Is artistic nepotism an evil – or a necessity?

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From The Critic:

T he other day, I discovered that a talented young writer was publishing her first novel. She seemed to have a good, if not unusual back story; she had been working as a bookseller in the estimable Mr B’s Emporium in Bath and had published her debut collection of short stories earlier this year. And then I caught sight of her name, Naomi Ishiguro. My first reaction was to wonder whether it was merely a coincidence that she shared a surname with the Nobel Prize-winning Anglo-Japanese author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, but it was not. She was interviewed in The Guardian earlier this year about her writing and was nonchalant about her famous father, saying of his Nobel Prize that “I could barely get to speak to him on the phone because there were all these journalists outside the house”. She also remarked that having a writer as a father made a writing career “feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical” and that “You think: ‘I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard.’”

There are few issues that lead to such widespread feelings of anger and frustration as the idea of nepotism, especially in an artistic or literary context. For many would-be writers or actors, in particular, the suspicion remains that both industries operate as essentially a closed shop, and entry can only be obtained to the glamorous and well-remunerated professions through having a famous name or similarly high-profile connections.

I still remember the unfortunate saga of the young would-be journalist Max Gogarty, who was commissioned by the Guardian to write a series of blogs about his travels on his gap year. The then-19 year old Gogarty was initially torn to shreds because of the slightly guileless and parodically middle-class way that he presented himself – “working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand”, but then it transpired that his father was a freelance travel journalist and occasional contributor to the paper, and all hell broke loose. Had Twitter existed back then, his name would have trended for days.

. . . .

Laurie Nunn is unapologetic about using her privileged status and well-known family name to further her career. As she said in the interview, “Having family in the arts made me feel, from a very young age, like that was an option for me. I’ve got friends who are in the arts whose family aren’t, and it feels like more of a scary prospect. They definitely encouraged me to follow my passions.” It undoubtedly helps to get noticed if your father is the former head of the National Theatre and the RSC, but it is equally true that her programme is a truly outstanding piece of work. The famous surname may have led to the doors being opened and meetings being obtained, but her own talent is what ensured the success of her career.

Questions of nepotism have been central to writing for generations. While most pre-twentieth century legendary English writers – Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and the like – did not come from literary backgrounds, the profession was then far more reliant on talented individuals being given opportunities on their own merits, rather than attempting to follow in well-known parents’ footsteps. Perhaps the most notable example of this in twentieth century literature is Martin Amis, whose first novel The Rachel Papers was published in 1973, when Amis was 24.

He has made various comments about how his becoming a writer was nothing more than “entering the family business”, as if literature was a trade like being a butcher or a funeral director, and remarked that it was inevitable that any publisher would want to invest in the second generation of a writing dynasty. His father Kingsley was one of Britain’s best-known men of letters in the early Seventies and continued to be one of the country’s major writers until his death in 1995, so it was widely felt that his fame had smoothed his son’s path into creativity. Not for nothing was the winning entry in a 1980 New Statesman competition for the least likely title for a book “Martin Amis: My Struggle”.

Link to the rest at The Critic

A reminder that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts about.

The author of the OP strikes PG as someone behaving as if he/she feels personally offended because the world is unfair or, at least, unfair in a way that upsets the author.

Is it strange, unexpected or disturbing when the daughter of an auto mechanic becomes an auto mechanic herself? Ditto for a plumber or teacher.

Lawyers and doctors are well-know for having children who go into the family business. A law firm called “Johnson and Johnson” is quite likely to involve a parent and child or, somewhat less frequently, a husband and wife (although PG notes in recent years, in his admittedly limited experience, it has become more common for a female professional to retain her maiden name).

Is “maiden name” sexist these days? Should PG have used the term, “former name” or “birth name” or “surname from the family of origin”?

What if a man takes his wife’s name because it’s fancier or better-known than his own surname? It doesn’t seem that his former name could be correctly termed a “maiden name.” Perhaps “bachelor name” or “unmarried name” or “known to his college drinking buddies as” might work.

10 thoughts on “Is artistic nepotism an evil – or a necessity?”

  1. Somehow, I don’t think my “known to college drinking buddies as” name would be acceptable for a law firm; “Vulture Law Offices” is just a little bit too close to the mark.

    That said, the real problem with the OP is that it looks at such a narrow range of “nepotism in the arts” — for example, there’s not one example from music, not one example from the visual/fine arts, not one example from the business side of the arts (I’m lookin’ at you, management of certain European family-controlled publishing conglomerates), and perhaps most appallingly in the Ivory Tower. Neither does it look at sport, which is more likely to create problems due to the genetic component (compare Kellen Winslow and Kellen Winslow Jr.… if, that is, you’ve got a very strong stomach indeed).

    And it misses the irony of the relationship between “nepotism” and “public school boys” in England. I’m afraid that the OP would have been severely downgraded by any algorithm had it been submitted as part of an A-level portfolio this year, and any complaints would have been objectively futile.

    • There are dozens of second and *third* generation MLB ballplayers and nobody calls it nepotism. Sets of brothers, too. Once upon a time the St Louis cardinals started three brothers in the outfield for the same game. The grandson of the best of them became draft elegible this summer.)
      The SF Giants, too.

      The names rank with the best of the best; Griffey, Bonds, Tatis, Alomar, Guerrero, prrsent and future hall of famers…
      And dozens of “lesser” players who “merely” had long careers are MLB regulars.

      There might be a genetic element…
      …or there might not. When a kid practically grows up in a ballpark, watching tbe best players in the world daily, they receive a master class in the sport before they even hit high school. The nature of baseball is that skill and training are at least as important as native ability. So it is no surprise that the sons and grandsons of even minor league players have an advantage over first generation players, even those more gifted athletically.

      BTW, outside of sport, parental professional achievement is the single best predictor of a child’s future success in life, not just the professions. The engineer’s child might or not follow the parent into the same speciaoty but the odds are overwhelming tbey will follow tbem into a STEM profession.

      None of this is new, as evidenced by the folk sayings of many a culture:

      “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
      ” The cats kid will hunt mice. “

      • I’m not going to hijack this thread debunking the misstatements here. There is one name that’s sufficient rejoinder:


        There’s no other objective way to look at it — none of Henry Ford’s descendants have been… reaching for an acceptable pejorative… successful in actually managing or directing anything. Not the Ford Motor Company; not the Detroit Lions. And the less said about royal families of all kinds, the better.

        For every Griffey there are dozens of Winslows (I do have statistics to back this up) and hundreds that don’t make it that far. Statistically, there isn’t a discernable difference in success rate of (parent-in-pro-sports) | (no parent-in-pro-sports) once one controls for economic opportunity.

        • It’s not a matter of statistical Distribution but of rarity.
          Which it isn’t.

          And right now the three best players in baseball are both the children of ballplayers: Trout, Tatis, and Acuña. With Toronto adding three other young second generation stars.

          And there is nothing unheard-of in it.
          And it’s nothing new.

          The OP acts as if it is rare and unnatural for a child to follow in the older generation’s footsteps. It’s neither.

          BTW do your stats address the *age* at which the second/third gen players reach the majors? How long an appreticeship they spent in the minors compared to their draft peers?

    • I think there’s an unwritten pact of silence about many happenings between myself and my old college drinking buddies.

  2. I’m reminded of an entertainer who described the use of celebs in cameos this way: “The audience loves you for the first five minutes. After that, you have to prove yourself.”

    Sure, Nunn’s privileged position got her the book deal. She still has to sell books after that.

    If Martin Amis’ first book had tanked, he wouldn’t have had a career much beyond the shade cast by his father.

  3. I did CTRL F for “Herbert,” but Brian Herbert didn’t come up 🙂 However, it occurs to me that “nepotism” is the wrong term for that particular situation.

    But, I’m not sure the OP understands their subject very well, either. This line: … so it was widely felt that his fame had smoothed his son’s path into creativity … makes no sense at all. Creativity comes from within, you don’t smooth someone’s path to their own mind. Perhaps the writer meant “smoothed his son’s path to the editors of publishing houses.”

    I agree the OP does not seem to understand how genetics and nurturing work. Parents pass on an aptitude for skill sets via genes, and by nurture when they teach those skill sets. It would be odd if writers and other artists didn’t have children who also shared those interests. At least, it shouldn’t come as a shock when it happens. What is the OP expecting Naomi Ishiguro to do? Not write? Not publish? Turn off her creative impulses? To what end?

    The OP is also not considering what happens to the child of someone who is great at an endeavor, and the child attempts it as well. I somewhat remember the headline of a review of Brandon Lee’s first movie. “Lee has his dad’s chops, but…” I actually don’t remember the rest, but the idea was that Rapid Fire wasn’t a good movie, and that Brandon was off to a rocky start following in his father’s footsteps.

    The question remains as to how bothered we should be by its existence, and what can be done about it.

    Don’t be bothered at all? What will envy accomplish? The OP eventually acknowledges talent will out in the end, so I don’t know the point of the article. Keep doing your thing. Revel that you can do your thing without ankle biters dogging you, with claims that you’re a talentless hack coasting on your parent’s name. It evens out.

  4. Oh, for heaven’s sake.

    While there ARE some real advantages to having a parent as a writer–especially if you’re writing in the same genre–such as being able to meet agents or editors at conventions, getting that “blink of recognition” at the sound of your name, and so forth–the bottom line is, if the book isn’t good, it doesn’t sell. It doesn’t sell to the publisher, and even if you’re self-publishing (which negates pretty much all the advantages, such as they are, anyway) if it doesn’t sell to the public, your career is going nowhere. Nepotism doesn’t count for anything if you don’t have 1) perseverence and 2) at least some talent. And if you have those two things, nepotism doesn’t matter anyway.

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