If the people of “Book Twitter” — i.e., those on the platform who have found each other to talk about books in an, uh, passionate way — are known for anything, it’s their commitment to antiquated takes on middle school reading assignments, bragging about which free books they got in the mail, and tweeting about hating their colleagues. Rare, then, is the confluence of Book Twitter and Celebrity Twitter or Gossip Twitter. But last week, Kendall Jenner, the second-least important member of the Kardashians after Kourtney (you’re welcome, Kourtney), posted in her Instagram story a video of two well-curated stacks of books. The books included:
Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else
Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today
Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t
Fariha Róisín’s How to Cure a Ghost
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington
Lang Leav’s Sea of Strangers
Eve Babitz’s Black Swans
Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest: And Other Stories
That one Wabi Sabi book you see on a table in every bookstore
This list of authors — some of whom are my friends, not to brag — all belong to relatively the same literary scene, one that caters to the social-media-savvy leftist literary creative type in their mid-to-late-20s who dresses in clean basics, patronize independent bookstores, reads the Strategist, and is generally aware of the Brooklyn-adjacent creative climate.
But how did Kendall, who I assume exists in a rarefied world of elite supermodels who do not know how to use a microwave, learn of these cultural signifiers? And, more importantly, how did Kendall come to obtain a copy of my book, literally show me a healthy person — described by at least one publication as “shockingly, strikingly cool” — which she was photographed reading earlier this year?
It’s odd to think that celebrities might read the same books as us or even our books (as the Drake Dick Book Club Twitter account has illustrated). And even if they do not actually read, it’s uncanny and delightful to see Britney Spears holding her Danielle Steels, Ben Affleck furrowing his brow at Harry Potter, and Bella and Gigi Hadid reading Stephen King and Camus, respectively.
Unfortunately for my journalistic inquisition into how Kendall got my book, the answer is not that interesting. Tagged in Jenner’s recent Instagram story was her modeling agent, Ashleah Gonzales who appears to be a down-to-earth, effortlessly cool person clued into the trends of many creative scenes and probably supplied Kendall with a reading list. I will thus make an educated guess that Kendall got my book through her. Thank you Ashleah.
After the photos of Kendall reading my book were published, it sold out on Amazon. It had already been selling well and was met with a good reception, but this capitalistic boost benefited me monetarily and, if I do say so myself, her culturally. This isn’t to say I’m especially interesting or noteworthy or that my book is my generation’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but the opposite: that Kendall randomly reading a book that is so specific to the online literary world is a signifier of her connection to a more imperiled creative class, one that she can learn about beside a pool in France.
If the means of production is clout, working artists and writers do not own it, and they can rarely obtain it without help from the powerful.
This all points to the difference between me and Kendall Jenner, or any bona fide celebrity and someone making work for an audience. People making work today (“working artists”) toil away, selling their wares on various platforms like Instagram and Etsy, using sites like Patreon to raise money for their work from strangers and friends, and holding small events attended by 20 to 30 people . But a seemingly random shot of a celebrity holding your art, your book, your life’s work, can provide a stronger boost to the mainstream than any self-promotion effort. It gives us clout. At the risk of being completely insufferable: If the means of production is clout, working artists and writers do not own it, and they can rarely obtain it without help from the powerful.
The myth that clout is available to anyone is the new American dream. This narrative tells us: We should all be using the internet, this wellspring of audience, talent, and attention, and surely the cream will rise to the top, and we will all be rich and famous and authentic. But this is false: even if clout is obtained from nothing, success still depends on infrastructure created by the titans of the internet, as well as elite users giving unknown personalities a publicity boost.
Some popular writers are able to reach the celeb or at least celeb-adjacent stratosphere on their own. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist became a female bible, while Carmen Maria Machado will soon be, if she is not already, a household name. Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling (who is now richer than the Queen of England) became celebrity writers the old-fashioned way: with traditional marketing and word of mouth.
But what happens when a writer gets celebrity clout because a celebrity read their book by a pool in France and becomes a sort of celebrity-adjacent person themself? When writers reach a critical mass of attention through influencer culture the line between “public figure” and “private citizen” becomes blurred without their consent. Things get very confusing. Recent literary toast-of-the-town Sally Rooney, whose book Normal People has been signal boosted by the likes of Taylor Swift and Emily Ratajkowski, wrestled with this concept in an interview with Vanity Fair:
Obviously to some degree my job involves me taking on a role as a public figure on a very minor level. And so that is different from being a completely private citizen, a private individual. So it’s definitely something I think about. And are there responsibilities? Are there ethical responsibilities that come with that? And also because it’s something I never wanted… It has made my life weird in certain respects, it has — only for a couple of weeks. It’s very self-limiting.
At the same time, having a celebrity hold your work of art is a rare perk of being an artist, and provides a level of visibility that can’t really be achieved through maintaining an authentic-seeming online persona. People with online followings above a certain number (disclosure: this includes me) are often jokingly or seriously referred to as “famous” — but such “fame” doesn’t have much grist, and comes with some very annoying philosophical complications.
Celebrities have long rubbed elbows with starving artists and writers, sometimes patronizing their work. The number of (writers or artists or workers outside media and the arts) who fit into this precariat class is larger now, and much more visible. We cope with unstable employment, lack of insurance, and prohibitive contracts. And we work very close to a powerful celebrity attention ecosystem, one that can randomly yield fame and riches. We exist at the perils of its Instagram stories.
So you know what would be even better than Kendall Jenner being photographed with my book? If Kendall Jenner gave me, and the other authors in her stacks of books, say, $100,000. Kendall, DM me for my address.