In This House We Don't Say "Sellout"

We're all just out here trying to make a living...

I don’t have that much to add to the conversation over the past few days about Alison Roman’s unfortunate comments during a recent interview about her rising profile in the cookbook world. “Unfortunate” is really understating it, actually. What happened is, she looked at Marie Kondo’s recent successes and commented, “I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately!” Then added, “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me… [It] horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do.”

Abigail Koffler makes some excellent points about the latent racist culture involved in swiping at two women of color for doing much the same Roman’s doing, just with more of a headstart. Alicia Kennedy covers some of that territory as well, but also expands to a larger theme, namely that “food writing is the domain of snobs and elitists,” even when—perhaps especially when—they’re trying to pass themselves off as cultural rebels.

To her credit, within a few days Roman had realized that her remarks were “stupid, careless, and insensitive,” and issued a public apology on Twitter. It’s an “I’m sorry, and…” apology, rather than “I’m sorry, but…” apology, and that makes a big difference, depending on where she goes from here. She explicitly notes the element of white privilege that allowed her to proceed as unthinkingly as she had, and along those lines I’d note that mine is not necessarily the perspective you need to hear about all that, so I’ll simply refer you to Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, because you will learn a lot from it and because she’s awesome.

At the same time, I want to touch briefly upon the turn in the conversation that led to Roman’s offensive remarks. My knowledge of the cookbook/foodie scene is superficial at best, but it’s not hard to tell that Roman is the Next Big Thing, and so the topic turned to the increased demands on her time and energy, and the pressure to do more things for more outlets. “I’d rather stay small and always be myself,” Roman told the interviewer. “But at the same time, I do need to figure out how to turn this into money.”

Though the plunge from “I need to figure out how to turn this into money” to “damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out” is an ugly one, I do understand where Roman was coming from at the beginning of that arc—because I, too, would very much like to create a life that enables me to dedicate myself to my strongest passions, and to share what I produce from those passions with people who would find it meaningful, we live in a market-driven world, and you need money in order to participate in that world, let alone thrive in it.

And I’m sure a lot of other writers can relate to that as well. They could even relate to the danger Roman articulates—that she might feel pressured into doing something that runs counter to her identity for the sake of attempting to her public image and her market value.

I grew up watching the debate over “selling out” endlessly rehashed in the punk rock arena, and in the early 2000s I watched bloggers argue over the merits of staying with your own homemade website or taking a job at a corporate media outlet. (For varying levels of “corporate.”) I’ve been fortunate enough that, for the most part, I’ve been able to take jobs at places where I was able to do work I found personally meaningful without being forced to make excessive compromises. There have been a few times when that wasn’t true, and they were the most frustrating experiences of my adult life, in one case giving me so much anxiety that I had to go on lorazepam just to sleep through the night.

(Believe me, though, when I say that I recognize that I am extremely privileged to be able to talk about working with a bearable level of personal compromise, and to have the freedom to pursue that kind of work. Privileged not just on a social and cultural level, but on a personal level as well.)

Let’s stipulate that, as a writer, I want some degree of public success. What I’ve come to realize over time, though, is that I want to use that success as a tool to improve upon my ability to share what I have to say with readers, not simply accept it as the preferred outcome of all that sharing. Obviously, having a good public image is better for one’s career than having a bad public image—but creative decisions should always be made with serving your audience weighing more heavily as a consideration than strengthening your brand.

It’s possible to go too far in the direction of serving your audience, of course, although I’d argue that in at least some cases it’s a kind of pandering that comes about because of an excessive concern with strengthening your brand. In other cases, the problem is that you spend so much time serving the audience that you forget to take care of yourself, and grind yourself down to a point where you’re not able to continue serving them as well as you had been. Because self-care is important—and, what with the market-driven world and all that, self-care means preserving your financial health along with preserving your emotional and physical health.

I do think “selling out” is a real thing. I recognize that artists make creative decisions—that people of all kinds make professional decisions—that serve their own immediate interests with little or no consideration for anybody else, or for the ultimate quality of their work.

The big questions you need to ask yourself, in my opinion, are “Is this what I want to be doing with my life?” and “Will this lead to something I sincerely want to share with others?” If you start with those questions, rather than “Is this good for my brand?” or “Will I get a lot of money for this?”, then you’re simply doing what you love, and if you can still answer those later questions affirmatively, well, all the better for you!

At the same time, we’re all out here just trying to make a living. Somebody might look like a “sellout” to you, because of their success, when in reality they’re taking advantage of an opportunity to do some of the most personal work of their career. As Alison Roman learned the hard way, we can leap to judgment too quickly, leaning into our own prejudices and insecurities.

If you want to avoid that trap, one sure way to do it is to keep your eyes on your own paper, and focus on doing the best job you can without worrying about anyone else.

About five years ago, I did an interview with Gil Roth for his Virtual Memories podcast. Lately, he’s been checking in with several of his guests to see how they’re holding up during the pandemic, so I spoke with him last weekend. It’s about 50 minutes long, and we talk about this newsletter a bit, but we also talk about why I’m not watching much television anymore (especially not the daily briefings from any government officials), how I became a Quaker over Zoom last month, and what’s so interesting about The Anarchist’s Tool Chest that it’s become my go-to reading at the end of at least two or three evenings a week. Among other things.

If you have the time, be sure to listen to some of the other episodes as well.

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