told me about a lesser-known, decidedly less ethical experiment that Pavlov conducted after the famous dog thing. I trained some dolphins to get fed by responding in certain ways to a series of painful stimuli. Fairly quickly, the sneaky dolphins figured out the system. So Pavlov completely reversed it. After another week or so, the dolphins adapted to that. Then, the doctor set the shocks on random. Where there was order, there was now chaos. The dolphins – even the smartest, most genetically fortunate ones – began attacking each other and went mad. And that, he said, is how Hollywood works.

    Take the steroids and Old Money out of the equation, and you end up with the lotto. That's the other part of the truth Ed tells here, FWIW. Meritocracy can't even be cultivated in a laboratory.

  • Emerson Dameron says:


    "I trained some dolphins to get fed by responding in certain ways to a series of painful stimuli."

    PAVLOV trained, natch.

  • Ed, I don't have a perception of your religious beliefs but your posts from the past two days seem straight from Jeremiah 12:

    You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.
    Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all the faithless live at ease?

    The chapter continues in that tone.

  • petersloterdijk's coffee cup says:

    I offer up J.K. Rowling. Lived on assistance ("welfare") as a single parent. Created "Harry Potter" and well……. I loathe Lena Dunham types with a passion (regardless of gender, she's the one that comes to mind most readily) and the whole entitlement, trust fund American aristocracy. Spengler could have a field day in the contemporary U$A.

  • Sock or Muffin? says:

    Re: Beautiful people on fitness mag covers, don't forget about the open secret of Photoshop! As a designer/photographer I've been to seminars where they SHOWED US how to thin out chunky thighs. Create perfect skin tones. Delete under-arm fat. Boost boobs by a cup size, etc. So yeah… steroids + Photoshop = perfect bodies.

  • This seems to jive with a recent article from the War Nerd, discussing an article from the New Republic where a reporter tries to take all her upper class American values and project them onto a female tribal chief in Afganistan. The results are some of the worst 'ignorant American' reporting of all time.

  • I offer up as counter-examples to the trust-fund literary types John Scalzi, Jim C. Hines and Tobias Buckell. All three did not come from money, all make good money writing, all had regular jobs when they started and Hines still has a Daye Jobbe.

    But the difference is they all write AT LEAST one book a year. This literary "write when the muse strikes and Mars is in Venus" crap is for dilettantes.

  • Writers, for sure…. but let me also tell you about all the LA or NY:



    … that are the same damn thang.

  • Ed, you should really look at this little video, Three Walls, which is ostensibly on the origins of the cubicle, but it touches on some of the themes you’ve been writing about recently – the abusiveness, stupidity and futility of work and the plight of smart young (and not so young) people in it. (And one of the women once wanted to be a journalist.) It’s a lovely little 25 minute documentary that left me feeling like the collapse of this civilization can’t come soon enough. Watch it for the motivational speaker alone.

  • bobbie the fig says:

    When the boss' nephew, straight out of Dartmouth, moves to the head of the queue, you know it is time to cash in your chips and move on.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Chris Gerrib:

    Ugh. Thanks for shining a nice, smug light, brother.

    Our host writes here nearly every damned weekday and chastises himself when he skips. Speaking for myself, I have a psychotic work ethic that sometimes threatens my marriage.

    All the same, thanks for callinge everyone outte!

  • True story. I majored in playwriting at a fairly reputable public institution in the Midwest. As a tertiary student in the department of theater I got to know quite well all of the actors and directors in my cohort.

    Unquestionably the most talented director was a girl raised by her grocery clerk mother after her drunk of a dad pushed her into a lit fireplace and skipped town. This girl had serious stuff and all the faculty and students knew it.

    However my friend currently directing on Broadway is not this girl. It's the still talented but not nearly as talented rich kid whose parents paid for him to live in Manhattan taking jobs that paid NOTHING for six years before he earned a single dollar. We're now ten years removed and it's not really clear whether he is totally financially independent.

    I spent a good amount of time at extremely prestigious theaters earning peanuts before I realized that the primary indicator for success in the arts is not your talent or work ethic, but rather your ability to sustain the unsustainable grind of no or low pay gigs in high cost cities. So, I work in IT now.

  • I should add, I work in IT at a nobody company and earn 5X what I earned as the Literary Manage of a theater that has won the Tony for best regional theater. Twice.

  • The top-tier bodybuilders use a combination of tons of drugs, incredibly hard work, and incredibly restrictive diets. In fact, the drugs allow you to train more, and recover faster, and train again.

    Similarly, I am certain that many successful writers work very hard at their craft…. it's just that their effort is not the only requirement for success. You need talent, effort, luck, time, and connections. A room of one's own, plus access to the room of one's powerful and influential relatives.

  • @ Isaac – guilty as charged. I do all my graphic side biz on my work computer while multi tasking doing my salaried job. I know I'm not the only one.

  • (Yup to the post. I have nothing to disagree with there. But the featured author's comment re not having children is another eye-roller. And the counter-examples. All women. Guess what? Men have been having kids and writing careers since forever. Now how can that be? All kinds of social support formly in place? Nah. That can't be it.)

  • Captain Blicero says:

    Of course most of the burden of child rearing has historically fallen on men and not women. :eyeroll:

    Don't be obtuse.

  • @Gulag; have you noticed that all the special, special snowflakes really, really hate those who made it "the Murkun way"? For example, look at the hatred toward Bill Clinton, the stepchild of an abusive father who grew up in poverty and dysfunction, yet managed to earn an education in England? Or Barack Obama, whose father split around the time he was born, and who was raised by his grandparents and single mother, then taken abroad as a child when his mother remarried? He went to Harvard. People who actually do manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are always hated by those who were born on third base.

  • You wonder if the author actually believes that her success wasn't virtually handed to her or if she realizes it and simply thinks it would be gauche to admit it.

    100% the former.

  • Faintly McAbre says:

    It's true in classical music, too. Those that Have can easily spend all their time flying from audition to audition, networking, taking expensive lessons with very famous people, hit all the summer festivals, and have a lot of time to practice their solo work. These people do not have 6 different jobs and barely break $40k, and I'm one of the "lucky" ones that can sustain a living doing only jobs in my field.

  • c u n d gulag says:


    And the ones born on 3rd base always blame the Umpires (regulators) for not letting them get to home plate as fast as they think they deserve.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    I suppose the same principle applies to Chicken Hawks who call anti-war protesters "traitors" and "cowards" as the former are pummeled by cops and the later are ensconced in Manhattan TV studios. LMFAO.

  • This privilege and the inability to recognize it in ones own life is fairly ubiquitous. I work in an institution for the education of a certain segment of science/health professionals. It suffices to say that most of the people in this institution are ignorant of their own privilege (willfully and not) and also ignorant to the ways in which the entire system favors those who come readily equipped with this privilege in ways both subtle and not so subtle.

    Two things I have learned that really are blocks to people recognizing how much privilege and class has affected their lives, but also the lives of other citizens.

    1) They almost certainly have worked extremely hard.

    2) They know someone who was way more privileged than they were.

  • I come from a middle-middle class background (I had college-educated parents, but they were broke enough that I qualified for Pell grants) and did a degree at Harvard, where I had ample opportunity to reflect on how sincere rich kids are in their obliviousness to the role of class privilege in their success. My conclusion was: very.

    People compare themselves to those who surround them. The kids at Harvard are, for the most part, smart and hard-working. They notice that they were smarter and harder-working than the other kids in their class at Dalton or Choate or whatever – that's who they were competing with, that's who they know. They don't notice that there were other people as smart and hard-working as them, or even smarter and harder-working, who weren't in their high school class in the first place because they didn't have the money. This is the fundamental problem with recognizing class privilege, and in America it interacts especially cruelly with the lie of educational meritocracy. The author of the Salon article is self-aware because her level of privilege isn't something she's had all her life. The two rich-kid authors in her examples only compare themselves to those of similar circumstances, and probably are harder-working/ less child-bearing/whatever than those people.

    I find the dynamics of class privilege to be oddly similar to beauty privilege (though of course the latter is less devastating in its societal consequences): very good-looking people almost always think their partners chose them solely for their personalities, because what they see is the way their personality traits differed from those of their rivals in the pool of very good-looking people their partner was considering (e.g. "At the time I got together with my boyfriend, X and Y were also interested in him, and X is actually prettier than me, but he chose me because I'm smarter and funnier than X or Y, therefore it was all about my intelligence and wit") – they don't see that you have to be above a certain threshold of beauty to be in a certain pool of potential partners in the first place.

    Also: some of the people I knew as Harvard undergraduates have gone on to become prominent journalists. *Without a single exception,* these are people who stuck out even within the privileged context of Harvard as unusually wealthy – the kids who were merely upper-middle-class couldn't hold out for all the years of living in New York while doing unpaid internships that it takes to establish yourself as a journalist.

    America needs to be honest with itself about the implications of being a country with a public discourse comprised almost exclusively of the voices of people born into great wealth.

  • @Gulag, yes, look at R-Money, who went to an elite boarding school and then waltzed his way through life. He and Mrs. R-Money both believed it was "his turn" to lead the country–not because he was the smartest, or hardest-working, or most talented at the job, but because the highest job in the country obviously *had to* go to him.

    @Dameron; I was one of those who protested the Iraq war. I'm retired military, the child of a retired military man. Warhawks like Cheney who simply couldn't be bothered to go, or Bush, who went AWOL from his cushy stateside NG job, infuriate me.

  • I spent most of my long career as a journalist — this was back in the days when journalists made decent money — as the book review editor of a fairly large newspaper. Occasionally I would be asked to appear on a panel at a writers conference, where I liked to kick things off with my two-minute (more or less) stump speech:

    "Let's say you beat the odds and actually finish your novel. Then let's say you beat the odds again, and get a literary agent. You're on a roll now, and your agent sells the book. Congratulations! Now, the chances that it will become a bestseller are slim, but guess what: It does! Say, 100,000 copies! Wow! After paying taxes and your agent (who has more than earned her 15%), you're going to take home maybe $150,000! Yowza! You're rich! … But it took you three years to do it. Without benefits. Still, that's $50K net a year, right? Not bad. Except for this: You have to do it again, with another book. Then again. And again. Do that for the rest of your life, and you'll be okay. But at this point I should remind you of the odds, and say to you, sadly but honestly, that you are not going to beat those odds. You will not be the one. Write novels if you want to, if you have to, but don't for one minute think that you're going to earn a living doing it."

    Believe me, people did NOT want to hear this. And the word "buzzkill" wasn't even around yet.

    I retired a few years ago, and finally did write some fiction — a middle-grade novel — when I had time and didn't have to support myself anymore. It actually sold to a major publisher for a very nice chunk of change, and was published in 2012. I happened to beat the odds. But that "very nice chunk of change" would be enough to live on for about a year and a half, and I'm smart enough (barely, but still) to know that I'll probably not be that lucky again.

  • The effect on the kind of books and news stories we see is obvious; call it Lena Dunham Syndrome, a self contained world of writing by trust fund kids for other trust fund kids. The number of "voices" to be heard in the literary world is limited by the fact that the voices that actually need to work for a living tend not to write nearly as many books.

    Juxtaposing Author J.K. Rowling with Senator Joni Ernst seems to yield a similar proof.

  • Peter beat me too it: Rowling started her career whilst being fully funded by the Queen I believe the saying is—the Australian equivalent being "working for the government" ;)

  • @Anonymouse and Gulag:
    The "he deserves it!" was what kept cropping up from Bunny's supporters when we had the election. No one would answer the obvious, just exactly what's he done to "deserve" the position of PM. All I can see is a career politician—never had a real job—who went to private schools… Coming from others who'd gone to private schools, though private school doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as a US private school, but there are certain types of private schools. Talk about a sense of "entitlement".

    Your observation about the dislike of those who actually had the Horatio Alger experience could explain much about current educational policies the Liberals are trying to ram through. In Australia to become a doctor merely requires having the correct test scores. The tab is picked up by the tax payers, and repaid out of your taxes after you start earning. Therefore it—and other majors—is accessible regardless of financial background. They're working on dismantling this program. There are pictures of the current Treasurer protesting when free higher ed was repealed. But hey, I got mine so fuck you! Is the right wing mantra.

  • I've always liked what JK Rowling had to say about being a taxpayer.

    I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

    A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism.

  • @Elle: more countries need more patriots like her.
    I read an article—here maybe?—where though Norway has super high taxes, their entrepreneurs feel the same way. They even have a disparaging term named after Norskie shipping magnate did the runner to lower his tax bill.

  • Unlike all the other commenters here, I'm a lowly crustacean living on picked-over garbage under a rock, who was abandoned as a larva and brought up by an abusive pair of Earwigs, so I feel I'm uniquely qualified to comment. I never had a childhood, so I never got to realize that "I earned everything I have, but everybody else got it handed to them, or worse – stole it from me!" is a familiar part of being young. Some of us have parents who train us out of it, but some of us don't. I'm not entirely sure that "socio-economic stratum" is necessarily correlated with it, but maybe it is. A few of us also get trained out of the basic human belief that there's a difference between Us (the Real People) and Them (the Others). The rest of us usually beat the hell out of those bleeding-hearts, though. Anyway, good post, and interesting comments.

  • This is the problem with asking people to check their privilege. If you sincerely attribute your own success to your own hard work, you don't see your privilege, or others' lack of it. The Just World fallacy is very appealing to people for whom it seems to be. Nicholas Taleb addresses this repeatedly in Fooled By Randomness (IIRC). Everyone who succeeds, tried, therefore trying is the way to success. The people who tried and did NOT succeed go down the memory hole. We see this incessantly in Big Business – the ship that misses the iceberg was captained more effectively than the one that ran into one; the minimum wage mook on lookout with the binoculars was not a factor.

  • Lived in a remote tropical surf locale for a some years. Mingled with sculpted tattooed bodies. (Gotta look buff and have the look to live the beach life.) Wondered wtf, you people think you're never going to age?

    About writing and privilege? Yeah, no shit. Bienvenido al mundo en que nos vivimos.

  • This is why I'm now a technical writer.

    Turns out I actually like it a lot, although it's not anywhere near as stable as I had hoped it would be (sez I after my second layoff in six years).

  • @Interrobang; I did some tech writing 20 years ago. I really enjoyed it, just as you did. What I found, however, was that there's no respect for tech writers, because of course any monkey with a computer can write, doesn't take any skill whatsoever to 1) understand the topic, 2) convey it clearly, often to a non-technical audience. Because of the lack of respect, the pay was bad and tech writers were the first ones cut when the boss needed another vacation house.

  • I was impressed that J.K. Rowling chose to stay in her home country and pay taxes in gratitude for what she was given when she needed it. The Swedish music group ABBA also chose to stay in their home country and pay taxes. I'm sure there are others who made the same decision, making me ashamed of my American compatriots who wail like scalded cats at the very notion of paying taxes to support their own lifestyle.

  • Most depressing post ever. Really, and you've dropped some downers the last couple of weeks. This has really opened my eyes as to why the media is so dysfunctional. I hadn't thought of it in these terms before but of course it perfectly explains what I'll call the "Tom Friedman" phenomenon. It seems that the answer for me is to live long enough to be stop working full-time and be able to draw on my 401K and hope to be lucid enough to write on subjects that interest me.

  • lamo at Earl claiming that anyone who squats over 500 and deadlifts over 6 is on drugs.

    I've accomplished both drug free, and anyone who has committed themselves to a few years of training could too.

    Maybe there is a 99% chance the multiply guys trying to total 3000 are on, but just some dude totalling 1400 raw is more likely not.

  • Ed, watch the documentary, `Bigger, Stronger Faster.`


    Well worth it.

    I work out 5 times a week. I love the solitary time and pushing myself, the endorphin rush, and the stress release. I`m fairly big guy, mostly because I work out like hell and have been doing it for over 20 years. You can build a pretty impressive physique but it takes years of work, dialed in diet and dedication, and GENETICS. Or you can just get on the juice, dial back the effort (not to suggest the pro guys don`t work their asses off-but the average juice monkey is looking for quick results with minimal work) and head to the beach. Which do you think is more appealing?

    BTW, Miscer is right – 500lbs squats and 600lbs deads are entirely possible without juicing.

  • dianne – Angela's Ashes was written by a NYC high school English teacher. He had a day job. Moby Dick was written by a US customs agent. The Canterbury Tales were written by a Thames River dock manager. Maybe the trick is to get a government job?

    In the 1960s it was possible to eke out a decent living as a writer. My father did taxes for all sorts of people. One of his customers lived in a different section of our co-op apartment complex and gave my father a review copy of his "Heirs of Cane" as a freebie. He clearly wasn't rich, but it was a fairly nice apartment complex and still is I gather. The writers I know nowadays work for the movies and television, so they tend make real money and live in Los Angeles where the jobs are. No 900sf apartment for them.

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