Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Seeing People and Seeing Celebrities

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Seeing People and Seeing Celebrities

Why should my stomach go into my feet when I see someone who wrote a book I really love? I remember in elementary school, a man coming in to talk to our class about whale watching. I asked him to sign my autograph book. I think it was equally awkward for both of us. It was a case of mis-reading celebrity status. When you are a celebrity, you can be asked to perform the awkward, however, outside of that designation the awkward retains its meaning.

Since I’m going to talk a bit about celebrities as in movie stars and celebrities as in writers, I want to make a bit of a disclaimer. Celebrating Kim Kardashian for having a Bentley and wanting a 10 Karat Diamond is different than lauding someone for producing a book that is a symbol of personal sacrifice and intellect. Of course.

Why were celebrities created? Why did we want people to get excited about? People to feel inferior to? Why does it feel improper to approach a celebrity and tell him or her you like her work? (Does it sound like I'm referring to a specific experience?) The first cults of personalities were generated around Royalty, so the sense of inapproachability and inferiority could be holdovers from the roots of the phenomenon. This reading is supported by and supports the idea of the King of Rock 'n' Roll and the Prince of Pop.

When the celebrity meets with his/ her public, why is screaming the appropriate response? Surely at this point, people are aware of screaming as the de rigeur response, but the first few times screaming was the response to a celebrity appearance, wasn't it unsettling?

Why do people want to know the intimate details of the lives of celebrities / aka people they don't actually know? To me, the tabloids read like a guide to what is and is not acceptable comportment, acceptable: marriage, fidelity, weight loss; unacceptable: drug use, infidelity, weight gain. The social function of celebrities is not only to show us how we should be, but also to designate acceptable things for us to talk about, acceptable things for us to disdain when others don't know about it: for instance: You haven't read Room? It was on the Booker Short List. When I told people who I was interviewing for Open Book Toronto, the ones who had been recently shortlisted or had won prizes, were the ones that people knew about. So that is another function of celebrity: to give us a series of symbols we can use to interact socially. It is socially acceptable to be excited to see a Lady Gaga show: people know who she is, her value has been confirmed. Being excited to see a poetry reading, that is more likely to be stored as "nerd" / subcultural (if the interlocutor didn't know this already).

The notion of a celebrity essence that is exciting is evident when a writer is asked where they write. It’s like asking, “Where does the magic happen?” If the reader tries writing in a similar location will the lightening of inspiration also strike them? That seems to be the assumption of gathering such information.

When I recently mentioned to a non-poetry reader (yes, they exist) that it was poetry month, they said, only a poet would know that. Of course, part of the allure of being a poetry fan or a poetry reader is either 1, wanting to be in a subculture or 2, not minding being in a subculture. Certainly they number among the few, those who started liking poetry before knowing that it was not popular.

Perhaps part of the excitement of celebrity is recognition itself. We congratulate ourselves for recognizing the celebrity, for knowing that Emma Donohue was shortlisted for the Booker. Then there is the other side, in which people are proud to be "living under a rock". Anne Rice? Never heard of her. TV? Don’t have one. It’s just a different celebrity food chain.

From a psychological perspective, being in love with someone you’ve never actually met, is, of course, misplaced and superficial affection, a defensive form of attachment. When I am in love with an author I do not know, I am actually in love with his/her output, and projecting that output onto a scrim of identity that I’ve generated for him/her.

In a way having celebrities is like having amusement parks, it is a way to cue people into when and where it is appropriate to be excited. Its always nice to feel that you are having an appropriate response, but surely we hope our literature has more important functions than that.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Angela Hibbs

Angela Hibbs's second collection of poetry, Wanton, came out with Insomniac Press in the Fall of 2009. With Sachiko Murakami, she co-hosts Pivot at the Press Club.

Go to Angela Hibbs’s Author Page