Using that 1968 quotation from pop-culture artist Andy Warhol, two journalists have written a cleverly conceived, interesting examination of...
“The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame”
by Jeff Guinn and Douglas Perry
Tarcher/Penguin, 373 pp., $24.95
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“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
Using that 1968 quotation from pop-culture artist Andy Warhol, two journalists have written a cleverly conceived, interesting examination of what happens to the briefly famous after the 15 minutes have expired.
The journalists are Jeff Guinn, books editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Douglas Perry, features editor at The (Portland) Oregonian. They undertook the book because they are struck by the prescience of Warhol’s glib phrase.
Nearly 40 years later, “there’s no denying the accuracy of the notion. Thanks to cable television and the Internet, names and faces tumble into our living rooms and offices every day, every hour. We are inundated with peep-show personal Web sites and “Girls Gone Wild” videos and so-called reality TV,” the authors comment. The result: More or less ordinary individuals are presented with the opportunity “to be watched by millions as they sing (‘American Idol’) or seek a mate (‘The Bachelor’) or eat live bugs (‘Fear Factor’).”
The book does not focus on any mate seekers or bug eaters. It does, however, profile an “American Idol” singer, Kelly Clarkson. The other profiles include others whose fame lasted more than 15 minutes, literally and figuratively, but who have slipped into obscurity circa 2005. They are Major League Baseball star shortstop Maury Wills (briefly Seattle Mariners manager); actress/singer Irene Cara; Speaker of the House Jim Wright; professional wrestler Mick Foley; Susan McDougal, Arkansas businesswoman and friend of Bill Clinton who served prison time for refusing to tell all to a federal prosecutor; and professional boxer Gerry Cooney.
The connecting thread in seven scattered chapters is Melvin Dummar, who might or might not have done a good deed in the Nevada desert for eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes at the end of 1967, and might or might not have been a legitimate beneficiary of Hughes’ will in 1976.
The choice of those seven women and men might strike some readers as quirky, given thousands of choices available to the authors. The book’s only glaring shortcoming is the failure of Guinn and Perry to explain clearly how they chose their seven subjects. In a way, though, it does not matter. The authors have reported and written the case studies so well that the seven subjects seem to serve the theme just fine.
“The Sixteenth Minute” is not the definitive book on fame or its aftermath, nor is it scholarly. Probably the closest to definitive and scholarly is “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History” by Leo Braudy. Originally published during 1986 and reissued with a new afterword during 1997, Braudy’s book is always informative, sometimes compelling but rarely fun.
Guinn and Perry are seeking to offer readers fun in their pages. They treat their subjects with respect but never allow the subjects to take themselves too seriously, or allow readers to get hung up in copious source notes à la Braudy, a University of Southern California English professor. The deepest conclusion Guinn and Perry share with readers is that fame changes everybody it touches.
The subjects chosen by Guinn and Perry have encountered problems since the zenith of their fame, to be sure. But the authors could have reduced the fun quotient considerably by choosing subjects who committed suicide or murder. Instead, they chose survivors, all of whom have found a measure of satisfaction in life after the 15 minutes expired.
Would their satisfaction quotient have been higher if they had never achieved fame? Maybe. The answer to that question can never be known with certainty. If Andy Warhol had never achieved his figurative 15 minutes, his so-called art would not have made him rich. Then again, he would have avoided the gun-wielding fan who pointed it and fired, wounding Warhol seriously.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the
National Book Critics Circle.