“A page-turning thrill ride that will leave readers holding their breath!”
“A poignant, no-holds barred, kick-ass memoir that will grab you by the throat and shake you to your core!”
” Grabs you by the throat and pulls you into it from the very beginning!”
“We’ve finally got a book to screech and howl about! A brilliant, unruly brute of a book.”
(Recently seen comments on book blurbs)
The world outside has begun to feel exhausting.
Frequently when I get home at the end of the day or when I shut down my computer at night, I feel defeated. And mentally tired. I feel intimidated.
I find myself wondering: Has our competitive world pushed achievement, entitlement and desire to stressful extremes? If the author of Great Expectations were writing now, wouldn’t he have to re-characterize a young man’s prospects as Supersized Expectations in order to ring true?
I’m thinking of a job description I saw several years ago in the classified section of our local newspaper. The ad happened to be for a position as a reporter atthat paper. After outlining the job responsibilities, qualifications and submission process, the editors invited applicants to “dazzle us with your cover letter.”
Dazzle? Dazzle? The word bullied me. It angered me. Whether it was an attack of low self-esteem or a refusal to perform like a capuchin monkey, I discarded the paper, along with any notions I might have had about breaking into local journalism. I felt so depressed and deflated by the linkage of honest reporting to compulsory pyrotechnics that I grew listless at the very thought of looking for any job anywhere ever again because I didn’t know if my degree or magnitude of “dazzle” was sufficient.
These days, as I scan the Web, leaping from link to link in a hunt for the right literary agents to query, I often succumb to that same ennui. Regardless of who or what their preferred authors or genres are, today’s smart agents want to be seriously overwhelmed. Go ahead, they say: Knock my socks off. Blow my mind. Keep me up all night turning pages.
Sacrifice all to the barefoot brainless insomniac muse.
We know that writers today must work extra hard to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of thousands of other writers on the planet. We know about the imperative to supplement one’s talent with spectacular marketing skills and social media management. What makes the writing business feel so super exhausting, I think, is the fever pitch that writers need to maintain in order to accommodate the expectations – and the adjectives – posed by agents, publishers and reviewers.
The fiction writer must create a compelling author brand, an eye-catching query letter, an irresistible pitch, a mesmerizing voice, quirky, unforgettable characters, a thrilling plot with a fresh twist, a commercial premise that will captivate the imagination and a sales hook that will make the publishing world sit up and take notice and extol his or her book as the next big thing, if not the Grail of publishing: the new Harry Potter.
We know that everyone today is caught up in a vortex of media diversions and that anyone with anything to say had better do it memorably in sixty seconds flat. Unfortunately, this contributes to a perception of potential readers as insatiable thrill-seekers.
The adjectives on a book flap cannot be sedate. The story inside has to be: ground-breaking or magical; gripping or stunning; or stunning and searing; dazzling (there’s that word again), enthralling and spellbinding. It must be gorgeously wrought, blazingly alive, brilliantly conceived and nothing short of an epic. Or a tour de force. Adevastating, revelatory, illuminating tour de force.
Here’s the thing. I don’t want to knock your socks off. I don’t want to blow your mind. I am not interested in keeping you up all night turning pages. That’s not good for you. You need your rest. Jane Eyre is not a page-turner. Moby Dick is not a page-turner. And neither is The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t read The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha in one night if my life depended on it. And neither could you.
The barefoot brainless insomniac muse wants you, dear reader, to be a nervous wreck. As a writer, I want you to be in a whole and healthy state of mind, a state of equilibrium, so that when I ask you to think, you can think clearly and when I ask you to feel, you can feel deeply.
I am not recommending the pursuit of mediocrity. We should all of us do our best at whatever we feel called to do. We should not compromise or cheat our gifts, we must not slight our dreams. It is simply that the number of articles about the escalation of what is expected of us seems to be increasing. And the spread of these articles, like the steady rise in fast food portion sizes or the descriptive bloat on a book flap, point to a culturally mandated exaggeration of our prospects that is making us tired (or stressed-out or obese or obscure).
In an article for the NY Times called “Meet the New Super People,” James Atlas, president of the publishers Atlas and Company, concludes that to get into college today, it’s not enough to be well rounded. He quotes a former director of college counseling as saying, “’It used to be that if you were editor of the paper or president of your class you could get in almost anywhere. Now it’s: What did you do as president? How did you make the paper special? Kids file stories from Bosnia or El Salvador on their summer vacations.’”
A brochure in the mail announcing the winners of a prestigious scholarly fellowship prompted Atlas to write:
“There doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.”
James Atlas uses the word exhausting, too. “All that striving, working, doing.”
After managing to make it through the super charged environment of college, young adults faced with the challenge of finding work are bound to discover that globalization and the information technology revolution have accelerated the process of job obsolescence. In an Op-Ed piece for the Times, Thomas Friedman writes:
“In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t, when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.”
The progression from the Big Mac to the Triple Whopper or Colossal Burger or Premium Crispy Chicken Ranch BLT Sandwich reflects our society’s dictate to want too much, consume too much, achieve too much or die trying. In an article called “The Scary Side of Super-Sized Ambition,” writer Heather Havrilesky notes, “The greatest American hero is not the honor-bound civic leader or the inspired artist or the thoughtful spiritual guide, but the self-serving entrepreneurial conquistador.”
She asks, “Do we want too much? Now that blind ambition no longer carries the slightest taint and the term ‘sell-out’ holds no meaning, now that earnest young men sing not of love but of ‘want(ing) to be a billionaire so frickin’ bad,’ now that narcissistic outbursts and trips to rehab are tantamount to self-promotion, now that, on blogs and Facebook and Twitter, millions of self-branding voices cry out and are never silenced, now that reaching for the stars is encountered less, by young people, as euphemism than high-priority action item, it may be time to question, at long last, the reigning ethos of super-sized individualism.”
We strain ourselves even in our pursuit of happiness. In an article for O Magazine Martha Beck writes that during an important sports game, she observed some peculiar behavior in the commercials.
“People weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants – they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone.…..In fact everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time……Our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks – madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow!”
Atlas, Friedman, Havrilesky and Beck attribute their issues and concerns to everything from globalization to Facebook and Twitter to reality TV. For them, other possible causes are stronger, deeper applicant pools, helicopter parents and Tiger Moms, marketing yes men, Reaganomics, the fantasy of upwardly mobile miracles, Oprah’s “you go girl” ideology, the polarization of American society and evolutionary causes such as a more enlightened perspective on diet, exercise and health.
This is all very interesting and possibly true, but I refuse to believe that I would be the only person overlooked by a world that favored super people and super-sized ambition, where average is over and the imperative is to engage in life, liberty and the pursuit of manic highs.
So I keep a prudent distance from the barefoot brainless insomniac muse. Whereas I was appalled, I think she would be pleased by a tag line I recently encountered for a social media consultant: “In a world that only rewards the exception and where just good isn’t good enough……”
Dear consultant: Did you know that at the Cheesecake Factory you can get your hamburger topped with grilled smoked pork belly, cheddar cheese, onions, lettuce, mayo and a fried egg?
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