Stars Are Just Like Us: On Christine Sneed and Celebrity Disparity

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When it comes to movie stars, the standards seem to stretch and shift more easily than they do for the rest of us. We’re apt to excuse the simply bad deeds of the rich and famous, and try to forget altogether the atrocious ones. We celebrate celebrities’ normal life milestones (giving birth, getting married) with a strange kind of fervor, and somehow when an actress picks up a box of Oreos or pushes her toddler on a swing set, it’s infinitely more exciting than if we’d done it ourselves. (Which is perplexing, as in only one of those scenarios do we actually end up with the Oreos.) In her new novel, Little Known Facts, which centers around the aging, charismatic film star Renn Ivins, Christine Sneed confronts this “celebrity disparity” head on.

“If you become famous,” says Renn, “more people than you expect will forgive you for things you probably shouldn’t be forgiven for.”

Forgiveness is at the heart of Sneed’s book, which is told from the perspective of Ivins and his inner circle: his children, his ex-wives, his current paramours. The book, reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, switches point of view with each chapter. In addition to first and third person narratives that function almost as individual short stories, Sneed treats us to an excerpt from Renn’s second wife’s memoir, the aptly titled This Isn’t Gold, and Renn’s own notes for the biography he hopes will be written about him one day. By the book’s end, almost everyone has committed some sort of sin — infidelity, theft, possible extortion. But these characters are so richly drawn, and Sneed’s ability to switch voices so adept, that, as readers, we’re inclined to forgive these people most of their transgressions, almost as easily as they seem to forgive each other.

Which may in fact be Sneed’s point: that as readers we’ve become so jaded, so used to seeing celebrities crash and burn, perhaps even delighted to watch them crash and burn, that when they engage in something as unexceptional as adultery, we hardly care. By Tinseltown standards, the lives of Ivins and his inner circle seem almost banal — there are no stunning nose dives, no drug-fueled car crashes or belligerent telephone rants. As Curtis Sittenfeld points out in her New York Times review of the book, we rarely see Ivins in the act of being a movie star; Sneed glosses over a scene at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards are mentioned only in passing. Instead, Ivins is regarded as simply a celebrity, someone who is given most anything he wants easily and immediately, someone whose family, and particularly his children, have had to step out of his shadow. Renn’s daughter, Anna, a doctor, seems to have done this much more successfully than Will, his son, who grapples with defining himself outside of his relationship to his father. It’s the nuances of these relationships, of Renn’s interactions with his children and the people to which he is something other than a movie star, that make the narrative so intriguing.

Sneed says when she set out to write the story of the Ivins family, she didn’t give much thought to the fact that she herself didn’t know any celebrities. Imagining the lives of other people, she points out, is one of the chief aims of fiction.

“People think you have to have a certain amount of bravado to write about Hollywood,” Sneed says. “But I can write about anything. I don’t have to be the child of a movie star to figure out what it would be like.”

The book has raised Sneed’s own celebrity star, propelling her from a respected but not widely known short-story writer to an author with a novel on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. It’s recognition that’s been a long time coming for Sneed, who, after 10 years of teaching and submitting her work to little avail, finally caught a break when her story “Quality of Life,” was selected by Salman Rushdie for The Best American Short Stories 2008. It had been rejected by 18 literary journals. Sneed admits that by the time she sent it to the New England Review, where it was ultimately published, she was getting a little bit disillusioned.

“But I thought, what the hell,” Sneeds says of sending the piece to NER. “The worst that could happen was that they’d reject it too.”

In 2009, a year after her story was plucked for inclusion in the Best American collection, Sneed won the 2009 AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, for her collection Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry.

Sneed’s been bolstered by support from the Chicago literary community, which, she says, thanks to the growing number of well-known women writers like Gillian Flynn, Audrey Niffenegger, and Rebecca Skloot, is becoming a real landmark on the literary map. It was the support of the community, she says, including a number of independent bookstores, that helped sustain her while she was struggling to gain recognition all those years.

“I think people expect things to happen quickly, because the media elevates youthful success,” Sneed says, citing writers who’ve made splashes at a young age, like Téa Obreht and Dave Eggers. “But it really doesn’t happen overnight.”

That perhaps, is one of the major differences between writers and actors — along with the fact that, as far as most of the world is concerned, only one really constitutes a celebrity.