Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (A Meditation)

While not as funny as other Simon Pegg comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and certainly no stand-out for originality of concept, surprising plot twists or satirical teeth (everyone who's ever come into contact with this kind of material can probably tell from early on how it's going to end up, the targets are easy, and I imagine I'm not the only one who thinks we've got too much media about media as it is), How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was more enjoyable than I expected, and actually contained some surprisingly good bits.

One of these is the scene in which Jeff Bridges' character, magazine editor and "linchpin of the media-industrial complex" Clayton Harding, launches into an extended metaphor about "seven rooms," explaining to our protagonist Sidney Young (Pegg) that while he thinks he may have arrived, he's "only in the first room." Now,
"in about a year, maybe longer, you will discover a secret doorway in the back of the first room that leads to the second, and in time if you're lucky you'll discover another doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms altogether."
It is, of course, part of a rather unsubtle dominance display in which Harding reminds Young of their respective places in this particular hierarchy ("You're in the first [room]. I'm in the seventh. Don't you forget it."), but it's also much more than that, a truth that we're generally inclined to avoid: that instead of a straightforward meritocracy, and ladders ascended with talent and the "hard work" that is the subject of many a sanctimonious lecture, making one's way through the world means navigating the uncharted and unchartable paths to which those hidden doors open. (That's what all the talk about "networking" comes to, for instance, upping the odds that you'll find your way to one of those doors.) The truth is that even when you are doing everything right, there's no guarantee that you'll find the door-or even that there is one of those secret doors in the particular room you've found your way into. Far from it, you can get old without getting out.

This necessarily means a much more worried life for anyone pursuing any particular ambition, and while this goes for people in any and every career path (especially in an age of economic strain, especially when one doesn't have someone already inside positioned to open some of those doors for them), it seems to me an especially troubling point for those who want to be writers in the "author of fiction" sense of the word: because there are so many jockeying for a very few slots (book deals that will let them live from their writing); because the career track is necessarily so ambiguous (it's not like becoming a lawyer or doctor, for instance); because it is so damnably difficult to correlate performance with success (there always being plenty of atrocious books on the bestseller lists, plenty of careers dragging long past their productive periods, and hype muddling everything); because every conversation writers enter into that gets beyond the face of sunny optimism complacent insiders present to anxious outsiders betrays just how much those who are not in the "seventh room" or close to it are stuck going by rumor and speculation. The how-to industry sells the idea that you just write the book (or maybe just the proposal), send out the query letter and . . . well, they don't usually say much about what happens between then and the deal (and what makes the difference between the rejection letter and the acceptance), which for most of us is probably not just a gap, but the gap.

It all comes down to those doorways, doorways you might not always be cognizant of facing or going through given how much of the decisionmaking happens out of the writer's sight and mind (and maddeningly, outside their control), and while the people in room seven can afford to be easygoing about it, those desperate to even get into room one can only worry that they never will.

1 comment:

Jonathan M said...

Nice piece.

In my experience, talent counts for very little in life because there's so little of it actually sloshing about the place.

Sturgeon's law is probably generous when it comes to SF. SF publishing is going through a purple patch if one book out of every 20 they publish is actually any good and the same is true of the short fiction scene.

So that's 19 books out of 20 that are published for reasons other than talent. And what reasons might those be? Well a willingness to jump through hoops and navigate the psycho-geography of primate psychology.

Between the SF I have read, the plays I have seen, the operas I have attended, one thing is completely clear to me : most professional creatives are make-weights : terrible losses to the goat farming and office receptionist industries.

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