When Julia Became Julie, Content Lost Its Throne

Every now and then, rank-and-file writers, bloggers and radio hosts like myself (but by no means limited to myself) are accused of "self-promotion." This is not a charge usually leveled at very famous writers, bloggers and radio hosts, nor at television hosts (who are, almost by definition, famous) - it is specifically leveled at those who have not achieved notoriety. Regardless of whether the accused is promoting some sort of substantive message or promoting themselves for their own vanity, the charge of "self-promotion" aims to indict the accused for conceit and unbridled ambition - as if only those already famous are permitted in our culture to exhibit those qualities.*

I'll be the first to say that there's a problem when someone promotes themselves for their own sake and nothing more (think Paris Hilton or Sarah Palin). That's true "self-promotion" - promotion of the self for the self's sake - and there's a lot of that these days. However, some of the "self-promotion" criticism is also aimed at people who are pushing substance. And while there is some truth to the charges against the latter (I mean, in a sense, when someone promotes a cause they are inherently promoting themselves too), the motive for the latter's self-promotion comes from a different origin - one you can see most vividly in (of all places) the recent film Julie & Julia.

The film is, at one level, a typical Nora Ephron affair - vapid and formulaic to the point of predictable. If you've seen one Nora Ephron movie, you've seen them all - which isn't necessarily an artistic criticism of Nora Ephron. There is certainly room and need for movies that are pure mindless entertainment - and there is an art to making such formula-driven pieces repeatedly entertaining (which Julie & Julia most certainly is).

But Ephron's movies often include inadvertent - and typically disturbing - points about modern society. In My Blue Heaven, for instance, the mob is effectively absolved of all its crimes, because hey, the mafia is just benign and hilarious! In You've Got Mail, Ephron focuses on a superficial happy-ending love story, and seems positively unaware that the story not only glorifies/absolves the practice of rapacious corporate conglomerates crushing locally owned stores, but worse, reinforces anti-feminist stereotypes of women as pathetically weak. The heroine, who was fighting the good fight, ends the film not merely giving up her business, but seeking shelter in and romantically rewarding the guy who economically destroyed her.

But nowhere is Ephron's patented inadvertent social commentary more powerful than in Julie & Julia. Underneath the happy stories of Julia Child and Julie Powell's ascensions, is an extremely depressing parable about how the media has changed for the worse.

Julia Child's rise is a truly up-from-the-boostraps story of great creativity and talent finally being recognized after years of grinding work in total obscurity. It took her 8 years and multiple rejections by publishers to write and then publish her masterpiece cookbook. She was rewarded with fame not because she had some insider connections or because she already was famous (what's called, in publishing circles, having a "platform"), but because her work was just so damn good.

Her story is told in tandem with Powell's tale - a tale that Ephron leads us to believe is somehow synonymous with Child's. But (and here's what Ephron never seems to grasp) it's exactly the opposite. Powell published a blog documenting her year cooking Child's recipes - and when the New York Times ran an article about her stunt, we watch as Powell's answering machine immediately fills up with publishers begging her to write a book. We innately understand that the publishers are not calling Powell because her blog is so well written or the Internet equivalent of Child's genuine masterpiece (they weren't calling about her blog before the Times piece was written). And we understand those publishers are not calling because Powell's ideas are so innovative (they aren't, by definition - she's literally replicating Child's recipes). They are calling because the New York Times - by journalistic fiat - has said Julie Powell is now famous and now has a platform.

This is exactly how much of the media world now works - celebrity for celebrity's sake rewarded well before genuine talent and compelling content.** If a publisher has the choice of publishing a brilliant work by someone nobody knows or publishing the worst-written trash by a famous person, they'll choose the latter in a heartbeat. Indeed, you get the feeling that there is a genuine Julia Child out there writing a genuinely fantastic book that will never be published because publishers will be too busy publishing Julie Powell.

Perhaps there was always some of this dynamic at play. Just as billionaires have always had an easier time making larger returns than the average income earner (ie. it takes money to make money), celebrities have an easier time of making themselves even more famous than the average person making themselves slightly famous. But, as evidenced by Julie and Julia's two stories, this dynamic has become far more powerful today than ever.

And so we get back to the question of self-promotion. For writers, bloggers, radio hosts and so many other kinds of creative workers in the media, the promotion of one's work has become as important as the quality of the work itself. I note that with no sense of happiness - it's a damn shame, if you ask me. If I had my choice, I'd spend all of my time making trying to make my writing and radio program the best content I could possibly make it, instead of having to use some of that time simply to get my work out there.

But that is now the requirement in our celebrity culture. I wouldn't have a newspaper column to write if I didn't promote it and my other work, because newspapers probably would not have chosen to pick up the column and run it had I had no established platform at all. I wouldn't have been able to get the opportunity to write a book if I hadn't done the same, no matter how well-done my book proposals, because publishers are first and foremost looking for platform. That's the same reason I probably wouldn't have had the chance to do radio fill-in (which ultimately led to my new radio show) without promoting all my other work.

It's the same for everyone else in a similar position. When you aren't world famous, you have to take time away from the content you are producing to make sure the content gets out there. Put another way, whereas previously the content created the value ("content is king"), today the publicity creates the value, almost regardless of the content. And here's the key (and most depressing) point: That publicity is so central to the value of everything, the content has a hard time existing without it.

Sure, you can publish a blog in obscurity - but it's almost impossible to be a professional content creator (which is more commonly known as a "member of the media") and make a living from that work. You can say that's a luxury, but it's only a luxury in a society that doesn't care about the quality of content, because it takes time and resources to produce good content.

Then again, perhaps that's really the lesson. Perhaps we really don't care about the quality of content - and perhaps the conversion from Julia's content-is-king world to Julie's platform-is-king society reflects a deeper degradation in what we want and demand from our media. I'd like to think that's not true. I'd like to think content, if not king, is still a prince - that ultimately, great content is rewarded, even if it has to toil in obscurity for years. But it's getting harder and harder to believe that these days when you look at the New York Times bestseller list, flip on the television, or - yes - watch a film with a very powerful message about media values have no idea it is telling anything other than a happy bubble-gum fairy tale.

So here's the deal: The next time you get annoyed a content-creators' "self-promotion," unless it's really clear that the creator is really just trying to be a narcissistic spectacle with zero substance, give that content creator a break. Those writers, bloggers and/or radio hosts probably don't want to have to be pushing their work out as hard as they are. In fact, they probably just want to spend their time making the content as good as they can and hate the fact that they have to simultaneously work to get that content out there. But as Julie & Julia show, that's what the marketplace now demands.

* Not surprisingly, most people who become very famous are accused of "self-promotion" until they achieve fame - and then the attacks are typically replaced by sycophantic worship and pure ass-kissing.

** By the way, Julie Powell may be a talented writer - I don't mean to suggest she isn't. But she didn't achieve her notoriety - and therefore, her opportunity to be a professional writer - based as much on her talent as a writer as on her getting written up in the New York Times for cooking the recipes of Julia Child.