Have you noticed how, in some books, things just come too easily for fictional characters? Whether it’s sudden wealth, a good catch of a husband, or an amazing job, we get some gratification from watching protagonists get lucky. And maybe it gives us some hope that we will get lucky someday, too.
The protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel Americanah is Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. for several years and then returns to her hometown of Lagos. Although she initially experiences economic challenges typical to new immigrants, she eventually finds success as a blogger. After quitting the stable job that had helped her to secure permanent residency, she begins blogging about her perceptions of African Americans and American culture from the perspective of an African immigrant. The posts on her blog, Raceteenth, or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, are witty and insightful. With what seems like no promotional effort on her part, she gains a large following and eventually enough income to support herself through her blog and the attention it brings her.
For those of us who struggle to get the word out about our writing—enhancing our online presence through the use of social media and hoping the readers we do reach will “share” links to our work—Ifemelu’s success seems pretty miraculous. Readers make donations via her blog, which also generates advertising revenue, and she becomes a sought after speaker and, finally, a fellow at an academic institute at Princeton. Do you know any bloggers who have achieved such significant financial benefits and prestige? I know there are some who manage to make a living by blogging, but they probably represent something less than one percent of bloggers. This is one of those fantasies most of us can only experience vicariously, and it has little basis in reality.
Supposedly much of the material for this book was taken from Adichie’s experiences as a new immigrant to the U.S., where she has achieved success as a writer—and the honor of being chosen for the prestigious and lucrative Macarthur Foundation fellowship—but as far as I know she has not blogged. Interestingly, on her website, there is a “blog” menu tab that brings us to a page with the heading “The Small Redemptions of Lagos.” There are no actual blog entries on the page, but this is the title of a blog her character Ifemelu starts when she returns to Lagos and begins sharing her perspective as a returnee from abroad. It features a photo of an old house similar to the one Ifemelu finds next door to her new home in Lagos—and then uses for her new blog. “The Small Redemptions of Lagos” was also a temporary title for Americanah. This is a sort of decoy blog, and I can’t wait to see if Adichie ever does begin to blog in earnest. The sample posts she includes in her novel are fun to read, and because of her pre-existing reputation as a novelist—and a TED Talk star whose talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” has been viewed almost five million times—an Adichie blog has the potential to attract even more attention than Ifemelu’s blog.
Of course, bloggers should be aware that they are unlikely to make a living at blogging. Even Ifemelu never had this expectation, but she did “get lucky.” And for writers who use blogs to attract readers to their books, it’s important to realize that the books matter more than the blogs. After all, we may enjoy reading blogs, but they do not stay with us and shape our imaginative lives the way books do. The movie Julie & Julia is the best popular example of a blogger fantasy narrative. Julie Powell probably did manage to make a living from her blog after it was turned into a book and then a film, but I doubt her book will have much staying power over time—partly because it is a series of blog posts (and apparently her second book didn’t succeed with readers or critics).
As much as I enjoy blogging, I would rather make a living from writing novels than from blogging, and obviously Adichie feels the same way. I envy her success far more than I envy Ifemelu’s success, and this is mainly because Americanah has a lot more to offer than any blog post could. My own blog post is a roundabout way of saying you should read this novel. Ifemelu’s blog posts are a nice little bonus, but the narrative structure that supports them is the real treat.