Ellen Page. Shailene Woodley. Anna Paquin. Elle Fanning. Dakota Fanning. Julia Stiles. Jessica Chastain. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jennifer Connelley. Virginia Madsen. Connie Nielsen. Many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Female stars in Hollywood have a disturbing tendency to be around for a few films, and then disappear into either minor roles or, at best, franchise series.
Of course this happens to the men too, and there are plenty of hot new leading male stars who have disappeared. But it seems to me the phenomenon is more common with young women.
Women seem to be more dispensable in modern filmmaking. Their parts are often more stock—yes, even if they’re an ass-kicking superhero or supervillain like Scarlett Johansson or Kate Beckinsale or Margot Robbie. Face it, it’s easy to replace one with another. Margot won’t do it, call Charlize Theron.
That makes a great payday but at the same time building a career is tough. How many actresses recently have, after their breakout picture, gone on to varied performances lately, besides Jennifer Lawrence, and that may be only because David O. Russell loves her. A few others come to mind—Michelle Williams, Keira Knightly—but not many.
Some say this is deliberate on the part of studios. It helps keep budgets down. Productions are less inclined to pay $15 million for a Julia Roberts when they can have a current “it” girl for four or five. Though they still spend upwards of $180 million on epic films, they aren’t doing it as often as they once did.
The biggest reason is simply it’s hard to find well-written lead roles for women—roles where they aren’t arm-candy to the male leads, or the damsel who has to be rescued. Sure there are a few bad-assers out there, like Michelle Rodriguez and Daisy Ridley, but those bad-assers have no depth. They’re as two-dimensional as the action figures they help sell.
So every few years we’re treated to a string of new “breakout” talents who take the world by storm with a tremendous performance in what I’m going to controversially call a legitimate film—Jessica Chastain in Zero-Dark-Thirty, Ellen Page in Juno, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby—and then they either don superhero outfits or disappear altogether. Or both in succession.
It’s hard to develop acting talent when that’s your talent pool—superhero characters. It leads to a very infantile set of options for serious artists. And maybe that’s why the stars in Hollywood don’t quite shine as brightly—or as long—as they once did, not long ago. Hollywood today caters to teenagers and overseas box offices. And both are very fickle.
One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”
But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!”
Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.
After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?
Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.
Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.
I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.
Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.
By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!
That’s why I write.
It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.
I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.
But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.
Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?
What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.
Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.
I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.
Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.
That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.
And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.
Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.
† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.
This week’s guest for From the Front Porch: Creativity Interviews is John Grabowski. John has been following my blog since the early years (I started it in 2008!), and has been a frequent commenter. We developed an email friendship as he worked on his forthcoming novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw. On his blog he has some really interesting things to say about the phenomenon of celebrity culture, which he addresses in his novel. John is one of the smartest and well-read people I know. Please welcome him to our Creativity Interviews.
Tell us a little about yourself. Perhaps what do you do for a living and where you live?
I live in Northern California and I’ve been a copywriter, a newswriter, and a novel writer. Right now I’m on the Marketing and Development Committees of the Peninsula Symphony as we are working to attract a broader and more affluent audience to this truly excellent orchestra.
When are you the most creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
I’m a night owl. That’s when I generally get most of my ideas and do my best writing. Doesn’t matter where, really, as long as I can get my fingers to a keyboard. I tend to like the “white noise” of coffee shops, however.
When are you the least creative? (Who are you with? Where are you? What are you doing?)
Mornings. I am not a morning person and never have been. Doesn’t matter how much sleep I get or when I go to bed.
What inspires you and why does it inspire you?
Other great art. Great ideas, different ways of looking at common things.
I don’t write fantasy or escapism. Everything I write is deeply-rooted in reality—often the most mundane reality that most people don’t pay attention to. So when someone can see that reality in a fresh and new way, I am inspired and want to do the same.
Share a favorite quote:
The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. —Emerson
What creative project are you working on now or do you hope to work on?
Getting dressed. Seriously, it’s 11am and I haven’t gotten away from the computer yet today.
Share a photo of something you find beautiful:
Name one of more of your favorite books. What do you love about them? If they changed your life in any way tell us why.
Of course knowing me as you do you’d expect to see a title by Deborah Eisenberg here. But she writes short stories, though they’ve been collected into books, so we can just assume at least one of these would be one of her titles, probably one of her last two, All Around Atlantis or Twilight of the Superheroes. I think she is the most important fiction writer working today because she is doing things no one else is but at the same time she’s doing it with a vocabulary that wouldn’t stump a high school student and she has probed the fringes of consciousness without resorting to any trendy new writing styles. She shows that direct simplicity can also be complex.
I also enjoy many of Alice Munro’s stories, though I do think Eisenberg should have won the Nobel for her greater breadth and insight. And you, Susan Gabriel, have turned me on to Francine Prose!
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill is probably the best novel I’ve read that’s been written in the last ten years. I also enjoyed his follow-up The Dog, though the critics were pretty luke-warm on that one, for some reason
To The Lighthouse just blew my mind the first time I read it in the way it dealt with the most ordinary events with tremendous depth.
Richard Ford’s Bascombe Trilogy impressed me in similar ways. Or the first two novels did. I thought the third sputtered. There’s now a fourth Frank Bascombe book but I’m not sure if I’m going to read it. I think I’m sort of done with Frank.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is an understated tour-de-force. And I love Milan Kundera, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and José Saramago, especially The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
Name one or more of your favorite films and tell us what you love about it/them.
In literature I am drawn to realism—you might almost say mundane realism. Robert Altman’s films, or many of them, are of a similar nature. So are Ernst Lubitsch if you want to go really far back, especially the pre-Code ones.
Yet I also love the outsized aspects of Fellini, and 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita are two of my favorite films. They use fantasy to make a bigger point about realism.
So fantasy at the service of realism is fine. Fantasy for fantasy’s sake not so much, even if there’s a “moral” to the story. It’s usually a very simple moral.
Name one or more of your favorite pieces of art (painting, sculpture) and tell us what you love about it/them.
The Milk Maid by Vermeer, though to understand why you’d have to see it in person. The best prints don’t capture the impact. That’s true of any Vermeer.
Rembrandt’s self-portraits, especially the late ones. Same story. They seem to have a history that began before you entered the room to look at them and continue after you leave.
What were you like as a child?
Tell us about something you’re proud of having created, participated in, etc. (not your offspring, please!
This is going to seem ridiculously esoteric, but I intuitively figured out the “Circle of Fifths” in music without ever having it explained to me. I also distrusted a scholarly discovery that claimed a section of Beethoven’s music had been edited incorrectly all these years and had to be revised. Turns out I was right—the copyist made the “corrections” and Beethoven considered them wrong—they are!—and put back his original. But for several years some Beethoven scholars thought the “wrong” way was right and it was even recorded this way. I was never fooled, because that’s not how Beethoven thinks; it has nothing to do with taste.
What are you grateful for? (Today or in general.)
My health. A number of friends have had brushes with cancer or other disease and I have nothing to complain about. I am in good shape overall.
From JL’s Uncle Jessie Meme:
A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck & injury to turn off when it comes on the radio?
Hip hop. But really most pop.
A favorite show on television?
Don’t really have one.
If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be?
The formula for the Unified Field Theory. I’d then win a Nobel in physics and be famous.
A favorite meal?
A talent you wish you had?
What’s on your nightstand?
Isn’t this a family blog?
What’s something about you that would surprise us?
Check out John’s blog here.
Please take a moment to let John know what you appreciated about this interview. Be sure and check out the link to his blog, too. If you’re feeling too shy to comment, consider sharing this post with your friends on your favorite social media platform. Thanks! xo
P.S. A quick note about the title of this series, From the Front Porch:
Here in the South, we love our front porches. They are where we get to know our neighbors and take a load off with our friends. Ideally, I would invite John here to my house, we’d sit with a glass of iced tea, and I’d interview him while a cool breeze moved through the oaks, accompanied by the sound of two rocking chairs squeaking on the floorboards. Instead, I’ll ask you to use your imaginations. I hope you enjoy the breeze!
Susan Gabriel is the acclaimed southern author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower (named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews) and other southern novels, including Temple Secrets, Grace, Grits and Ghosts: Southern Short Stories and others. She lives in the mountains of North Carolina.
I thought I was reading an interview with Welsey Shaw.
But I wasn’t. She’s Cara Delevingne, and I’m amazed I’d never heard of her before.
She’s a fashion model, and she belies all the stereotypes about such models: she’s smart, funny, curious, and a terribly articulate and searching.
And one of the things she keeps articulating is how lonely her life is, and that being famous and in the spotlight constantly doesn’t make you less alone. Just the opposite, in fact. Ms. Delevingne often says she feels terribly alone.
Like Welsey she’s had some explosive outbursts. Welsey goes off on everyone inside a Manhattan Starbucks. For Ms. Delevingne, a security search at a train station in Paris caused her to erupt and call the agents names. After being detained an hour she apologized, and was sent on her way.
No explanation why she went off. But people like her are under lots of pressure (not that that’s an excuse, but…) and often it’s the small things that do it, something Daniel Ferreira learns when he gets deeper and deeper into Welsey’s life. A casual brush could bruise a career, a slip on a late night talk show could end it. Friends become foes in the blink of an eye, people use you for who you are, and if you fail to please them you are labeled a “biiytch.” And through all this, you’re supposed to always, unfailingly smile.
Delevingne’s said she battled with depression during her school years but managed to turn her life around with the help of writing and yoga. But it hasn’t worked as well as she’d hoped, apparently. After a devastating breakup recently, she has told her family that she might end up walking away from fame. And friends say she is now depressed worse than they have ever seen before. As her mother observed, “One minute she’s surrounded by friends, the next she’s all on her own jetting across the world!”
I confess I once considered an ending for Entertaining Welsey Shaw where Welsey, miserable in her alone-ness, took her life. Just writing left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. But a number of celebrities in the spotlight—particularly, for some reason, young women—have made this decision. I truly hope Ms. Delevingne finds her way out of her darkness, and rediscovers happiness soon. Perhaps a break from fame might have a therapeutic affect. It does for Welsey, in the ending I finally opted for for the novel.
The paps, getting a piece of her.
She’s a wildly-famous blonde superstar who’s been in the spotlight since she was a teenager, and she nearly lost her mind because of the relentless scrutiny she found herself under.
But we’re not talking about Welsey Shaw.
Britney Spears could probably identify with my blonde heroine. No matter what you think of her talents, you have to admit she must have stamina to live her life with paparazzi camped outside her door and reporters following her every move.
She recently told the magazine Marie Claire UK that for many years she didn’t know who she was or what she was. She was living a life defined by other people, unable to form her own self.
I can’t justify the craziness of the public eye for Britney’s former irresponsible behavior. She endangered her children, of whom she lost custody (since re-won, at least on a 50/50 basis with her ex, dancer Kevin Federline) and did some truly wacked out things. Shrink-type people said she was crying out for help. Probably true. If she really were suicidal she’d have succeeded.
But I find it interesting how so many stars-since-they-were-children have their childhoods snatched away from them, and make up for it in overdrive later on. How what everyone thinks they would like—fame, fans, riches—can lead to madness, depression, desperation. Interestingly, one of her most well-known comeback songs is “Piece of Me,” and it’s from an album called Blackout.
Critics have criticized Spears’ art for not being deep. That may be true, but I have a feeling she’ll get deeper. When she was younger, she didn’t know much, because she wasn’t allowed to live a life. So she couldn’t have been deep. Her rebellion might have ultimately been the best thing to happen, artistically.
Something has to set childhood stars free. For Britney it was an unlikely bumpy series of events that, after a lot of loss and pain, liberated her—or at least so it seems. For Welsey Shaw, part of it was equally-unlikely, Daniel Ferreira in a Midtown Manhattan Starbucks who lets her discover what real conversation, real people, real experiences and opinions, feel like. The road through fame is filled with twists and turns, and it’s different lengths for everyone.