Famous And Funded?

How Our Fascination With the ‘Self-Made’ Narrative Skews Perceptions of Fame and Privilege

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The Tyranny of Fame

Leigh Bardugo recently posted a series of tweets about writing, success, and invisible privilege. Leigh is a young adult fantasy author whose series Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone have sold more than three million copies. That probably fits anyone’s definition of success as a writer.

She began by discussing the idea that the way successful writers and their ascendancy are painted by the critical and consumer media is frequently based on a false, or at least misrepresented, narrative.

Creatives come to understand that the road to top tier success in their field is a narrow one littered with unhelpful debris and outright obstacles. The general idea is that you work hard at your craft and you market yourself intelligently and you stand prepared to capitalize on the opportunities that come your way. Sure, there is some luck involved, but if you work hard and work smart, you might be able to make a living at it, is the conventional wisdom.

But that’s not the way most people in the nine-to-five world understand it, nor is it how it is generally reported. Instead there is often an overnight success narrative, or the story of how this writer took a big risk (quit job, moved to another country, etc.) and managed to write a hugely commercially successful book, but part of the story is being left out, says Bardugo.

Writers who self-publish will be familiar with paying for and handling their own marketing, but most people believe that once you are published and selling a decent number of books, all of that is part of what your publisher handles. Times have changed for the creative industries and Bardugo’s story is not uncommon.

Neither is Bardugo’s reluctance to talk about the reality of her situation because it would undercut her image as a successful writer both to her fans and to other writers. “Social media fuckery” as Bardugo refers to it, is based on appearances above all else. And Bardugo expresses concern that the appearance may be misleading and detrimental to those who aspire to become successful as writers.

Many of her young readers are also future writers. In 2015 Bardugo told Vanity Fair “It’s a very different kind of community than adult fiction. A lot of them are aspiring writers. I want them to succeed. I want to be at their signing someday.”

She wants people to understand the nature of publishing and the nature of the media as well. After all, one hand washes the other: publishers get publicity for their writers and the media gets to create a new tale of ascendancy, a tale of the underdog.

But sometimes — frequently, Bardugo seems to say — they aren’t the underdog they are portrayed as. Here she speaks about invisible privilege in the writing and publishing world.

Invisible Privilege

Invisible privilege isn’t a new idea, but it definitely gains traction in the online world because social media is all about presenting an image, a point of view, a life that is only glimpsed through a window. These self-brands are deeply curated so that you only see what you are meant to see.

True, her definition might seem a bit extreme. Do you really benefit from privilege because your parents own their home? It’s a kind of shorthand for the idea that Bardugo’s generation receives a great deal of assistance from parents who saved and invested for many years and who are now living a comfortable retirement.

Those parents are part of a new American aristocracy, according to Ted Stewart’s Atlantic article published last summer. This February 2019 Harper’s Bazaar piece by Jen Doll talks about the “unprecedented levels” at which parents with the means to do so are providing financial assistance to their grown children.

This comes as no great surprise to most Americans. People with money help their kids. It’s always been that way: you own a business, your kid has a job; kids get married, parents give them a house (or a down payment). Now people are just as likely to fund their children’s startups or help them go freelance, but it’s really no different.

Photo by Jimi Filipovski on Unsplash

Doll points out that the narrative generally obscures the funding someone gets from Mom and Dad to start a business or write a book. And just like Bardugo, people are reluctant to talk about the help they get because of the narrative of American self-reliance. The self made success story is part of the American brand. It’s part of our mythology, even if it has largely been a myth.

Starting the Conversation

Baby Boomers are beginning the process of transferring a large amount of wealth to the Gen X and Millennial generations. $30 trillion is the amount that is typically thrown around, though there are reasons to think it will be somewhat less. But it is a massive amount and it’s being transferred at a time when the younger generations have been handed expectations of a life that won’t be as comfortable as that of their parents. They have crushing debt when the graduate from college, and the job market — working life in general — is a far different ball game than that of previous generations.

The money these ‘kids’ get helps them to do things they have the brains and skill to do, but not the money. Of course it creates a playing field that is not level, and the silence around the subject only serves to emphasize that fact. Because while much privilege isn’t visible, it is strongly suspected, and when it breaks out in news such as the recent college admissions scandal, it creates a lot of backlash.

Millennials, who are challenging a lot of the narratives previous generations have accepted about American life, from politics to technology, seem poised to begin conversations about money, class, and privilege, but they are understandably nervous. Holding yourself to account is difficult, but if any admission of privilege will be met with scandal or a giant backlash on social media, then it’s difficult to have that conversation.

The conversation becomes more volatile when you toss in already troubling issues around gender and race. Clelia Warburg Peters of Warburg realty is quoted as saying “Our country was built on the backs of men who inherited money from their fathers, but somehow a woman who inherits, she’s just a spoiled rich girl.” And race is as big an issue as you might imagine: The average inheritance for white families is over $150,000 while for black families it’s under $40,000.

That’s something these younger generations will need to address, and in many ways they seem much better equipped to have that conversation than their parents. That provides a lot of hope for some way forward, because any conversation about privilege really needs to start with those who have, recognize and acknowledge it.