Kristin Dombek’s legendary essay “How to Quit,” published in the winter 2013 edition of n+1, garnered heated word of mouth and praise from the likes of Brooklyn Magazine’s Kristen Iversen, and that was before Dombek won a Rona Jaffe award, published “Letter from Williamsburg” in The Paris Review, and got a double book deal.
The first of those books has arrived, and it’s called The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, out this week from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and while an essay might have a hard time making a splash in a media ocean churned by Trumpty Dumpty and the Olympics, the book has already drawn praise from the Times.
Dombek developed a following by stabbing dagger-sharp intelligence into her own punk/boho mythos, carving a taut, gritty voice out of the noise of both Brooklyn and media. She wrote an advice column for n+1, full of “open a vein” personal admissions— a platform from which she once called Jesus Christ “a bit of a narcissistic asshole”– that could be the germ of this book.
In The Selfishness of Others Dombek notes the rising trend of “narcissism” and the accusation thereof, from media think pieces to online forums, dissecting with a cool remove while admitting to an Observer Effect on her own conclusions. Her inbetweener point of view she explains by identifying as neither Gen X or Millennial—a subject, like narcissism, that has its own micro-blogosphere: some call them cuspers, or worse, Xennials. She notes that Millennials are often accused of being narcissists by Gen Xers and older, and that this particular generational gap is not unique.
This writer, now infected with an aversion to the narcissistic word “I,” wanted to cross-examine Dombek about her self-interrogation during the cold Brooklyn winters– one she spent holed up with the Internet writing this book and resisting the gravitational pull of solipsism– but decided it was far too hot out, and caught up with her via email.
Addressing the supposed rise in narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you discuss both how data was collected and how it was interpreted. How much of the “rise” is merely perception, the epidemic spread of a meme? Like how social media and the 24-hour news cycle have doubtlessly helped mass murder become more commonplace?
If you mean that we’re seeing displays of narcissism more frequently because we see everything more frequently, then yes, I guess I’d buy that. That the internet presents to us people whose selfishness is encouraged by that medium, who maybe look more selfish as a result, and are therefore available for us to judge, in greater quantities and faster than ever before.
The difference between narcissism and mass murder, though, is that mass murder actually happens. It’s not—at least for me, it hasn’t become commonplace. Horrifyingly common, and more visible when it does happen, yes. And in fact some of those murderers might be rightly diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
But we’re using that same diagnosis to explain millennials, our exes, and not just the possibly deserving political candidate, but politicians in whatever party opposes our own, the parent who screwed us up, all our friends on Facebook, our enemies on Twitter. I do think it’s a meme, or maybe more like a movie script that we play out in our minds, putting different characters in the hero and narcissistic villain roles, again and again. Except most often we’re the hero, right? I’m just not sure that, in each of these cases, pathological narcissism is the best word for what is happening. I’m curious about what the diagnosis covers up.
One of your book’s narcissists is Tucker Max. In the film Inside (Dis)Honesty – The Truth About Lies, publicist Ryan Holiday describes manufacturing some of the outrage and protests over Max’s book, bolstering Max’s “asshole” brand via guerrilla marketing. You say that Tucker Max “recanted his narcissism,” but isn’t this just great marketing once again?
I haven’t seen the film. But yes, I agree with you. In the book, I was also speculating that he was telling us all along, in plain sight, how much of what he was doing was manufactured. …For a while, Max lampooned us, I think, for the way we love/hate this story about straight dudes as drunk, selfish, and dumb. From a distance, and maybe because the narcissist script is so deep in us—we enjoy it, if we’re on the person’s side, and condemn it if we’re not—it can be harder to see when they’re joking.
I’m not a Tucker Max scholar, mind you. Do you think there are Tucker Max scholars in universities? I bet there’s at least one. I spent about a week in a Max-hole, reading, that’s it, and found him to be far from dumb.
We’re pretty quick to condemn one another for marketing themselves, when we’re all increasingly called upon to do it. So I’m about to defend Tucker Max, here. While I’m sure he is continuing to try to support himself in the matter to which he’s grown accustomed, I don’t doubt that there are costs to playing that character, right? Which he’s trying to repair in the new book. But I haven’t read it so will stop talking.
You discuss the preponderance of the “sprint a 5k” solution—run from who’s ailing you—and you seem suspect of this as a viable answer to difficulty. In other interviews you’ve mentioned suffering under deadlines, and seem almost resigned to the unenjoyment of writing. You’ve said: “99% of [writing] seems to be about building up a tolerance to failing all day long.” Is this good practice for trying to make a relationship work?
Ha. No, I wouldn’t advise suffering through bad relationships, or taking on as many assignments as I had on that particular interview day. Or sleeping as little. But a little detachment from mistaking the feeling of the moment for absolute, eternal knowledge (“You seem like an asshole right now, therefore you must be an asshole, essentially”; “I feel like I’m failing cause the piece isn’t working yet, therefore it will fail”) can help in both situations, right?
You say, “Because let’s face it, there’s something about the way this one turns away that’s hot,” and later discuss the pathology of one trying to “replicate the traits of narcissists and sociopaths precisely because these traits are hot.” Like the old adage that we pursue what retreats from us, could it be that simple?—we love narcissists because they don’t care about us?
In those quotes, I was trying to tease out the assumptions of some websites. That’s what the manosphere assumes and teaches guys to play on, to seduce women. I wouldn’t call it love, exactly, what it’s designed to produce, would you? (And neither would Tucker Max, these days! I am a Tucker Max scholar.) I do think, though, that when we say “narcissist,” what we sometimes mean is, “someone who doesn’t care about me.” And that’s the funny part, right? Because maybe they don’t care about you, but care for others quite deeply.
In a rare passage using the verboten “I,” you say, “I was born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X, at home neither on the Internet nor in a world without it,” and “that everyone is an artist, now, writing our memoirs.” Having witnessed this rapid-fire technological transition, how much harder is it to define oneself as an artist today? To stand out as a “real” writer in a world of bloggers and texters? (A professional dental hygienist in a world of twice-a-day tooth-brushing dilettantes.)
Let’s all be artists. In the condemnation of the new narcissism, you sometimes hear this old censure of performance, of irony, of creation and artifice and playacting and the beauty of surfaces, of costuming and subterfuge and imagination and fiction. But that condemnation is ancient. It was Plato’s.
I’m not sure, but I suspect in some ways, fear of narcissism is a symptom of the way the Internet just makes it more explicit how much we’re performing. But we always have. The fear of a narcissism epidemic sometimes takes the form of the newest incarnation of a very old and hypocritical impulse to condemn the artistic in life: we love to expose others’ playacting, while we’re fidgeting nervously in the wings, trying to figure out how to present ourselves.
This may be—and I say this with great delicacy and gentle humor—the most narcissistic line in the book: “Any book you write is its own asylum, but a book about narcissism is like the padded cell inside the asylum.” Is it a relief to have this book over with?
Yes, absolutely. Writers are affected by whatever language we’re immersed in, and this language I was reading and writing in, trying to take apart, that tries to get you to diagnose people around you as pathological, is not pleasurable or world-expanding to be immersed in. I think it’s “toxic,” to borrow another ubiquitous self-help word. And I think it distracts us, channels our moral concerns and our empathy too close to home, too much toward ourselves.
Like everyone, my attention right now is more on tragedies and injustice on a global scale, so it’s uncomfortable. And yeah, I have obviously a very high irony threshold, but I’ve been nervous it would be like an irony spiral of colossal proportions. When the first review came out I woke to a Facebook timeline full of—thanks to friends’ generous and sweet posting of the review on my timeline—giant pictures of my head. It did feel like I’d maybe reached peak irony, at that point, which having lived, as you have, in Williamsburg for many years, is saying a lot.
But then, in the little promotion I’m doing, it’s been about talking with people, and hearing from early readers, and getting to hear their thoughts and ideas and questions, and as every writer says, when it’s in the world it’s not about you anymore. And it’s a relief to find that’s really true. That’s why we write, to be together with people, right? You just, ironically, have to spend too much time alone, along the way. The conversations, so far, have been fascinating, and it’s been kind of the opposite of what I feared.
Dombek will discuss The Selfishness of Others with Dayna Tortorici of n+1 at Greenlight bookstore Wednesday, August 17 at 7:30 pm.
This interview has been edited and condensed.