Choosing between being rich or being famous, I think most people would choose rich. Between being rich or being influential, I think most people would choose influential. At least I would.
Fame doesn’t necessarily mean broad influence. I would rather be a middle class man with modest material possessions wielding influence on lots of people, instead of a rich man no one listens to. But is this kind of “influence” just a refined version of “fame,” a word preferred by wannabe writers or intellectuals?
Alan Shapiro captures this sentiment well in an essay anthologized in the Best American Essays of 2006. He calls the “influential” life I refer to simply the flip side of the more recognized self-indulgant quest for fame:
I once asked a very talented student of mine why she wanted to become a writer. “Fame,” she said. “I want to be famous.” And what did fame mean to her? It meant being able to check into the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel and totally trash the room and then be loved for it. This quintessentially American, celebrity-driven fantasy is just the self-indulgent flip side of an older, time-honored messianic fantasy of the writer as unacknowledged cultural legislator. Seamus Heaney has written that poetry or great writing of any kind provides a culture with images adequate to its predicament. Who hasn’t dreamed of providing everyone with images adequate to their predicament and being loved for it, and maybe even given loads of cash? When we’re in our teens and early twenties, maybe we all dream of becoming celebrated shamans of the heart, but that adolescent daydream doesn’t begin to explain why we continue writing after the age of twenty-five or thirty, once we realize that the world isn’t exactly rushing out to take its marching orders from anything we’ve written.
(hat tip to Stan James for sparking this idea)