Jessica Knoll sitting at a table in a restaurant
Image Via WWD.com

Jessica Knoll Set Out to Be Successful. Why Is That a Bad Thing?

March 21st saw The Cut’s publication of Maggie Bullock’s interview with bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favorite Sister, Jessica Knoll. The interview is entitled “How to Be a Writer and Still Get Really, Really Rich,” and is part of a series called Get That Money, described by The Cut as ‘an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. As part of the series, we’re interviewing women about how they feel about their bank balances.’ The interview features Knoll—whose first book Luckiest Girl Alive is being made into a film by Reese Witherspoon, and whose second book The Favorite Sister is being brought to television by the producers of Big Little Lies—discussing, in no uncertain terms, how she deliberately set out to write a New York Times bestseller, and intended to become extremely wealthy from writing. She says of the initial sale of the book: “We had an offer from Simon & Schuster. It was quite a large number, but then two more offers came in over the next couple of days and we were able to negotiate and get it even higher. My feeling was, “Yeah, this is exactly what I expected.”’ Knoll goes on to explain that she aspires to Shonda Rhimes-level success, saying “The secret sauce is being an author who can adapt her own material. Then you’re not only looking at the money that the publisher is going to pay you, you’re looking at the money that the studio, network, whatever is going to pay you. And the royalties you’re going to make because the book is on everyone’s radar.”

Her candidness and openness about her motivations is unlike anything I have ever seen from an author, and though personally, I found it extremely interesting and refreshing, it has enraged and seemingly disgusted many.

On TwitterThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author John Boyne calls the piece “one of the most depressing author interviews [he’s] ever read,” and accuses Knoll of having “no humility, no interest in writing a good book,’ and “bragging about money, movie stars and Porsches.” He ends the tweet by claiming that “only someone with absolutely zero self-awareness could talk like this.”

At the time of writing, Boyne’s tweet has no less than 108 replies, the majority of which agree with him, saying things like “there’s a writer whose work I never need to read,” wondering how she can be a writer of fiction when she appears to have “so little empathy,” with one person simply commenting “I think she’s awful.” Of course there are those who interject to point out that Knoll was being interviewed specifically about her finances, not her inspiration or writing process, and that humility is not necessarily a prerequisite for writers, but the majority of responses are in agreement with Boyne: that Knoll is a superficial, inherently bad person, whose writing they will never go near.

Elsewhere on Twitter, the sentiment is similar. Knoll “may be a great writer but seems like a really terrible human being,” says one person, while another calls the interview “a perfect hate read.”

 

The Favorite Sister book cover and Jessica Knoll
Image Via Paperbacks Paris

 

I object to this line of thinking. People intentionally become wealthy in myriad ways. I don’t think it’s fair to vilify someone for combining their talent and business sense to do so. It is simply snobbery and silly artistic gatekeeping to suggest that Knoll has no empathy or is a bad person for admitting to doing that. The most irksome thing about the interview is the part wherein she mentions that upon purchasing her Porsche, the dealer looked to her husband to confirm her income. That, to me, is what people should be irritated about.

As she mentions in this interview, and speaks about in greater detail elsewhere, Knoll had a hugely traumatic experience as a teenager, which led to an eating disorder and also inspired Luckiest Girl Alive. I would argue that it makes perfect sense and is completely reasonable for someone with Knoll’s past to seek financial security, to be able to afford good therapy, to be able to afford a home. She saw an opportunity, she knew she could do it and do it right, and so she did.

I don’t think artists should get to tell other artists that the reasons they’ve created their work are wrong, especially not writers who have also made a fortune doing what Knoll does (looking at you and your self-described ‘ego room,’ John Boyne.) Why is she wrong to want what they have, too? Because one is not supposed admit to wanting it? And one is just supposed to smile politely to oneself when it does happen, and never be so vulgar as to discuss it or admit that it’s an advantage or that they wanted, or God forbid expected, it to happen?

I was relieved to see that I am not the only one irritated by the general reaction to this interview. Among the responses on Twitter were many, mainly from women, who say they are ‘fascinated’ (a word used, interestingly, a number of times) by Knoll’s honesty and praise her for achieving her goals, and I am among them. I have never in my life seen a writer, much less a woman, be so frank about their financial goals and about wielding their talent and knowledge of the industry (Knoll was an editor at Cosmo and was working at Self at Condé Nast when Luckiest Girl Alive was published) in order to get where they wanted to go.

Writer Emma Flynn dismissed Boyne’s point, tweeting ‘I hate the idea that there’s something inherently noble about being a writer.’

I agree with her. It’s ridiculous to denigrate someone for not having the same apparently vocational motivations for writing that you deem necessary for the writing to be considered valuable or the writer to be considered legitimate. Is success supposed to be just an unlikely side effect of being a writer, one that, however pleasant it may be, we are not supposed to admit is desirable, and certainly not a motivation? As Flynn says, the idea that writing must be an ‘inherently noble’ pursuit, seems notional. Of course, most writers write for the sheer joy of it, the passion for it, the need for it, the urge. But who’s to say Knoll doesn’t do that too? She has spoken in the past of how writing Luckiest Girl Alive was incredibly cathartic for her and a way of dealing with her trauma,  she is a big reader and among her favorite books are Bright Lights Big City, The Bell Jar and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Knoll is a bonafide writer, a bestselling author, there are both film and television adaptation of her work in production and fair play to her for being as involved as possible in these projects. But even if she hadn’t otherwise discussed her love of reading and writing, and The Cut interview was only one she ever gave, I would still object to criticism of her ‘lack of humility’, or the interview being ‘a hate read.’ Knoll saw her chance, recognized her own abilities, used her position and secured for herself the success she desired. That is to be admired.

 

Featured Image Via WWD.com