Stories about upper-middle-class writers’ lives enthrall me. Like many, I grew up shaping my assumptions about what it would be like to pursue a literary career from depictions in popular culture. I didn’t consider until after I was in a great deal of debt for English and creative writing MFA degrees that there would be barriers to creating the kind of “writer’s lifestyle” I’d seen in films or read about in novels.
Though I’ve come to terms with those barriers — some of which revolve around class, race and an ever-evolving, oversaturated book market — I’m still a sucker for literary lifestyle fantasies onscreen. When I stumbled on 2012’s “Stuck in Love” on Netflix last weekend, I was reminded of what’s valuable about these wildly aspirational, mostly unrealistic depictions.
In “Stuck in Love,” Greg Kinnear plays William Borgens, a divorced father of two and a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist. His beachfront home is huge, and he spends a great deal of time reading novels at midday in a beach chair. At night, he stalks his remarried ex-wife, Erica (Jennifer Connelly). William hasn’t written in the two years since his divorce, and no forms of income other than residual book sales are mentioned, so his glut of free time, lack of mortgage worry and otherwise laissez fare approach to his writer’s block are the earliest signs that this film is a kind of fantasy.
But for me, a writer who has spent much of her career cobbling together incomes from multiple part-time jobs (some only tangentially related to creative writing), obsessing over a salable first book idea and struggling to pay bills, it’s a welcome fiction. Even if Borgens’s lifestyle isn’t attainable for 95 percent of us, it’s fun to imagine for a couple of hours.
Equally fascinating are the Borgens children, Samantha (Lily Collins) and Rusty (Nat Wolff). Samantha, we learn early in the film, has just sold her first novel at 19. (“Wow,” William marvels, “I didn’t sell my first until I was 25.”) Rusty seethes with jealousy at the news; he, too, aspires to a lucrative career in fiction.
Though William and Erica split custody, the children seem to be far more influenced by their father, who paid them throughout adolescence to keep writing journals as opposed to insisting they get summer jobs in food service or retail as most teens would.
This was yet another detail that appealed to the writer-parent in me. All the evidence suggesting that success in creative fields is more likely for those whose parents were middle- and upper-middle class and who can provide a financial cushion while the child finds his career footing in low-wage or unpaid internships has left me hoping to find myself on firm enough financial footing to encourage my own daughter to pursue an arts career if she wishes. At present, I would be able to offer that encouragement only with reticence and qualification.
The Borgens family is not without its problems. William is a stalker. Erica is unhappy in her second marriage. Samantha is estranged from Erica, having witnessed her infidelity. Rusty has taken as a first lover a hard-drug addict. (He also smokes a lot of pot himself.) And they all, in their way, act out behavior typical of many creative people: professional jealousy, personal insecurity, a public affectedness that impedes their ability to make genuine observations and connections about themselves and with others. The film is great at rendering those flaws and allowing them to inform the storytelling.
But “Stuck in Love” is at its most fun when it abandons all pretense of writer’s-life realism and swings for the fences: At one point, Stephen King calls first-time lit mag submitter Rusty and effusively praises his short story. It isn’t that this couldn’t happen in a family of writers — Samantha, whose first novel was published at the same company as King’s many, sent the story to King — it’s just such an unlikely, sweet and optimistic prospect that I couldn’t help but suspend my wizened cynicism and smile.
It’s worth noting that “Stuck in Love” was writer-director Josh Boone’s first feature film. His early career optimism is on full display — and Boone’s career has, in fact, seemed charmed: His second feature directing gig was the wildly popular “The Fault in Our Stars,” and he’s slated to adapt an “X-Men” spinoff starting next year. At least in a few cases, the wild dreams we aspire to as writers come true — and it’s always nice to be reminded of that.