On Monday night, I had the extraordinary privilege of hearing Zadie Smith deliver her lecture entitled Why Write. While Ms. Smith’s novels White Teeth and On Beauty stunned me with their brilliance and introspection, it was the thesis of her 45-minute lecture that resonated with me most deeply: the idea that writing and publishing in modern America has turned into just one more commodity more concerned with branding and selling a marketable product than with creating something new and interesting to move society forward. Smith recalled a student of hers at NYU who eagerly inquired how she determined her writing “brand”, and went on to say that creativity itself should be a type of refusal – refusing to kowtow to marketers, to focus groups, to what people want – and instead make something new. She offered up hip-hop stars as the ultimate example: talented writers and musicians who begin by producing something raw and from the street, and end up like Kanye or Jay-Z, with multiple corporations and commodities.
Smith’s speech reminded me of an article I read in September’s In Style magazine, titled, Take My Picture, Please!, where author Eric Wilson laments the current artificial street style culture while admitting its dramatic – and lucrative – influence on the fashion business. Wilson recalls that street style photographs used to be raw, genuine, unfettered from corporate influence. Now, in the cutthroat, fast-moving business of fashion, companies use street style stars on Instagram to sell their clothes, and the idea of street fashion has become, in many cases, more calculated and fake. Wilson comments that the scene “has become so overpopulated that [a few fashion blogs became] exasperated by how quickly corporate opportunism and a culture of rampant narcissism appear to have corrupted the once honorable craft of fashionable people dressing fashionably”.
These articles remind me of a PBS Frontline episode I showed my English students each year called Merchants of Cool (2001). In the special, the culture of “coolhunting” is exposed – corporations sending marketing mercenaries literally to the streets to “find” the cool trends among teenagers and market them back to the exact population from which they got the inspiration in the first place, all while trying to make it look like they weren’t trying to advertise or brand anything at all.
I have these ideas simmering in my head while I write this blog. It’s a creative outlet, one I hope people read and enjoy. It would be cool to make money from it, yes – and the professional, goal-setting, go-getter girl in me challenges myself to wonder, “If you’re not going to make money from this someday, what is the point?” What girl with an interest in fashion wouldn’t want to reach a level where design houses in New York or Paris are contacting you to come to their shows; what fashionista wouldn’t want free clothes from her favorite brands to promote; what writer wouldn’t want hundreds of hits on their blog, reinforcement that what they do matters? In the United States, money=approval. It’s our way of saying that what you do matters to the world, because people are willing to pay for it. Otherwise, what are you doing? Find and brand something else.
Ironically, this is just the dilemma Zadie Smith spoke about on Monday night, and I’ve been reflecting on her words since. The ubiquitous style blog look is merely a mimicry of genuine street style. A darling fashionista dons opaque shades and stares into the distance or at her phone, acting oblivious to the photographer, when it’s obvious the whole shot has been construed for that exact effect. It’s fascinating to me. I admire many of these blogs and their looks, and the work that goes into them – but it’s not how we live, so we aspire to mimic a falsehood and mirror it back to ourselves. It’s bizarre! I also hate having to tap a photo for credits, or going to a third-party website, like the Instagram powerhouse Like to Know.it, to find shopping information. The minute I do that the blog is telling me they’ve sold out – this isn’t about the girl’s personal style anymore, this is about pushing $39 pumps. And I have a hard time with that.
For now, I’m happy to be writing most days, and enjoying the challenge of being outside my comfort zone. It’s hard to post pictures of yourself online, and it’s hard to self-promote. My natural inclination is to sit back and make fun of those types of people instead of being one of them. And despite my curmudgeonly attitude in this post, I like being part of the zeitgeist. I like understanding and experiencing, on a very small scale, the blogging and online culture. Selfies and fashion blogs seem largely the domain of millennials – I like being a courageous Gen X’er in the mix. Publishing your writing has never been easier – and if you’re looking for a niche community for your unique creation, the Internet is the most astonishing resource in history.
*Zadie Smith’s lecture isn’t online, but there’s a great summary of it here.