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In the past, there was a kind of perception about what “writers” were like, based mostly on cliches projected by mass media (glasses, ugly sweaters, scruffy facial hair, high-strung personality, furrowed brows, Ethan Hawke, etc). The cliches have recently turned into images of cool, Caucasian 20- or 30-somethings who live in big cities and publish on the internet. It’s nice to see a more positive shift, but there’s one problem — 99.9% of these characters would never actually make it in real life.
Here’s an examination of what the “new” image of freelance writing is like these days:
Larry Bloom – Orange Is the New Black
Jason Biggs (aka dude-who-got-it-on-with-a-pie in American Pie) plays a “writer” who apparently can live in NYC on his fiancé’s soap-selling-business-in-progress/parents’ money, subsisting on Whole Foods, driving upstate all the time, and going to hip bars, while only actually writing and publishing one piece.
In the show, Larry sort of just barges into a New York Times editor’s office and pitches an idea (with presumably no actual writing clout to his name) and succeeds in getting an assignment. He even literally begs the editor for a gig (a good way to get a paperweight to the face). If only it were really that easy to get into NYT and stumble into an ensuing NPR show. But in reality, you’ve got to have more than a good story — you’ve got to actually write constantly and market it, not just talk to a guy at a major publication once and get lucky. Unless you’re Cameron Crowe, in which case every writer hates you.
(Real-life Larry was actually already a successful writer — check it out on Forward.)
Zoe Barnes – House of Cards
Next we’ve got another Netflix original, but this time a fictional character who actually probably would make it outside the friendly confines of fiction. Probably. Kate Mara’s character is young, tenacious, attractive, talented, driven, passionate, knowledgeable, resourceful, and willing to have sex with Kevin Spacey — an equation that would lead just about anyone to a successful writing career.
The only problem is she relies on the slightly over-exaggerated strength of social media. I get the commentary being made, and it’s mostly apt, but in reality it seems unlikely that a single tweet by an emerging newspaper writer (seriously — think about the audience for political journalism in print news) could get a senior editor fired and land her a job absolutely anywhere she wants, even if she is something of a TV personality.
Granted, I’ve never achieved that kind of social fame, and maybe this sort of thing actually happens in reality, but all of this success hinges on a hedonistic power-tripping Congressman being willing to leak exclusive information. It’s easy to forget that without that inside scoop, she’s really just another sludge news reporter lost in a DC cubicle warehouse.
Hannah Horvath – Girls
Finally, we have everybody’s favorite middle-class, urban-millennial anti-heroine. In all likelihood, Hannah is a sort of caricature of her creator/actress counterpart Lena Dunham, who managed to live the writer’s dream by being born of successful New York City artists, getting moderately famous off her movie Tiny Furniture, and then getting extremely famous for continuing to write whatever the hell she wanted, all by her mid-20s. If I sound a little jealous it’s because I’m pretty sure we all are.
Unlike her creator, Hannah’s problem is very similar to Larry Bloom’s: lack of persistence (in one episode she loses her mysteriously bestowed eBook deal because, to oversimplify, she can’t get around to writing through her writer’s block), lack of income to support her chic New York City apartment, and unrealistic success based on moderate — if any — clout (again, her book deal). Here we’ve got another case of a “writer” who apparently rarely writes anything and has no actual job (reinforcing writer stereotypes…) and yet indulges in probably twice my cost of living and multiple times my renown.
I’d be cool with letting my fiancé go to prison or sleeping with Kevin Spacey, and yet here I am running a blog that gets less than a view per day and writing spammy ad copy for people to ignore. Why is it so damn hard to get famous?