In the previous post I talked about celebrity and credibility, and referenced Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. While I was working on that post I happened to go to the local library, and there on the new-books shelf I happened to find a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. (To whatever degree you find this coincidence suspicious, I can only agree. Pulling her book off the shelf was one of those weird movie moments that seemed completely contrived even as I lived it.)
I finished reading the book this weekend, and I want to take a moment to say that this is a book I think everyone should read. And by everyone I mean not only Americans, but people outside the United States who are interested in understanding what makes America tick (and tic). It’s not often that a work successfully weaves various disparate cultural threads together, let alone places them in historical context, but Bright-Sided does that in spades.
Who is Barbara Ehrenreich? Prior to picking up the book I had no idea. I think I’d heard the name before, but that was about it. Turns out she’s written quite a few books, a number of which have focused on the selling of the American Dream even as the average citizen’s ability to reach for that dream has been crippled. (Strangling the American Dream enhances the appeal of, and increases exploitative opportunities for, the happiness industry.) I think it’s fair to say that no matter what you think of Ms. Ehrenreich’s point of view and resume, she’s generally respected as a writer and reporter.
As to the book, if you’ve ever looked at the happiness-selling business and thought that it was a bit creepy, it turns out you’re right. It’s super-creepy, and all the more so for the way it often shifts blame onto individuals who are the victims of other people’s failed decisions.
While it’s true that we’re all ultimately responsible for saving ourselves, that doesn’t mean the people trying to kill you are not in fact guilty of attempted murder. But don’t tell that to the happiness industry. If you were downsized or outsourced over the past decade, or if you had your life savings hosing down the drain by a handful of high-flying financial gamblers who used unregulated financial instruments to destroy the world financial markets, then the happiness industry has a message for you: stop whining and work harder! If you’ll only BELIEVE then you can WIN and be HAPPY! (BUY MY BOOK AND LEARN HOW!)
It’s hard to convey how many ways this kind of thinking is used to exploit people, but Ms. Ehrenreich does a good job. For example, over the past year or so I’ve noticed that the Susan B. Komen For the Cure foundation seems to be putting little pink ribbons on everything from pop cans to power tools, to the point that the whole thing seems a bit out of control. Not only does Ms. Ehrenreich address that issue, but she does so at a time when people who are concerned about breast cancer are openly questioning the motives of the Komen foundation. (As a woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer, Ms. Ehrenreich herself has confronted the happiness-industry’s unapologetic victimization of women afflicted with that disease.)
So: what does this have to do with storytelling, or publishing in the internet age? I’m glad you asked.
Anyone trying to establish an outpost on the web as an author will, in short order, notice that there is a common thread to all of the advice currently being bandied about. That common thread is that any success you manage to scrape together will be entirely due to your own efforts. The implicit corollary — and this is where the happiness industry’s propaganda plays in — is that a lack of success means you’re not trying hard enough, or believing enough, or being positive enough, or networking enough, or buying the right self-help books, or hiring the right writing coach, or attending the right conferences, etc.
To the extent that encouragement is useful, and faith perhaps even a necessary ingredient of any writer’s success, the truth is that you can be unsuccessful for reasons that have nothing to do with you, no matter how hard you try. You may not catch on for reasons of fashion or trend. You may be big-footed by people who have more money to spend on marketing or publicity. Your big break may get derailed by a fateful fender-bender that distracts the wrong person at exactly the wrong time. The collapse of the world financial markets may take two trillion dollars of available capital off the table, at exactly the same historical moment when the rise of the internet erodes the traditional publishing model, dictating risk aversion throughout the industry.
Listening to (or purchasing) testimonials from people claiming to have had success is equally problematic. Everybody who ever ‘made it’ thinks they did it themselves, when the odds are heavily in favor of chance and circumstance playing a big part in that person’s success. Yes, you have to get in the arena to compete, but if the casting director is looking for 5’4″ and you’re 6’6″ then you’re not getting the part. The happiness people — the motivators and the gurus and the like — will tell you not to accept this reality, and in so doing put even greater pressure on you to change the reality you find yourself in. Up to and including trying to convince you that you can change the laws of physics. (No, I’m not kidding.) At which point you will have to choose between clinging to your dream and going insane.
My advice is to skip all that and recognize that if you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’re gambling. To the extent that nothing in life is ever a sure thing, then being a successful writer is less of a sure thing than anything else you can think of — so plan accordingly. There is no sure path to success. You can be pulled under by events outside your control. Realism is not equivalent to pessimism or cynicism.
The happiness industry’s ultimate source of power is the powerlessness we all feel as individuals in the face of random chance and chaotic events that are beyond our control. The happiness pitch is that you can control your destiny by thinking harder, better, or more positively, but you can’t. And anyone trying to tell you that you is either deluded themselves, trying to pry money out of your wallet, or both.
By way of additional coincidence, during my previously-mentioned trip to the library I also snagged a copy of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I’ve never read anything he’s written before, but he sells a lot of books so I was interested in how his approach to craft might dovetail (if at all) with his commercial success.
I managed to make it to this passage in Chapter 15 before I stopped reading:
Experiments like the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in California and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) had categorically proven that human thought, if properly focused, had the ability to affect and change physical mass. Their experiments were no “spoon-bending” parlor tricks, but rather highly controlled inquiries that all produced the same extraordinary result: out thoughts actually interacted with the physical world, whether or not we knew it, effecting change all the way down to the subatomic realm.
Mind over matter.
In 2001, in the hours following the horrifying events of September 11, the field of Noetic Science made a quantum leap forward. Four scientists discovered that as the frightened world came together and focused in shared grief on this single tragedy, the outputs of thirty-seven different Random Event Generators around the world suddenly became significantly less random. Somehow, the oneness of this shared experience, the coalescing of millions of minds, had affected the randomizing functions of these machines, organizing their outputs and bringing order from chaos.
Leaving aside my personal response, it’s clear that Mr. Brown has not simply tapped into the happiness industry’s rhetoric, he’s embraced it fully — at least in his fiction. To whatever extent he believes such things himself I don’t know, but he certainly seems willing to exploit the current trend.
But I digress. Ms. Ehrenreich herself delivers a more brutal and penetrating criticism of the American determination to blame the victims of our free-market system than I ever could. If you’re tired of being told that it’s your responsibility to bounce back from being run over by somebody else’s money-grubbing train, then Bright-Sided is the book for you. (And if you’re on the fence about such things, I recommend the book even more.)
Footnote: in a series of posts titled Publishing is for Professionals, I’ve cited various examples of how the vaunted professional publishing process routinely falters in exactly the way that publishing professionals accuse self-publishers and other non-sanctioned writers of failing. In the case of Bright-Sided, consistency compels me to point to a typo on page 111: “Not only shamanic healing but dozens of forms of spiritual practice proliferated within corporate American in the 1990s and 2000s.”
— Mark Barrett