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the Complete Review
the complete review - sociology/economics

What Price Fame ?

Tyler Cowen

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To purchase What Price Fame ?

Title: What Price Fame ?
Author: Tyler Cowen
Genre: Sociology/Economics
Written: 2000
Length: 171 pages
Availability: What Price Fame ? - US
What Price Fame ? - UK
What Price Fame ? - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, though too cursory look at the economics of fame

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 27/11/2000 Leanne White
The Wilson Quarterly . Spring/2000 A. J. Hewat

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cowen tries to find the good in this market place of renown. (...) Still, he cannot deny a growing suspicion that all is not well." - A. J. Hewat, The Wilson Quarterly

Please note that the illustrative quote chosen here is merely one the complete review subjectively believes represents the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that it may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual review by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of Tyler Cowen's book, What Price Fame ? is meant to be taken quite literally. Cowen, an economist, looks at fame from an economic perspective -- a fairly useful exercise, as it turns out. Cowen does not translate everything into dollars and cents; rather, he examines the market for fame -- the supply and demand, the costs and benefits. He finds that economic theory can explain much about that elusive "quality" that is fame.
       Fame is a big deal in modern society. Indeed, much of the modern world seems to revolve around fame -- both the desire to achieve it (which means that people believe both that they can achieve it and that it is a worthy ambition) and the veneration of it (as seen in the huge number of "fans" of fame and the famous, and the many institutions that serve to foster and preserve it, from museums to halls of fame to prizes to the media).
       As Cowen shows, the nature of fame has changed drastically in the last century or two. This is largely because fame is more accessible in the modern age, with technology helping to spread the information that makes for fame. Almost anybody can achieve some measure of fame nowadays (though often it is of a dubious sort, and not long lasting), whereas generations ago market forces moved more slowly, information being limited and disseminated relatively slowly.
       Cowen emphasizes that fame and merit do not go hand in hand, claiming that fame is shaped by the market and that this inevitably leads to the greatest fame not going to those who are most worthy. Large groups of fans, he argues, can more easily coordinate around "simpler and more obvious stars", rather than picking and choosing by merit. One example is the flamboyant basketball player Dennis Rodman, a superb rebounder but limited in most other areas of the game -- and prone to outrageous acts and appearances off the court--, who achieved more fame than the many more well-rounded players in the NBA because his talents (and his act) were easily recognizable.
       Widespread appeal can also lead to greater fame. Complexity and ambiguity can actually help in that regard, allowing an artist, for example, to be all things to all people (or at least some significant percentage of them). Both complexity and ambiguity allow for varied interpretations, with people adapting them to their own beliefs. Cowen believes that: "The ambiguous political message of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighy-Four has helped cement his fame." Allowing for varied interpretations it appeals to a greater audience than if its message was more clearly stated.
       Cowen also discusses some of the consequences of fame. The desire for individual fame leads to young basketball players who concentrate on crowd-pleasing acrobatic dunks to the detriment of their teams, who rely on solid, well-rounded play rather than the sensational if they want to win. Politicians almost automatically become famous nowadays (presidents especially), but this also leads to a scrutiny (and familiarity) unthinkable even decades ago. Not all people are willing to subject themselves to such scrutiny, leading some who might otherwise be well-suited to public service to avoid it.
       Cowen also points out the role of fans in creating, sustaining, and directing fame, fans having a vested interest in the fame of those they support (or worship). He also points to fame as becoming a risk-minimizing factor that may be detrimental to the creation of a superior product by the famous. Young music bands, for example, are willing to take risks (because they proverbially have nothing to lose) and often create innovative new music this way. Once they are famous they then tend to play it safe, becoming less innovative. Those that get too famous too fast (Cowen uses Oasis as an example) might thus never produce anything as good as their potential suggested.
       Cowen also addresses the costs of fame, to both society and the famous (and those seeking fame). Fame, apparently, is rarely what people expect it to be -- leading to the question of why everyone is so eager to embrace it. Apparently there are market failures left and right; it would have been interesting if Cowen had explored these in greater depth.
       Cowen shows, fairly convincingly, that fame is spreading, countering the "superstar" hypothesis (which suggests a concentration of fame in the few). Either way, it is not a pretty picture.
       Among the more interesting sections is that about the institutions that validate fame -- the many halls of fame (a particularly American phenomenon) devoted to often obscure areas of "excellence", prestigious prizes, and critics. Cowen goes over how these institutions use fame to promote themselves, having their own interests in setting certain standards and holding those they single out to them. (However, Cowen notes the existence of some thirty bowling halls of fame in the US, which surely belies the idea that any standards are being met here -- unless, of course, bowling just has really pathetic standards of fame, sustainable on the lowest level.)
       Of particular interest is his look at critics, noting, for example, that young critics with no reputation are much more willing to go out on a limb and champion the unconventional than established critics who have a reputation to uphold and are unwilling to risk it when they do not know how the public will react. He makes a convincing argument for a point we always emphasize: never trust any critic (including the complete review), and always consider the motives behind any and all reviews.
       Cowen's economic analysis certainly applies to the complete review: our reviews of obscure and out-of-print (and foreign language) books -- cleverly mixed with coverage of lots of serious contemporary literature and non-fiction -- would seem to be fairly pointless. Reviews of out-of-print and obscure books seem largely like a waste of time -- readers are unlikely to be able to find them, and there are certainly no commissions forthcoming from Amazon.com. Why would we review these books ? To show that we are bold and different, championing lasting art over the latest drivel, more concerned with true merit than over-publicized schlock. All of which is of course true. But, on the other hand, we are also trying to build a reputation as "that kind of place", trying to be taken seriously by doing the unconventional. Our commitment to reviewing books our users will never read enhances our reputation (at least that type of reputation we are aiming for -- while also weeding out the unserious potential fans (who we look down upon with proper disdain)). Similarly, our opinions are probably more unconventional than most mainstream reviewing fora, the most highly praised books (see our list of Top Rated Books) a more daring selection than that found in your usual literary forum. It's not only because we actually believe in the merit of these books (we do) but that this is how we make our reputation. And naturally we also have a vested interest in validation of our opinions. All of which is actually very worrisome .....

       Cowen acknowledges that there is more complexity to fame than the book allows for. While there are a surfeit of examples in the book (and many generalizations), there are nearly as many counterexamples to each instance of fame that one could offer, from famous people who continue to be innovative to merit rising to the top (and countless, countless examples of mediocrities failing), etc. Many of Cowen's examples sound convincing (for example the Booker Prize having greater credibility by being overseen by an independent board, and not the rich company that it is named after) but are not entirely so. By not looking to counterexamples (even if only to dismiss them), and by generalizing from examples he seems to be oversimplifying. The book and its many arguments need (and deserve) far more elaboration. He seems to be onto something, but as is his case isn't entirely convincing. Typical for an economist, of course.
       Fame is a complex beast, and Cowen's book is well worth reading for the many intriguing ideas he offers up, and especially his economics point of view. What Price Fame ? is an enjoyable, quick tour of much of what is behind fame in our day and age. We look forward to a more in-depth analysis of his many points and arguments.

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What Price Fame ?: Reviews: Tyler Cowen: Other books by Tyler Cowen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

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© 2000-2009 the complete review

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