Celebrity Culture has always fascinated the general public, and Canadian fan boys and girls are no exception. Whatever your genre or medium, from politics to film, there are always those figures who fascinate.
Katja Lee and Lorraine York explore this phenomenon, stretching back over the last centuries, in Celebrity Cultures in Canada (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). They delve into the ways in which Canadian celebrity is unique on the world stage, and just why we feel the way we do — both positively and negatively — about certain celebs.
The two are uniquely qualified to unpack our obsession with celebrity. Lee is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Persona, Celebrity, Publics Research Group at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, while York has written books on literary celebrity in Canada and is Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture at McMaster University.
We're thrilled to speak to both Katja and Lorraine today as part of our Lucky Seven series. We talk to them about Celebrity Cultures in Canada and they tell us about our country's complicated relationship with celebrity, the myth that Canada doesn't support a celebrity system, and their upcoming projects further exploring the complex concept of celebrity.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Celebrity Cultures in Canada takes as a starting point that Canada has a viable and yet vexed celebrity — one that shares much with other celebrity cultures in this transnational global economy, but one where markers and signals of "Canadianness" are circulated as having some kind of significance. What do such markers mean and what is their cultural and economic value? The essays in this volume address these questions across a range of cultural venues: politics, literature, sport, comedy, television, cinema, bureaucracy, social media, activism, and history. While diverse in scope and focus, taken together they paint a picture of the complexities attending celebrity cultures in Canada.
The book came to be when Katja Lee asked me, after a committee meeting, whether I’d be up for co-editing a book on this subject that we both are so committed to. She told me I could take some time to think about it. I took two seconds.
Lorraine was so enthusiastic right from the get-go: that moment (and the whole experience) has been a real confidence booster for a new scholar like me!
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Actually, it was our dislike of a question inspired the title to our introduction, “Celebrity Cultures in Canada: It’s Not a Question.” I’m so dreadfully tired of hearing people say that Canadian systems for producing and circulating fame do not exist or are not important.
Yes, and I think that idea that we don’t have a celebrity system potentially comes from two places: inferiority or superiority: on one hand, it may issue from an assumption that Canadians have an inherent nobility that consists of not pursuing or valuing fame; you know, unlike our neighbours to the south…Or it can come from the belief that we are incapable of sustaining a celebrity system. (Ha! Tell it to Quebec.)
Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
I don’t think the project has changed much but it has changed me. I’m convinced more than ever before that we need more scholarship on how celebrity cultures are created and used in Canada.
Agreed; I think there’s a real need that this volume begins to respond to. The whole project, I believe, took us about four years, all told. We issued a call for proposals in 2012.
What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Coffee and ear plugs. I do my best writing early in the morning and envy those, like Lorraine, who can work late into the night. I’d rather get up at 3am than work until 3am!
Yep, I’m a happy worker at midnight, but at 8:00am…not so much. Water, laptop, and neat stacks of papers and books. A wee bit Type A.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Discouragement is, I think, inevitable but it certainly helps to have a sympathetic person to chat to when the going gets rough (hence the built-in advantages of having a co-editor!). You have to have faith that the path you started out on will lead you somewhere. And if all else fails, walk away for a bit, play with a dog, and have a glass of wine!
Yes, collaboration with a like-minded scholar is at the top of the list!
And yes to the walking away for a bit. I’m blessed to live down the street from an art gallery, and when I come to a sticky point in writing, I get out and go look at some art. There’s something about switching my mind from the verbal to the visual that just clears out whatever blockage is giving me trouble.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Oh my: one or two? I’ve just gotten up to do a quick scan of my bookshelves, to see where my finger stops when my mind says, “I love this book and cannot possibly live without it. First stop: Dionne Brand, What We All Long For. Second stop: the poems in Sharon Olds’s Blood, Tin, Straw. If we’re talking critical books (see how I added more spots there?), then Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling brilliantly brings personal memoir and critical analysis into conversation, and anything by Richard Dyer will serve as a model for me: his foundational work on celebrity, of course, but also his writing on whiteness, queer culture, and film. Oh, and disco.
Indeed: how can one choose? If I’m stuck on a desert island and need something (long) that will give me something new each time, then Jane Eyre for sure. New friends are always lent a copy of Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine. (You can tell a lot from a person by how they react to that one!) The best book gifted to me recently was Erlend Loe’s Doppler: who can resist a Norwegian man with a pet moose? My brother-in-law who is a doctor in St. John’s keeps finding gems like that for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a book on reluctant celebrity that brings together recent work on affect and celebrity studies. I think about reluctance as a two-way, feeling of simultaneously wanting to move forward and wishing one could retreat, and I ask how the open performance of being reluctant, as a celebrity, is tied to the privileges of race, gender and sexuality. My straight white guys under study include: John Cusack, Robert De Niro and Daniel Craig — the reluctant Blonde Bond.
Right now I’m writing a book, tentatively titled Life Writing in the Limelight, about how famous Canadian woman have used memoirs to manage their fame. I’m also working on a large research project to uncover how Canadian magazines influenced the development of celebrity cultures in Canada in the 1910-1930s.
Katja Lee is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, and a member of the Persona, Celebrity, Publics Research Group at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. She has published essays on celebrity, public identity performance, and life writing. Her most recent work has been published in Celebrity Studies, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Studies in Canadian Literature.
Lorraine York is Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her most recent books are Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013) and Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007). She is currently at work on a project on reluctant celebrity