I’ll admit it. I did not watch Sex and the City when it first aired, although this is probably a sign of good parenting on my mom’s part. After all, I was only eight years old when the series began, and thus was far more fixated on the potential value of my various Pokémon cards and whether or not my Tamagotchi would live through the night (it never did…) I became aware of the series retroactively due to the release of the initial Sex and the City film in 2008, as the United States was in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and I was just about to graduate high school.
This guest post is by Michelle Meyers. Meyers is a fiction writer and playwright born and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Juked, Grey Sparrow Journal, DOGZPLOT, jmww, and decomP (forthcoming). In addition, her plays have been developed and/or produced all across the United States. She was a 2015 PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow in Fiction and received her bachelor’s degree in Literary Arts and Writing for Performance at Brown University. Meyers is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Alabama’s Creative Writing program. Glass Shatters is Michelle’s first novel.
Of course, of all the characters in Sex and the City, my favorite one was Carrie Bradshaw, the writer in the group. Who could deny the allure? She’s fashionable, fancy-free, and lives in a gorgeous apartment in an Upper East Side brownstone. Bradshaw doesn’t have to demean herself with a day job as a waitress or a temp or a yoga instructor—she is a Writer with a capital W because she is able to support herself as a New York City newspaper columnist. In season three, Bradshaw’s column is optioned for a film to be produced by Matthew McConaughey, in season four, she begins to write freelance articles for Vogue, and in season five, her columns are even compiled into a book!
Although many have lauded Carrie Bradshaw’s character—in 2004, Bradshaw was listed as number 11 in Bravo’s 100 Greatest TV Characters, and in 2009, The Guardian named Bradshaw an icon of the decade—others have been much harsher in their assessment. In 2013, Glamour claimed that Carrie Bradshaw’s “brattiness and self-absorption eclipsed her redeeming qualities and even her awesome shoes,” and in the same year, an article in The New Yorker stated that starting with the second season, Bradshaw had become “anxious, obsessive…and wildly self-centered.” When I speak of the Carrie Bradshaw dream, however, I’m far less concerned with her personality traits (or her wardrobe, for that matter) and far more interested in the viability of making one’s living as a writer in New York City in the present day.
Perhaps a contemporary example closer to the millennial experience is Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath in Girls, whose trajectory toward becoming a capital W writer is a bit more muddled. First off, at no time in the show is Hannah really making a living as a writer, instead managing to stay afloat in New York through help from her parents and occasional odd jobs, such as a brief stint as a barista at Grumpy’s. Second, even when Hannah does seem to moving forward with her writing career, as when she receives a contract from Millstreet Press to write an e-book, various obstacles arise that prevent her from moving forward with the project. Nevertheless, by season three, Hannah’s opportunities as a writer seem to more closely parallel those of Carrie Bradshaw. Hannah lands an amazing job working at GQ (even if she eventually quits said job), and in the season finale, she is accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the country. Had Hannah decided to stick with this trajectory, it’s very possible that she would have been welcomed back to New York in several years’ time with a novel forthcoming and a cushy place among the city’s literary elite.
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So is the Carrie Bradshaw dream dead for millennials? Most likely, although it’s debatable whether it was ever really feasible. There is a long-standing mythology that once upon a time, writers could make a living on their writing alone, and that such writing would not have to include technical writing or ghostwriting or any other form of writing considered less than ideal. True, there used to be more opportunities to make money selling short stories to trade magazines, especially ones publishing genre fiction, and more steady work available for journalists hoping to write for newspapers and other print media. But throughout history, writers, especially those whose craft has skewed toward the literary rather than the commercial, have generally had to separate their art from their source of income. In 1962, American poet and literary critic Donald Hall asked Ezra Pound the following: “Now the poets in America are mostly teachers. Do you have any ideas on the connection of teaching in the university with writing poetry?” Pound was quick to reply: “It is the economic factor. A man’s got to get in his rent somehow.” But what about the Carrie Bradshaw dream? Even if New York City is not the literary mecca that some imagine it to be, surely it shouldn’t be written off entirely, right?
Chad Harbach and his contributors explore these very issues in the book MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, which argues that the American literary scene has split into two cultures—New York publishing and MFA programs associated with universities. Pitted against one another, I have to admit, the MFA route seems much more appealing to me. As Harbach notes in his eponymous essay “MFA vs. NYC,” the NYC writer is moving much closer to the Hollywood model, as “…New York publishing increasingly resembles the Hollywood world of blockbuster-or-bust, in which a handful of books earn all the hype and do humongous business…Advances skew to the very high and the pitifully low, and the overall economics of the industry amplify and reinforce this income gap.” Harbach seems to be suggesting that though the Carrie Bradshaw dream, of making one’s living from writing in a way that allows for some degree of stability, may exist for the select few, for the vast majority of writers, even the very talented ones, the possibility of making money off one’s books and living a comfortable existence in New York City is purely a fiction.
Even for authors who do manage to receive a large advance, the Carrie Bradshaw dream may prove less than achievable, as Emily Gould details in her essay “Into the Woods.” In 2008, Gould sold a book-in-progress for $200,000, a more than generous amount. Yet after the agent’s commission, taxes, health insurance, and rent, the money didn’t last very long. Furthermore, because the book only ended up selling 8,000 copies, about one-fifth of what it needed to sell to be considered successful, the likelihood of Gould ever selling a book for that kind of advance again is slim to none. In the year 2011, Gould made a mere $7,000 through freelance writing assignments and teaching yoga. This is not to say that Gould’s experience is representative of every writer, and I’m sure there are numerous folks who have received large advances for their first books and even larger ones for their second. But ultimately the New York publishing industry is just that—an industry—which means profitability and return on investment are going to be priorities over quality writing.
Again, I am biased in this debate, as I have firmly bought into the MFA route. Instead of living in New York City, I am living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where there is not a single independent bookstore and I am far more likely to end up at a football tailgate than an upscale soiree featuring the best of the country’s literary professionals. Nonetheless, I am receiving a generous stipend from the University of Alabama’s MFA Creative Writing program, studying with brilliant professors, and developing my own literary community among my cohort. I like small, weird novels published by independent presses, and I doubt I’ll ever receive an impressive advance for a book. I like the idea of academia, of teaching and writing, and though it is obviously difficult to land a position as a tenure-track professor, those jobs do exist, as today there are over 1,200 degree-granting programs in creative writing, and all of them need someone to teach their students.
If a television show decided that they wanted to realistically depict the life of a young up-and-coming writer today, the next permutation of Carrie or Hannah, most likely the show wouldn’t take place in New York City. It would take place in a small university town in Ohio or North Carolina or Colorado where a twenty or thirty-something MFA graduate would dream of promotion from instructor to associate professor. She would be teaching literature and composition classes to undergraduates, and she would be lamenting how often she had to explain the symbolism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” She would not make very much money, but she would be able to afford to live in her small Ohio/North Carolina/Colorado university town through smart budgeting and frugal spending. Not the sexiest of television shows, nor the most exciting, but truthful, yes. Much closer to the truth.
Maybe the Carrie Bradshaw dream is dead for millennials, and maybe that dream never existed. I think one distinguishing characteristic of my generation is that we are less apt to believe in these types of dreams. The economic realities of our world are more transparent to us. We are less naïve than others before us because we cannot afford it. But we are driven, and we are optimistic, and so maybe we don’t need the Carrie Bradshaw dream. Maybe we can have something just as good, even if it is less glamorous.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.