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. 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. 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. 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. 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.