How to win friends and influence people
On self-improvement literature and Sally Rooney
Bookforum recently held a fun/depressing talk on careerism in American letters, fun because it put a name to something you intuited, depressing for the same reason. It also felt like the second act of a longer conversation about whether American novelists have become politically and/or morally performative—whether they try to seem like “good people” in their novels. There’s a suggestion here that these phenomena are two sides of the same coin—one depreciating in value as a literary currency—and that they came to fruition with Roth.
It was nice that the panel didn’t bring up Sally Rooney, given that just about everyone else already has, and that she’s Irish, and that sometimes it’s nice to take a break. Then again, a flurry around the careerisms of yore does leave one wondering who the primo careerists of one’s own generation might be. The name that recent discourse and my own kind of careerist impulse supplied was, of course, well...
To call Rooney a careerist isn’t strictly fair. If careerism amounts to a public image curated by the author in life and on the page, I think it’s quite possible that the success of the Rooney brand was partially accidental, or at least perfectly mutual. Whether or not she planned on platforming Marxism with her book (or vice versa), when Conversations with Friends reached America, stamped with a Marxist seal, we undoubtedly took the bait.
Excepting Black radicalism (e.g., the Panthers), or the scattered communities across the nation who are currently conducting genuine experiments in communalism and other alternatives to capitalism (respect), contemporary America has lacked a sustained radical or revolutionary left. So when you give mainstream American outlets a piece of literature and call it Marxist, maybe it’s inevitable that there’s a bit of excited fumbling. This makes branding your book as Marxist a good career move. Not least because it gives reviewers a rubric of how to evaluate your book.
Critics have engaged in endless exchange over the socialist/not-so-socialist politics of Conversation with Friends, the class-consciousness of Normal People, and Rooney’s hypocrisy or political half-bakédness: over whether her politics are sincere or performative. It seems to me there are a few possible reasons for this continued fascination: 1) we can’t stop reading Rooney, but we also feel bad because we’re also not supposed to like the same books as Taylor Swift; 2) other people can’t stop reading her, so we keep writing on her; 3) political discussion on the literary left is relatively tame, without a lot of serious policy disagreement, so we’re distracted by the narcissism of small differences, namely sincerity (see: perceived levels of); 4) we’ve conflated (like Rooney’s characters) casual statements of Marxism with being a good person—that is, we’ve fanned the conflation of political awareness with ethical achievement.
From this view, it’s possible Taylor Swift may have one-upped us in her critical response to Rooney’s work: “I like the tone she takes when she’s writing. I think it’s like being inside somebody’s mind.”
Before delving into political readings of Rooney’s (and others’) work, I think it’s worth touching on an aesthetic point that is often overlooked in the panning and praising of Rooneyism. The first thing to note is that while Rooney isn’t necessarily a practitioner of autofiction, just about everyone else she’s haphazardly grouped with—Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgård, Sheila Heti, any number of white debut novelists—is. When emphasizing the performative politics of her books, critics tend to group Rooney with Lerner, Knausgaard, Heti, and white millennials. When emphasizing the style, Rooney is thrown in with all of the above, plus maybe Teju Cole, the austerity-prose of Rachel Cusk, and a number of other (mostly white) autofiction novelists.
Autofiction or not, these books are without fail realist and emotionally restrained. I think this is why autofiction behemoths like Garth Greenwell and Sigrid Nunez, whose novels teeter on some pretty precipitous emotional plunges, are rarely brought into the fold. Ditto Ferrante, whose books readers defend as autobiographical yet which, unlike a lot of American autofiction, also feature fury, resentment, and a dash of the fairytale. (For the record, I’m into fairytales. As is Rooney, both of whose novels flirt with Cinderella plots.)
I’d argue, however, that the above authors are perhaps just as usefully linked by a certain quality of narrative time. Their novels proceed in the “highly readable” prose of what I tend to think of as summary time: we skim over the physical world, don’t spend too much page space on granular detail, aren’t ever grounded so deeply in scene and Balzacian description that we need a pushy narrator or a chapter break, instead of a space break, to move into another room (or another country, or another year). This gives the books their “silky,” frictionless quality that also mimics the way we tell stories of the distant past to one another: they take place in an unmarked, imperfect tense. Or, per Taylor Swift, in someone’s head.
That storytelling quality, as Walter Benjamin wrote, and as Paul Ricoeur more convincingly formalized, is captivating unto itself. That is to say, having different registers of time, and the ability to move between them, in particular from scene-time into a more distant summary-time, is captivating. The former tradition (re: Benjamin), rooted in oral storytelling, tends to have the streamlined sentences and plots that lead to complaints about the eminent “readability” of realist autofiction. The latter tradition, rooted in mimesis and Augustine’s Confessions, mirrors thought and memory patterns (re: Ricoeur’s analysis of Woolf and the autofictional Proust), and tends to have more stylistic texture. Either way, the point is that there are many valid ways to tell a story, and that two successful modes include: 1) being told a memory in one unbroken stretch, as if you and the speaker were intimates, and; 2) being granted unrestricted access to someone else’s private concerns—relatively protected from the real-time demands and interruptions of scene and social expectations—clocked to the pace and logic of personal memory. Both modes of narrative time are distinct from linear time, in which scene and society unfold.
That doesn’t mean social expectations, or the chiming of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway, or scene can’t interrupt—it just means the telling retains the optionality of a phenomenological buffer zone.
Ricoeur says phenomenological, novelistic time reaches back to Augustine’s Confessions. And who, I ask you, was more bent on self-improvement than the saint who asked for chastity but oh God please not yet…
The dominant style of American anything is self-improvement
Americans, born in the land of bootstrapping, DIY, self-help, Botox, motivational posters, gym memberships, barre memberships, Soul Cycle, the Atkins Diet, “lean-in,” Puritanism, Valley venture capitalism, vitaminized water, Valley life extension, bummed-out for being billed as more ignorant, less sophisticated, than the Europeans... Americans are bananas for self-improvement. It is, I think, one of the primary reasons we read. (Call the rise of the what-to-read listicle as primary witness. Or America’s other favorite novelist, who called his first two major hits Purity and The Corrections.)
So it wouldn’t be any surprise, really, if self-improvement also spills over into our literary criticism.
There’s a whiff of self-improvement worship, even, in our criticism of Rooney’s silky prose style (Swiftian take: She really puts you in someone’s head!), universally described as absorbing but “unchallenging.” This is a demerit: we should be suspicious of stories and syntax that go down like a spoonful of sugar, especially if there isn’t any real, morally-complex medicine with which to chase it.
To whatever extent novelists are rightly accused of shoehorning their politics—or rather, their political branding—into novels, it is inevitably autofiction novelists and millennials like Rooney who come out scoring worst. The usual argument, raised by the smart people on the Bookforum panel, is that autofiction writers are especially guilty of ethical primping on the page because readers tend to equate these authors with their characters. Autofiction practitioners therefore have a special incentive to make their characters seem morally palatable.
But transfer that same logic to criticism, where a byline is a byline: Perhaps critics also just want to seem good? It’s worth wondering whether Rooney hasn’t tempted those of us who write reviews into our own kind of careerism, adopting her as a platform where we can engage in a little political branding ourselves. And since everybody’s doing it...
Having a Rooney take is now a rite of passage—an essay on which to stake your career! (Even Lorrie Moore went there!) This is all to say, here’s my take, which is that, though I’m not a Marxist (because, see previous posts, but basically I don’t think computers are sophisticated enough to completely take over the planning of markets for us, and nor are unplugged people), Rooney’s books are inextricable from ideas of self-improvement, which is maybe part of the reason why she did so well in the States, and why her books remain such irresistible targets.
Every politics is self-improving, but not all self-improvement is political
All political orders demand some program of self-improvement from their citizens that we might consider distinct from a more generalizable code of ethics. Nazi fascism, for one, provided Germany with the paradigm of the Übermensch and his child-bearing Hausfrau. These were the dangerous ideals to which Germans were supposed to aspire, a civic duty that went hand-in-hand with the perfection of the Aryan race.
This kind of self-improvement, tied to conceptions of obligation to the state, trotted out as a kind of existential tax, is very different from the kind of self-improvement we find in the thinking of someone like William Godwin, father of anarchism. Godwin considered human nature to be “perfectable.” And since perfect humans have no need for property or laws, we might as well just govern (or rather, not govern) ourselves. Humans outgrow the need for a state.
This is also why, if you squint, libertarianism and anarchism can start to look alike.
Brief interlude on neoliberalism
Neoliberals also love self-improvement! It’s basically the founding assumption on which markets are built. Many economic historians would say that self-improvement—ideas of personal success, of pulling ahead of one’s peers—is what enabled the rise of capitalism to eventually replace premarket ways of life.
But as one of the more liberally (sorry) used terms in criticism—not least because no one really self-identifies as a neoliberal—I think it makes sense for us to start with a definition that can at least apply to the course of this post.
Given the way it is increasingly used to describe not just policies but individual actions, I like to think of “neoliberalism,” like Marxism, as having both an economic element and a cultural element. In market discourse, neoliberals are generally for deregulation and minimal market intervention. This economic stance is supported by a cultural program of personal responsibility, individual liberty (“don’t cramp my style with regulations”), and a mythical meritocracy. Think Clinton deregulates financial markets, seeds the Financial Crisis, links welfare to work requirements and other proofs of bootstrapping. The ideology here is that the market creates the best opportunities for individuals, and so it’s up to individuals to seize them, so let the market do its thing.
If you don’t realize your potential under this paradigm, then tough luck. To neoliberals, failure is your fault, no matter preexisting levels of structural inequality or violence. But as a consolation you can claim all your successes as little individually-minted trophies, too.
This logic can easily trickle down from the level of policy (e.g. welfare cuts) to day-to-day interactions. So, when we say something like “Upbraiding people for not recycling all their plastic is neoliberal climate policy!!”, we’re critiquing the way that a neoliberal cultural program worms its way into individual responses to collective problems: figure it out for yourself; to each her own; reap what you sow. The more socialist response is something like: “Dude, it’s the government’s responsibility to make it as easy-peasy as possible to recycle and also use regulations to reduce plastic use in the first place.”
Self-Improving Sally Rooney??
In a way, I think you you can read Rooney’s books as an exploration of exactly the kind of self-improvement in question—of the kinds of humans we might need to be in order to achieve a particular version of a socialist paradigm, one where no one person claims “ownership” over another, not even, per Conversations with Friends, in matters of sex. This isn’t necessarily about being good or ethical, and more about the compatibility of citizens with the political order they inhabit—one where power relations are leveled.
Rooney’s next novel takes this sentiment as its marquee: Beautiful World, Where Are You.
(Actual sidebar: If I were reviewing this book, I would find it very frustrating to type that title out a bunch of times sans question mark, a pedantic quality I hope one day to self-improve my way out of.)
Perhaps it's going too far—“taking the bait,” i.e., making Rooney a good careerist—to say that her previous work tried to realize utopia, even if her next advertises the search for it. But at the very least, it seems safe to say her previous books brought us only halfway. At the crossroads of late-capitalism and a languid, half-hearted socialism, Rooney’s wildly successful novels show us, we meet an embarrassment of emotions, a state in which the political superego, the part of the mind that longs for the better, more beautiful world, is constantly coming up against the desires of the id—and trying to self-improve those impulses.
Take, for example, the love triangle at the heart of Conversations with Friends. The frame generates plenty of intrigue, but whenever romantic tensions climax to an actual confrontation, the drama is weirdly neutralized: Frances would sooner cut a hole in her thigh with scissors than shout at her lover’s wife. It’s been noted before how Rooney's characters strain to rationalize, qualify, and ultimately nullify the pettier human emotions that would have them claim someone else; there's no room for envy, rage, or greed. (There is, however, ambition.) But to deny yourself the freedom to emote is to settle for a perpetual state of self-flagellation. It may also be a dead end for fiction, which, like capitalism, thrives on power differentials. At the very least, it dramatizes the inner monologue of anxious, inward-looking people who, in an echo of (the incorrectly attributed) Gandhi, believe their personal behavior is directly linked to the beautiful world they’d like to see. Which, if that sentiment isn’t exactly revolutionary Marxist, it does indeed seem millennial?
And even possibly a little neoliberal??
On the other hand, if these novels really are a sandbox in which to troubleshoot alternative anti-capitalist futures, then I'm interested in the way that Rooney cleaves to a model of character building: in the self-harming scene described above, it almost seems as if the only thing that lies between Frances and the end of capitalism and the jealous love that thrives under it is conquering envy and selfishness; as if we could self-improve our way into a socialist paradigm. In this way, the books seem more preoccupied with "human nature's" compatibility with Marxist ideals — presented in Rooney’s work as the neutralization of exploitative relationships — than with Marxism itself.
So what! Seems fine!
This all does seem fine, if 19th and 20th century lit are any precedent—from Zola to Ralph Ellison to Doris Lessing, the socialist or socialist-adjacent novel has often taken a pessimistic view on closing the gap between the world we want and the world we have. But it’s interesting to note that the only real sustained drama allowed to develop in Rooney’s books is that generated from this individual struggle to neutralize will to power, however tepid it may have been to start with. We could pose this as a kind of thought crime: If this is the major animating conflict, are these books turning a more critical/pessimistic eye towards socialism than we've been led (by whom!?) to believe? What is Rooney’s relationship to metabolizing failure in the struggle to achieve a socialist paradigm, and does it extend beyond self-critique and self-harm...?
But if we’re annoyed by the way the books flinch at the will to power (and not annoyed at the pessimism or paralysis we find in Lessing or Zola), it shouldn’t be because the books are sham-Marxist, or insufficiently socialist, or even careerist, or worse because we presume that Rooney, a younger female novelist, isn’t fully in control of dramatizing that kind of struggle—but because we miss the kind of fiction that lets the id roam free, or at least a little freer. In Ferrante, by contrast, author of other, serial literary sensations targeted for being “too easy” to read, jilted women rage and scream.
But the question of whether Rooney has written a morally complex enough novel to warrant serious critical attention—or to invite the dunks she’s received—is maybe better answered by the body of evidence surrounding it. You may not like Rooney’s work or the ethos it evokes, but she has gotten everyone talking about how to be good, and — separately! hopefully? — about what different political orders demand of the public over which they reign.
Here we are, anyway.
I’m reminded of a common complaint from the scientific community, which suffers from overwhelming confirmation bias: researchers only publish those papers with statistically significant findings; as a result, all the other experiments never become public, leading to redundant knowledge gaps that are really expensive to fill.
In other words, failure is important, too.
And while I personally tend to prioritize market logic — basically, what can markets plan well? and what can’t they? — over aspirational human nature logic in calibrating my own socialism, we’re in the literature business here, after all. That is, the business of getting into people’s heads.
Lerner, cuspy Gen X-er, is often also dragged into the moralizing scrimmage, but taking his work as a progression—Leaving Atocha Station to 10:04 to The Topeka School—we also see how he swept the unselfconsciousness of the id under the rug: the shift from Atocha to 10:04, especially, is a move from id to superego, as his characters become less obviously “objectionable” in the way they treat others, though probably no more “likable.”
Lerner has been frequently accused of dabbling in moralism and sanctimony, of catering to a change in the political winds. I think it’s just as possible that while this is true, the joke’s on us. Here’s one way of imagining Lerner’s thought process: Toxic masculinity is out? And you, the publishing industry, will pay me, a poet, a 6-figure advance for my next novel? Well, then I know what to do… The resulting strategy is announced right in the opening chapter of the well-recompensed novel he in fact did write: “A few months before,” 10:04 offers, “the agent had emailed me that she believed I could get a ‘strong six six-figure’ advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in The New Yorker...I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.”
From this view, Lerner’s second novel is, I think, less moralizing or sanctimony literature than a well-veiled send-up of what Lerner felt was demanded of a 6-figure book: instead of the masturbating, drugged-up, art-sore slub from Atocha Station, we get a Park Slope flaneur sympathetic to Occupy, a member of the infamous Coop, and who is literally being tapped, bovinely, for his sperm by a female friend who would never consider sleeping with him. (One of the main plot threads is that our protagonist has offered to act as a sperm donor.) Is there not just a tiny bit of a joke in this? I hope so! Because irony and irreverence, for me, are part of having a good time — especially because fiction, as we’ve endlessly discussed, isn’t real life. This makes it a good place to stick the cretins whose sperm you wouldn’t really be keen to court, and whose children you definitely wouldn’t have.
In a different kind of book, irony and irreverence also (for me, at least) open up opportunities for expressing anger and rage—which is another thing that fiction can be for.
Speaking of irreverence, it’s interesting to me that American greats like Percival Everett and Paul Beatty are very rarely trotted out in these discussions, both being writers who engage with American ethics, contextualized in contemporary American politics, and who are often irreverent (and very funny) in the way they handle it. If you want—if you squint—you can see that their books are also very much about “privilege,” minus most of the hand-wringing. Beatty’s Booker Prize-winning The Sellout hinges on a plot in which a black man basically reinstates slavery in LA. The premise almost seems to ask: In a mind-fucked age when a black man can be elected president even as other black Americans are liable to be murdered by police in traffic stops...to whom shall the novelist bestow the privilege of enslaving another human but to another black man? Everett’s So Much Blue transposes the narrator’s privilege of being an American onto the lawless forests of El Salvador; the privilege of being an older, successful male artist onto a relationship with a much younger, white Parisienne. Nobody apologizes.
Everett’s Erasure, like 10:04, also trolled the publishing industry: In the novel, a writer without much financial success gets the idea to write a novel about race, very heavy on stereotype, and at the advice of his agent; the product appears as a framed novel-within-the-novel in the middle of the book. In the novel, it wins the National Book Award. In real life, it remains one of Everett’s best known works.
Both authors are, it should probably be noted, also some of the least careerist, most offline talents in American letters.
It’s not you, it’s me...
This all to say that reading moralism (for or against) into literature often will say just as much about the reader as it does the writer; probably the most moral act a critic can make is to try very hard to meet a book on its own terms—its jokes, its aims, its emotional logic—especially if you have the suspicion that the disagreements that you have are ultimately minor: the narcissism of small differences.
It’s also fine to have moral readings of books, and to read, in some ways, for self-improvement. Novels are sites of analysis, heuristic cultural diagnostics, not historical documents but also not not historical documents; not prescriptions for how a person should be, but also not without implications for the kind of world that we’ll inherit if we act this way versus that.
They’re also more than that, as I’m sure any critic, or any of the authors mentioned here, would agree.
It’s hard to ignore, too, that nearly all the writers whose novels are perennially tagged as overly moralizing and politically reductive also happen to be white, as are most of the critics who tend to make this argument. If self-improvement anxiety manifests economically as a profit motive (or as the attempt to maximize your “social capital”), and politically as a concern over how connected your treatment of those in your immediate environs is to the political reality you hope to realize, it’s possible that this is one reason it’s mostly white critics who raise these concerns, and mostly against other white novelists. White leftists, having accepted that they are usually and disproportionately in possession of power and privilege, are anxious about what to do with it. They are anxious, per Rooney, over how to level the playing field, how to neutralize power relations. One unfortunate consequence of this kind of anxiety hamster-wheel is that white critics might tend to write about white writers who write a particular kind of book that allows them to think through their own anxieties on similar issues, and so on, and so forth. And hamster wheels are ultimately stationary.
This is also to say that despite the reductive paradigm the publishing-criticism-marketing apparatus often presents, whereby white (autofiction) writers “write about politics and class,” while writers of color “write about race,” whereby never the twain shall meet, is extremely false: as long as the Anglosphere is what it is, for now, maybe every writer’s racial identity bears on her work, and on her self-improvement. We’re all “writing about race,” in some way, all the time. Also about politics. Because as the cliché goes, all novels are political novels.
Anyway, it also feels strange to be so perpetually up in arms over these authors, as if they have forced us to spend time with them. Sometimes it seems we’re almost more upset about their popularity—about the upward paths of their careers—than with the books themselves, which translates into a kind of disappointment with the reading public. But truly great novels, in any case, are unicorns: most will fail anyway? And so if you suspect that the one you’re reading now isn’t such a unicorn, then it’s probably okay to allow yourself to read according to the criterion: Am I having a good time, and/or do I like the head I’m in?
If not, there are plenty of other options. (See Percival Everett, who quietly publishes a new book (or three) every few years.)
But if you do encounter one of those novels that isn’t so easily summarized as a good time, and is harder to engage with—for reasons political or stylistic—and if you feel yourself tempted to give up...ask why? Because if we find we are really too exhausted to appreciate books that are uncomfortable, whose sentences we may occasionally have to read twice, whose concerns may not be immediately incorporated into conversations with friends, then what are we even self-improving for?
All this capitalist bootstrapping, per Keynes, was originally supposed to culminate in more meaningful ways to spend your time, after all.
In other news…
I wrote about flowers, flower painting, and female nudes for The New Yorker.
I did a reading with McSweeney’s Quarterly.
If I were better at careerism and Substack both, I’d learn to break these up into shorter, more frequent posts,