I remember hearing you speak once in Washington, D.C., after the publication of The Consolations of Philosophy. Someone asked you about a negative review of the book that had appeared in The New York Times, and you shared some strong feelings about the article. Do you continue to read reviews? Do you care about them? Or have your solutions to the problem of status anxiety enabled you to put them in perspective?
I always think bad reviews hurt at two levels: most immediately they hurt at the sales level. Unfortunately The New York Times has a dominance over the American market, and they've slammed my last two books. Very hard. But you know, I've survived, so I'm actually getting less scared of them. But they do have this power—particularly over a writer's first book. It can have a very big influence. You think, Can I keep doing what I want to do as people are saying "this guy shouldn't exist"?
But the deeper and more genuine question is: How much weight am I going to give to this review? I mean if this person doesn't like me, what am I going to do about it? Being a writer, being in the public arena, and being attacked as only a writer or an artist can be, is hard. If you're a bad dentist you're probably not going to read a quarter page article in The New York Times telling people you're an idiot. It's very public, so it naturally leads you to ask questions about public opinion and how much weight you should give it. For me, the only solution—and it doesn't come easy— is that I've got to try to be my own judge of what's right and wrong in my books. Deep down, every writer knows what's right or wrong with his or her book. The New York Times could say it's terrific or terrible, but what really should count is one's own sense of it.
You say that there are five "unpredictable reasons never to count on either attaining or holding on to our desired position within a hierarchy." These include: dependence on fickle talent, luck, employers, an employer's profitability, and the global economy. In your view, to what extent is a person's ability to attain "success" dependent on savvy status-building strategy, as opposed to innate talent or merit?
I guess first of all, without being pedantic, we should examine the word "success." A person who's very successful in business might be very unsuccessful at reading Plato. Every time we use the word "success" it's a loaded word. But assuming that you're using the word in the modern economic sense, there is always a debate about how much to listen to other people. You hear business people say things like "I didn't listen to anyone about leaving this sector and now look at me." In publishing and art you hear this a lot too. Van Gogh, for example—everybody was telling him to get into a more productive line. But he didn't; he stuck with what he was doing. So aiming to please other people too directly can have a rather unproductive fate.
How Proust Can Change Your Life was a witty riff on the self-help craze, but Consolations and Status Anxiety seem more straightforward. Although you've satirized the self-help concept somewhat, you also seem to believe in its benefits rather earnestly. Do you feel that coming to understand the nature of a personal or societal problem on an individual basis is a viable alternative to psychotherapy or grand societal reform?
It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. My problem with self-help books isn't the idea of them, but the way they're currently thought of and written. I always say that I'm happy to be considered a self-help writer if we can also include in the genre—and I'm not comparing myself to them—writers like Montaigne and Seneca. There's a long and noble tradition of books that can help you to live better. That's what the ancient philosophers thought they were in the business of doing. These days the whole idea of self-help has become absurd because we have this idea that art is for art's sake and self-help is for dummies' sakes, and there's nothing in between. That seems to me to be a false belief. My book on Proust was actually dead serious. The humor was that it was completely serious. The thing to mock is not the attempt to change your life, but the way you might change your life with the help of a "motivational expert" like Anthony Robbins. I also rather enjoy mocking the modern spirit of optimism. We're often told that the best way to make someone feel good about their life is to tell them something cheerful. I'm more attracted to an alternative line, which is to argue that people are most cheered up by despairing thoughts about life. If you're feeling a bit down, the last thing you want to read is a book telling you that everything will be well. You really should turn to Schopenhauer or Kirkegaard who will tell you that unhappiness is intrinsic to the human condition.
Your work is full of charts, illustrations, photos, prints, and diagrams. Why? Do you participate in their actual creation, or do you just explain to someone what you'd like to have done?
I believe that books are more than just vehicles for transmitting words. They exist as three-dimensional objects. So things like the font and paper matter. Having illustrations in a book can also be an important way of adding a whole other level of meaning and communication.
Over the years I've learned not to just hand my ideas over to a publisher, but to work closely with a graphic designer and figure out the exact positioning of everything, because publishers just aren't interested or set up for that sort of thing. I can't operate the machinery myself, but I'm very precise about what I want to show.
Your debut novel, On Love, was written in the form of a philosophical treatise. And How Proust Can Change Your Life was written in the form of a self-help book. Is finding these kinds of original devices as important to you as the subject matter itself?
I don't seek originality just for the sake of it, but I do seek a form that can help people get to where I want to take them. I think it can be intriguing to use an unusual form. One of my favorite "form" writers—as opposed to "content writers"—is Roland Barthes. He's very inventive with his forms: for example he wrote an entire book called S/Z, which is a minute, sentence by sentence analysis of one short story by Balzac. It's a completely mad book, but beautifully laid out. There's something that intrigues me about these kinds of rules you can set for yourself—for example, that there must be only ten chapters or whatever. I think most writers through the ages have found some kind of pleasure in a tight form. It can help you to say what you want to say. Sometimes too much freedom is a bad thing. I'm also interested in the essay genre, which can be very flexible, but is not explored very much by writers. It's often the novelists who play around the most, whereas nonfiction writers tend to be fairly straightforward.