How long does overnight success take?
There is an inspiring new post by Rosie Lugosi on the Myslexia blog called “Hare / Tortoise”. In it, Rosie describes how her novel-writing career is finally taking off after twelve years of slog. The post has got me thinking about the cultural phenomenon of “overnight success”.
I have often mused about this with a friend who is also interested in the topic. We in the English-speaking world are obsessed with the idea of overnight success. It is the concept upon which talent shows like The X Factor are based: Someone is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight on the strength of their amazing talent, which was just waiting to be discovered.
Mary Byrne and Susan Boyle are perfect examples. In the PR narrative that was presented along with them as they came to media prominence, both women (both undeniably very talented) had languished in obscurity for decades, their gift known only to their nearest and dearest, until Simon Cowell and co. swooped in to rescue them.
However, look a little more closely, and it emerges that both Ms. Byrne and Ms. Boyle had been singing for many years, and with some success, long before they went on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, respectively.
Mary Byrne had been a singer in her brother’s band and had actually won a singing content on Irish TV in 2008. Susan Boyle began singing in school productions at age 12, and she and her mother often talked about her possibly becoming famous. She sang for years in pubs and local competitions before The X Factor. In both cases, they had worked and grafted away for years. There was nothing overnight about it.
As an artist, I resent the overnight success concept. Anyone who has ever achieved anything worthwhile, ever, no matter in what field, knows that it takes graft, graft, and then more graft. Staying up til all hours, getting up at all hours, working when you could be out socialising, working when you could be spending time with your family… and you keep doing all these things for months, years and quite possibly, your whole life. That is what lies behind most creative success.
There are several examples in fields other than showbiz: Search engine behemoth Google and the ridiculously popular game Angry Birds both appeared to gain incredible popularity in no time, whereas in actual fact, both took several years’ steady, unremarked-on work on the part of their creators.
Overnight success is a myth, in all senses of the word.
Despite this, as a human being, I love stuffing my rational brain into a drawer and gorging myself on reality TV sob stories.
So why are we so in love with the idea of being suddenly “discovered” and catapulted to instant success?
It has to be something to do with the Cinderella meme that is still so strong in Anglo-Saxon culture. We all love a good rags-to-riches tale, and the Disneyfied Cinderella, the version now most familiar to us, is the iconic one. After pining for years amongst the cinders, Cinderella is transformed into a beauty by her fairy godmother (or the spirit of her dead mother, depending on which version you read), goes to the ball, and after some token faffing about with glass slippers, marries the prince and lives happily ever after. This is the original overnight success narrative arc, now found in countless movies, books and TV shows, and we can’t get enough.
The key question is, of course: Which came first? Did something inherent in human nature lead to the creation and rise of the Cinderella meme, or was an original affinity with the idea of sudden success nurtured by the rising popularity of the Cinderella fairytale?
For my part, I don’t know. If anyone with expertise in sociology or cultural history can shed more light on the question, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
In the meantime, all hail to Rosie Lugosi on getting her debut novel picked up by Harper Collins after she won last year’s Myslexia Novel Competition. Her overnight success took twelve years. I’m still hanging in there for mine.