Julie & Julia: Enough with the whining

Jul 292009
 

julia1David Leite told me I should not rant on this blog. Then he emailed me a 1400-word rant about food writers who are bitter about the success of food blogger Julie Powell and the coming movie based on her book, and of course I got worked up.

Powell wrote Julie & Julia, about a year of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The upcoming movie, Julie & Julia, is based on Julie’s book and My Life in France, a memoir of Julia Child written by her nephew.

There’s a lot of sour grapes from traditional food writers about how food bloggers are being taken seriously, and hand-wringing about how Julia Child wouldn’t be taken seriously today. As the movie release date approaches this weekend,  the carping increases. David pointed me to Virginia Willis’ blog post and comments as an example.

Here’s the drift of the comments going around and my response. Thanks to David for inspiring me.

1. Julia Child could not get a cookbook published today because she doesn’t have a platform. Rubbish. Publishers still publish books from authors with small platforms. They are also still taken by excellent writing.  If Child was around today, she’d probably start a a blog to help her with her platform. Maybe she’d have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, because she was always accessible to the adoring public, including us food writers. When she died just about everyone I knew had a story about the time they met her.

images2. Julia Child wouldn’t get a TV show today because she’s an accomplished cook. I agree. That wouldn’t be the main reason she’d get the job. But she was also a supreme entertainer, and — hello! That’s what television is all about. The Food Network makes no secret of it. Maybe the fact that she was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef would come third in her list of qualities, after excellent content.

Perhaps the old guard of food writers sees themselves in this victim version of Julia Child, the skilled chef whose talents are not appreciated. But Child would never be a victim. She’d be more like Judith Jones, her editor, who started a blog to promote her new book. These seasoned food writers also dismiss a newcomer like Julie Powell, which leads me to the third comment making the rounds…

3. Julie Powell has no right to be so successful because she’s a) “not a serious (read: formally trained) cook,” b) only a blogger, and c) the Julie/Julia Project was a publicity stunt.

Let’s look at these charges individually. Regarding a), Of course she wasn’t a serious cook. She was learning how to cook by cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking for a year.

Re b), She might have only been a blogger but her idea and writing were good enough to be serialized on Salon.com and led to a 6-figure book advance. And the editor didn’t care that she was not professionally trained.

And re c),  I don’t think she ever dreamed that her idea would lead to a book and a movie. We’re a celebrity culture, she was young and attractive, she had a great idea, and once Amanda Hesser wrote about her in the New York Times in 2003, the calls from literary agents and the whole circus began.

Julia2Ironically, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will now sell all over again to younger audiences inspired by the movie. I was a little shocked to see that Knopf put Merryl Streep on the cover. Talk about art imitating life. So Julia Child can sell a book today, even if she looks like Merryl Streep. Julie Powell’s book relaunched this month as well, with a new cover showing scenes from the movie.

I’m going to watch the movie with a bunch of gal pals and enjoy myself. I’ve adored screenwriter Nora Ephron since the 1970s, when she became the first woman to have a column in Esquire magazine, then considered nirvana for serious non-fiction writers. And even though I’ve been a print writer for more than three decades, I’m not bitter. It’s a new world in publishing. I’m just trying to keep up.

P.S. If you need any more proof of the decreasing power of print journalism, here’s an account of Sony’s first-class treatment of food bloggers prior to the movie opening. So far her post has generated 90 comments, none snarky. Thanks to David Lebovitz for the tip. And here’s the Matt Bites  interview with all three stars.

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  10 Responses to “Julie & Julia: Enough with the whining”

  1. Thank you Dianne. I think you and Mr. Leite have it exactly right. The Julie/Julia Project was a unique and compelling personal story. It’s as simple as that. People forget that 2003 was a long time ago in “internet time.” There were no photos (can you imagine that today, a food blog with no photos?) and Julie used to write each post at about 6AM before going to her soul-sucking job. Sure, she wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, but wouldn’t you at 6AM?

    To this day, I think it was a challenging project and I’m amazed that she pulled it off. Nowadays we have lots of “cook through the book” blogs but I can’t think of any where the blogger cooks every night and posts about it the next day, especially considering how complex Julia’s recipes can be.

    I can’t wait to see where else this new world of electronic food writing will take us.

  2. I love your perspective – as well as the dialogue the movie is creating.
    Thanks for including me on your post. Best VA

  3. Yes, as you say: enough whining. Powell did a formidable job on her blog and in her book. She opened doors for younger writers and food enthusiasts. She’s making Knopf (Julia’s publisher) lots ‘o money. Seems to me everyone wins here.

  4. I don’t much care for Julie Powell, but I wouldn’t say I’m bitter. Her story/blog struck a chord with many readers and she’s a talented writer, that’s a big part of why she is successful. Oh yeah, plus the Amanda Hesser article in the NYT, that helped! I do think she has bitten the hand that fed her, so to speak by continually claiming she is not a blogger. It’s also not that she wasn’t a serious cook exactly but that she didn’t seem to actually take the cooking very seriously or take much pleasure in it either.

    • I see why she says she’s not a blogger. The blog was her way to tell a particular story, and when she was done, the blog ended. For the rest of us, it’s an ongoing way to communicate.

  5. Great blog post, Dianne! Unfortunately there will always be sour grapes out there. What sells is a great story and great writing, whether on a blog or in traditional print media. That’s what we, as writers, all have to strive for. BTW, any form of publicity or media that enamors the younger generation with the classics, be they cookbooks or literature, has my vote!

  6. We all better get more clever. And that’s what she was. She thought outside of the box to make it work for her. I am not a classically trained chef, but if I get a movie deal about my grandma’s recipes, then all the chefs will just have to be pissed off.

  7. Whoa, I see Laura Shapiro has waded into this swamp over at Gourmet: http://www.gourmet.com/food/2009/08/julie-julia-movie

    Ouch. I agree with others who say that Julie Powell’s blog opened many eyes to Julia Child, even some who aren’t fans of Powell’s writing. Why all the acrimony?

  8. Maybe I’m naive but I’d (still) like to believe that if a person has talent and something interesting to give to the world, he/she will succeed.

  9. Your blog is more helpful than most and it contains information that has helped me to get to grips with a problem I have had for a while now. Thank you for the Julie & Julia: Enough with the whining « Will Write For Food post. Regards, Gregory

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