Edwidge Danticat: Grappling With Haiti's Beasts (June 22, 2004)
Edwidge Danticat talks about reconnecting with her homeland—and coming to terms with its legacy of violence—through fiction.
Robert D. Kaplan: In the Line of Fire (June 15, 2004)
Journalist Robert D. Kaplan joined U.S. Marines as they stormed Fallujah, and returned to share his impressions.
Robert Olen Butler: Faraway Voices (June 14, 2004)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler talks about tapping into
different points of view and writing "from the place where you dream."
David Bezmozgis: From Toronto With Love (June 3, 2004)
David Bezmozgis talks about his sudden literary success and his first collection of stories, a wry and intimate portrait of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family.
Niall Ferguson: Our Imperial Imperative (May 25, 2004)
Niall Ferguson, the author of Colossus, laments the emasculation of American imperialism.
Brian Greene: The Universe Made Simple (May 20, 2004)
Brian Greene, the author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, on opening readers' eyes to the hidden forces that govern our world.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
More on books from The Atlantic and Atlantic Unbound.
From the archives:
"To the Manor Bought" (February 2001)
Aristocratic status is just a mouse click and a bank transfer away. By Francis X. Rocca
"Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy" (November 1999)
The daughter of an eminent psychoanalyst uses her experience to help us understand the pursuit of celebrity—its psychological roots, its social meaning, its human cost. By Sue Erikson Bloland
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.
Alain de Botton
De Botton's Web site, with information about each of his books and notices about press appearances.
Atlantic Unbound | June 29, 2004
Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains
n 1997, Alain de Botton, a twenty-eight-year-old Swiss-born Londoner with a Cambridge degree and three hit novels on the shelves, took it upon himself to teach a broad, thinking, audience to benefit from Marcel Proust's most enlightened virtues—without having to spend a year lugging around the seven dense volumes that make up In Search of Lost Time. He penned How Proust Can Change Your Life, a slim, elegant work of nonfiction, dotted with droll illustrations and charts, and dedicated to offering tips for better living gleaned from Proust's life and work. The book not only sold countless copies around the globe; it also earned high praise for demystifying some of the most challenging passages in Western literature in an insightful and idiosyncratically humorous way.
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by Alain de Botton
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Since then, de Botton, who has not only written relationship columns for British newspapers, but also briefly directed a branch of London University's graduate philosophy program, has expanded his oeuvre with two more nonfiction books, both similarly predicated on the idea that we can look to the great writers for counsel on improving our lives. The Consolations of Philosophy, which was published in 2000, is a compendium of practical advice culled from the writings of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other renowned philosophers. And The Art of Travel, which was published in 2002, is a collection of more personal essays that delves into writings by the likes of Wordsworth and Flaubert to probe the reasons why we holiday.
In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political— to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."
This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."
On June 15 I met up with de Botton, in the midst of his book tour, in a New York City hotel. Over breakfast we discussed these issues, along with such questions as how, say, a survivor of status anxiety might respond to mean-spirited book reviews. His overarching message: remain humble and down-to-earth, even if you happen to become a writer of best-selling books that brim with sophisticated references. Philosophy may not be able to influence the most close-minded of the status-obsessed. But for those with the time and inclination to read carefully, it may go a long way toward keeping this sinister ill at bay.
You've written books about the thoughts of others (as in Proust and Consolations), as well as books that advance your own ideas on an issue (such as The Art of Travel and your novel Kiss and Tell, which was a send-up of biographies). With Status Anxiety do you feel that you're mainly synthesizing arguments that have been made in the past by other thinkers? Or are you seeking to formulate an original theory of your own?
Alain de Botton
I consider myself to be combining ideas in original ways—not necessarily wildly original ways, but different. You can probably find every idea I use in the book somewhere else, but that's probably true of any work. It's about combination. Also, I suppose I'm moving away from relying on just one source—like Proust or one set of philosophers—and instead drawing upon a much more diverse range of sources that feed into a particular concept. So I do feel that in a way Status Anxiety is a more original book than some of the others.
The book begins by stating that "every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories ... the story of our quest for sexual love" and "the story of our quest for love from the world." Why is the latter in your estimate a "more secret and shameful tale"?
All of us are incredibly embarrassed by our more narcissistic elements. People go to great lengths to hide their narcissism. Narcissism is, in a way, a nasty word. But it's very normal. It's the desire for people to think well of us, and accord us respect. I think the reason that desire is so carefully hidden is because it can very easily provoke envy and anger in other people. Talk to any beautiful woman. She will rarely say "I'm very beautiful." She knows she's beautiful. But training has taught her that you don't say something like that unless you want to become very unpopular very quickly. Modesty is a survival instinct. But deep down, everyone has a desire to feel significant. It's just something we're loathe to admit to.
You write that "our ego' or self-conception could be pictured as a leaking balloon, forever requiring the helium of external love to remain inflated, and ever vulnerable to the smallest pinpricks of neglect." Why does "our mood blacken if a colleague greets us distractedly"? This would seem to be a minor occurrence in the grand scheme of things.
I think we are very attuned to negative interpersonal signals, just as we are, say, to bad smells—maybe because a bad smell might be a prelude to real danger. We're aware of funny glances people give us, and exhibit a sort of paranoia, sometimes with legitimate concern. This makes up the tragicomedy of everyday life. Particularly office life. Relationships are full of this as well: Someone might say, "You sounded weird on the phone last night." "No I didn't." "Yes you did." "You hung up a bit too quickly." All that kind of stuff. These sensitivities are alive and well in office life as well, but there's no room to say to one's boss, "Why don't you talk to me? Please love me. Are you about to sack me?" We can't say those things, but of course it's what we feel.
Obviously some people are more attuned to these hidden communiqués
Yes, and those who are least attuned to it have a sort of blithe self-confidence. It might be the work of an early, very supportive upbringing in which a parent might say to his or her child, "You're a champ!" And that can have the side-effect of making someone incredibly insensitive or unaware of themselves.
And maybe happier?
Yes, another branch of the "blunt-but-happy" thing. But most of us, I think, are really quite sensitive and have a hard time being confident without signs of approval. Most people feel bad about spending time alone and grow increasingly paranoid and depressed the longer they have to be by themselves. That's because we seek outside stimulation and reminders of our self-worth.
The Industrial Revolution and the middle class it spawned are identified in the book as two main accelerators of status anxiety. In hindsight, could we have avoided the onset of this problem and still progressed as a society, economically and technologically?
Probably not. When you think of a productive economy you're thinking of an anxious economy. You're looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life—the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It's your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it's perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France—a so-called "unproductive economy"—is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it's successful in its long lunch break. There's that choice.
Why have modern populations proved to be so incapable of feeling content with what they have and how they're viewed by so-called "reference groups," the communities that they feel close to?
I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of what's normal—of what is an acceptable standard of everyday living. And of course the bar keeps being raised ever higher in modern society. Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it's possible for someone to feel poor if they don't have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn't have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It's a facetious point, but it's also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.
Look at the self-help section of American bookshops, where my books are occasionally found. There are basically two kinds of books on those shelves: the first kind are the ones that say, "You can make it, you can be anything you like, you can be a billionaire by Friday." Then there's the other kind that tells you how to cope with feelings of low self-esteem—how to be a friend to yourself. This is the modern United States: a society that tells everyone they can be extraordinary. That creates feelings of shame among those who don't feel extraordinary. I think it's interesting that in England three-hundred years ago, people at the bottom of society were called "unfortunates." Interesting word, "unfortunates." Nowadays they're called "losers." That tells us a lot about how things have changed.
Is democracy a cause of status anxiety in and of itself? You quote Tocqueville as saying that "when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed."
I know from my own life that the people I envy are the people who are quite close to me in some way: I envy men, and men my age, more than women my age. I envy British people more than American people. You know, anything that brings you closer. I envy people I was in university with most of all. Anything that gives you a feeling of "I'm like this person." Well, if I'm like this person, then why do they have something I don't have? Tocqueville's point—and it was a very salient one—is that you have a society that's constantly telling people, We're all the same, we're all Americans, we're all equal. When actually there's a lot of inequality around, which fosters feelings of envy. If society said The rich are their own species, they have been made into Gods, don't ever aspire to be one of them, well, in one sense that would be unfair and stupid and untrue. But it would have a relaxing effect; if they're creatures from outer space, well then what's the point of comparing our condition with theirs? Whereas nowadays the whole temper of the media atmosphere makes success seem very ordinary. J.Lo could be your friend. You know what she's like, you know what her love life is like. You know everything about people who in previous centuries you would have known very little about. So it's much easier to compare our condition to theirs, and to find our condition wanting by comparison.
Bill Gates wears jeans. You wear jeans. You almost have to kick yourself to remember that this guy runs the largest corporation on earth even though he looks just like you. I think it's as unlikely today for a person to become as rich as Bill Gates as it was unlikely in the seventeenth century for someone to become as rich as Louis the XIV. The key thing is that today it doesn't feel that unlikely. You're made to feel that since you have a few bright ideas about technology, you, too, could found the next Microsoft. This pervasive sense of possibility creates a feeling of restlessness. And there's that lovely Tocqueville chapter called "Why Are the Americans So Restless in the Midst of Their Prosperity?" That could almost be the title of Status Anxiety, or at least the subtitle.
You posit five solutions for status anxiety—Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia, because they help put things in perspective. Can science help too?
Science can be used in many different ways. Broadly defined, it's a discipline that leads to a better understanding of phenomena, and insofar as we can better understand something like status anxiety, we are, to some extent, defended against its wilder attacks. Evolutionary biology is often associated with the concept of status anxiety today. And it's true that we're hardwired to be concerned with status. But—and this is a huge "but"—the question of who gets high status, and for doing what, is actually a flexible, political, historical point that keeps on changing. Nazi Germany had a status system. Modern Germany has a different status system. In both those societies people have to accomplish certain goals in order to receive high status. The recognition that status anxiety is to some extent evolutionarily biological is not the end of the conversation. It's just the beginning. But too often the conversation closes down at that point.
You propose gaining an understanding of the causes of desire for status as a way to curb it. Do you see that as the only way? I've noticed an increasing sense of serenity and perspective coming over my peers in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Could we be looking at a valley in the otherwise seemingly ever-upward-trending graph of status anxiety's progress? Could trauma be a solution?
Anything that restores perspective can be helpful. And by perspective I mean something that takes you away from the here and now of modern life, in which we're constantly surrounded by images of who's up and who's down. Now, that might be something as grim as the thought of death. 9/11, as we know, has been a giant memento mori hanging over the U.S. and the world: a reminder that death can find us very suddenly at any moment. That's a challenge to our workaday sense of needing to get on. People who have had a close brush with death tend to say that their priorities have been altered. What the neighbors think, and where you are on the ladder of life shifts in relevance. That's why the Christian moralists have traditionally stressed death as an agent that contributes positively to Judeo-Christian values. But of course it's very hard to keep the possibility of death constantly in the front of your mind, particularly when there are big corporations heavily invested in trying to get us to buy a new car, or go on holiday. They don't ask us to think about the grave nature of life. That kind of reminder tends to come from literature and art, and often has a hard time getting heard amid the clamor of all the media-driven messages.
You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.
That's interesting. It's not a typically American perspective. Americans usually tend to have this idea that we're moving toward some system of fair competition where there won't be any more Enrons, and the school system will make everything equal. Personally, I think the whole idea of meritocracy is bananas. I mean, the idea that you can create a society where you arrange people in descending order in relation to their merit as human beings, and give them money in relation to that system is completely illogical. Because there are so many factors that go into people's personalities. The modern worldview is that you can look at someone's resumé and make a judgment about how noble and worthwhile they are. Something's wrong with that: there are just too many other factors at play. I have a lot of sympathy for the old Christian view that the only person who can tell the worth of another human being is God, and He can only do that on the day of judgment. I think we need to be humble in judging other people, and in judging our own value. There's an arrogance that comes over people who think the system is just. The more just you think the system is, the crueler you're likely to be, because if you generally believe that those at the top deserve their success, you have to believe that those at the bottom deserve their failure. That's when you start talking about people as "losers," and saying things like, "Winners make their own luck." So there's a very nasty side to this otherwise very nice-sounding idea that we should make society fairer. Success is never totally deserved just as failure is never totally deserved. And I think there are too many overly happy billionaires who say things like, "No one ever helped me, so why should I help anyone else? Why should I pay taxes?" And one wants to say, "Yes, of course. But
You detail the history of the word "snob"—explaining that it arose from aristocratic students at Oxford and Cambridge writing "sine nobilitate" (without nobility) or "s.nob" next to the names of ordinary students on testing lists. It would seem that you've traveled among some snobs yourself, being a Cambridge man who theorizes about philosophy. Because of this have you suffered from a particularly acute form of status anxiety yourself?
I understand snobbery as latching onto one or two things about a person and using those things to come to a definitive view of their whole character. We tend to have this idea of snobbery as a sort of British, landed aristocracy-type phenomenon—Are you a Duke? Where do you hunt? That sort of thing. But I think that form of snobbery has gone out the window. The dominant form of snobbery today is career snobbery. When two meet people for the first time, one of them says "What do you do?" And according to the answer, the person asking the question either finishes his drink or wanders off. So a lot hangs on that answer. We've all experienced it—I've certainly experienced it. And what's particularly horrible is that you feel the definitiveness of the judgment. You want to say, "I'm a nice, interesting person. I have a sensitive soul. And I, too, had a teddy bear when I was little." But the other person just has no time. You're out. You have nothing to show for yourself. And that is one of the worst feelings that you'll experience.
Of course the opposite of a snob is your mother. Ideally your mother doesn't care what you do, she cares who you are. But most people are not our mothers and have a much less accepting way of evaluating us. I've made some TV shows in Britain, and some academics have said, "Oh, you've been on television, you're not serious." "He sells a lot of books, he can't be serious." Or "There are jokes in his book, well he himself must be a joke." All kinds of very crude ways of judging the value of someone. You know, when I wrote that book a few years ago about Proust, a lot of Proust academics said, "By definition it's got to be a stupid book because it's sort of popular and the title's a bit silly."
To play devil's advocate, couldn't it be said that your writing of this book (and others) is itself an act of jockeying for status? To what extent, if any, are you aware of a desire on your part for "love from the world" as a motivator in your work?
Sure, absolutely. But I think the key thing to ask is, What do you want to be loved for? Most of the things that people do in a work arena are to some extent for the sake of respect. There are probably three things that motivate people in their work: the desire for money, the intrinsic satisfaction of the work, and the desire for the good opinion of the community. One question to ask is, Whose respect do you want, and for what? For a writer it's: Do you want high sales? Who are you aiming to please? Do you not care at all? To some extent, my work answers those questions itself. I obviously care less about the good opinion of, say, The New York Review of Books, than about the opinion of the common reader. Which is a decision independent of sales. It's an aesthetic decision.
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.
You paraphrase Schopenhauer's idea that "nothing could more quickly correct the desire to be liked by others than a brief investigation into those others' true characters," which are "for the most part excessively brutish and stupid." I've tried making it through the world like that myself, but the mindset has caused me too many problems with people. And since one also has to master the art of politicking to get ahead, one inevitably comes to impasses
Well, there's a distinction between thinking someone is an idiot and telling them that they are. Still, I do think we tend to have this idea that in order to be a good person, you must like people—that you must have a friendly, open disposition toward everyone in order to be normal and well-balanced. I think it's interesting to contemplate the wisdom of a more misanthropic approach, of which Schopenhauer is a dramatic example. Instead of worrying about what other people think, it might be worth asking, Who is this person? Who am I worried about? Do I actually respect and like this person? Because I think that we're built in a rather odd way: we want people to like us even before we've decided whether we like them or not. And that's a very odd perspective. I think we should try to wean ourselves from that because it's very self-destructive.
One of the book's more intriguing detours is its passage on nineteenth-century novels: Fielding, Thackeray, Dickens. You talk about how certain kinds of characters are accorded high status in novels, even though in the real world they would have been dismissed by society as low-status. Then you take a quick look at a similar phenomenon in Zadie Smith's 2000 novel, White Teeth. How can a character that most people would see as lacking status have high status in a novel? And do you think contemporary literature is returning to these themes?
I think that many works of art are subversive of the status system that existed in the societies in which they were produced. The heroes and heroines in much of art are not those that would have been granted high status in the world outside the work of art. Particularly in the nineteenth-century novel. The heroes and heroines of those books are often seamstresses, lumberjacks, stone masons, and so on. Yet within the world of the novel they are accorded a high degree of status. We are led to see their richness and complexities, their intelligence and sensitivity. So many works of art are correctives to the snobbish value system that reigns outside of them. Charles Dickens, for example, is often credited with having helped to change attitudes toward the poor in London. Even less politically minded writers have had that same effect. They ask us to take a new look at those who don't usually have a voice. It's the opposite of sentimental Hollywood art. One often leaves the cinema after seeing an enjoyable Hollywood film thinking, My life is terrible. I want to marry a princess and live in a castle or something. The work of art was enjoyable, but it was a fable—a fantasy—and it makes us dissatisfied with our own lives. But there are other films that let you leave the cinema feeling that you can find new dignity and value in the everyday world around you. That's very much the art I'm attracted to; the kind of thing that doesn't cut you off from your own life but instead enables you to appreciate and engage with the reality of it. I think art always has a role to play in that.
Take tragedy, which I also discuss in the book. Tragedy is an art form dedicated to telling the stories of people who have failed—who have lost their status. But we would hardly be inclined to leave a performance of Hamlet saying that the guy was a "loser." He was a loser, in a sense. But we wouldn't call him that. The word sounds incongruous. Because we've been led to interpret the story of his failure in a very complex, sympathetic, and understanding way. I think one of the things we fear about losing status is being called a loser. And this is the opposite of what tragedy teaches us to do.
You write that the segment of Western society that has most successfully altered its status in modern times is women. Women who weren't allowed into a library didn't ask what was wrong with themselves for not being allowed in but rather what was wrong with the "keepers of the library for not allowing them in." In your view, have they achieved an equal footing with men?
They've certainly radically transformed their status. There's been almost no more successful example of status-transformation than feminism, even though the financial ways of the world have not changed that much. It's been a revolution in status and should be an example. Are women on an equal footing with men? I detect a problem in that very question. I don't think the goal of women should be an equal footing. That's actually part of the problem that feminism has landed contemporary women in. It has denied the possibility that women could have equal value while not necessarily doing exactly the same things as men. The idea of difference has so often been used historically as a stick to beat women down that it's led many women to claim that the only way for them to earn status is to say that they must focus on being "equal" in all areas and in all ways.
Your next book is about architecture. Will you look at how our perception of buildings can help us through a particular emotional issue? Or will it be a broader sort of meditation?
It's basically looking at aesthetics. That includes, art, painting, pottery, jazz. It's looking at the built environment and how it affects us—why we call certain things beautiful, and why some beautiful things can make us sad or inspire us. A lot of these themes affect our approach to architecture—and especially our own homes, which is where we tend to encounter questions of aesthetics most vividly and perhaps for the first time.
Lastly, can fans of your fiction expect another novel sometime? I've read that you don't consider your fictional works to be novels, even though Kiss And Tell was as much a character-driven send-up of the popular biography as it was a collection of essays.
I saw my first book very much as an essay about relationships. I've always seen my novels as very essayistic. I don't draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction because I see myself as more of an essay writer. A lot depends on the subject matter. The essence of the novel, which tends to be character, works better for me if there's a love story to recount. I think it would be hard for me to write a novel about architecture, say, or a novel about traveling. I tend to be inspired by things that are problematic in my own life, and since my love life is not currentlyproblematic, I don't feel the impulse to write more about the subject. But look out for a book on marriage down the road. That will be a sign of something. Who knows?
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Adam Baer is a writer in New York. He has covered books for The New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, and Slate.com, among other publications. His most recent interview was with David Bezmozgis.
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