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Attention junkies


Every writer lives in danger of becoming this person:

People write for many reasons, but on the most basic psychological level to get attention is probably the most universal and powerful motivation. Orwell:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

This is an oversimplification, as the rest of the very interesting essay from which I took that quote makes clear, but it contains a great deal of truth.

And of course “writer” can be understood as a shorthand for any profession or avocation whose membership is full of people who are motivated in large part by a desire for attention: artists, actors, and politicians most obviously, but also certain types of scientists, business people, members of the military, lawyers etc. — specifically the types who are motivated more by a desire for celebrity itself than by more prosaic desires.

Here I would make a distinction between the desire for attention/celebrity and the desire for fame in a stricter sense. The desire for fame per se seems different from the desire for attention, in that it can and often is driven by no desire for attention or celebrity more generally. For example, a scholar of an obscure subject — for example, a branch of pure mathematics — naturally desires to be recognized for the importance and value of his work on that subject, but may have no real desire for any recognition from anyone beyond the tiny circle of people — that might only number in the hundreds or even dozens worldwide — who also care passionately about that particular subject. Poets, jazz musicians, avant garde artists of various types etc. may well desire fame in this limited sense while not really caring at all about celebrity in the wider world.

The desire for celebrity has no such limitations. Attention junkies want literally everyone in the world to know about them, to at all times care about them in the sense of caring about what they’re doing or saying, and to be obsessed with them to the same essentially unlimited extent that they are obsessed with themselves.

To pick the most obvious example in the known universe, is there the slightest doubt that if Donald Trump were offered a deal by authorities by which, in exchange for not being subject to any criminal or civil prosecution for his countless misdeeds, he would withdraw from public life he would refuse that offer? The odds he would take such a deal are precisely zero, because Donald Trump is above all an attention junkie.

We now live in a world of little Trumps, thanks in no small part to the ways in which social media have exacerbated what was already a wildly narcissistic culture. As a writer I’m acutely aware how the desire for attention/celebrity can have a distorting effect on one’s work, in ways that are ultimately even more insidious than the traditional temptations offered by money (Moliere: “Writing is like prostitution. At first you do it for love, then for a few select friends, and in the end for money.”). But the phenomenon is very general and very dangerous, and deserves more attention from social critics of every kind.

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