Liberating Narcissism: Twenty-first Century’s “Turn Within” and the Value for Fiction Writers and Fiction Writing Instructors
Aaron Tillman | December 2016
Before you read this monumentally important essay on the timely topic of narcissism, I want to acknowledge how thrilling this must be for you, and to say how truly touched I am by your excitement and awe. Or as the comedian Sarah Silverman has said about her favorite niece (rather than her other niece), “She’s crazy about me, and I just … love that in people.”1
I bring up Sarah Silverman not simply because it is possible that I know her, and I want you to consider that possibility as you read, but because she is a provocative satirist and comedian whose humor taps a narcissistic nerve that is frightening and familiar—particularly in a contemporary American context—and she is, in many ways, the inspiration for the narrative voice that I am going to talk about here.
The character Silverman performs on stage, on television, in assorted films, and in a range of internet videos—the Sarah Silverman persona—is simultaneously in touch and out of touch with the global world, drowning in abstractions and opportunities for self-indulgence. One telling example, taken from her performance film Jesus Is Magic, focuses on her response to the events of September 11. She discloses that this day was especially “devastating” for her, as it was the exact day she discovered “that the soy chai latte was like 900 calories”—she had been drinking them every day! When she finally does talk about the terrorist attacks, she proudly reveals her response: “Domain names.” She claims to have purchased “OsamaBinLaden.com, OsamaBinLaden.net, OsamaBinLaden.org,” to send a message: “Looks like you’re gonna have to be Osama1. And then who’s laughing last? America.”2 Through the absurdity, one can recognize the landscape that abets the narcissism and global misunderstanding found in Silverman’s character who is a product of an environment that places inordinate emphasis––money, media exposure––on calorie counting, exotic coffee drinks, and catchy internet addresses. And yet the internet and corporate culture are only part of what fuels American narcissism.
In the 21st- century United States, media and social networking technologies have become powerful tools of exposure, abstraction, and self-indulgence. The propensity to consider one’s own drama as the only drama can get prolonged in this atmosphere, and the capacity to understand conflicts of culture can get reduced along with the reductions and abstractions that saturate the American cultural landscape. In “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World,” Susan Douglas discusses the trend on network and cable television to reduce the number of international stories and increase the number of “celebrity and lifestyle news.”3 She argues that “the proliferation… of nonscripted television has brought viewers into private realms––apartments, houses, resorts, or made-for-TV camps set up on remote islands––where dramas about relationships, personal behavior, and people’s ‘confessions’ urge viewers to look inward, not outward.”4 For Douglas, 21st- century television news and entertainment (categories that are becoming increasingly blurred) have made significant contributions to what she sees as a “turn within,” contributing to a rising trend of narcissistic behavior. And television might not even compare to the narcissistic power of social media.
In the 21st- century United States, media and social networking technologies have become powerful tools of exposure, abstraction, and self-indulgence.
In their 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell argue that narcissistic behavior “has spread to the culture as a whole, affecting narcissistic and less self-centered people.”5 They suggest that the 21st-century United States has embraced “narcissistic cultural values,” noting how teenagers face “tremendous pressure to self-promote and keep up in a materialistic world.”6 They cite their 2007 study that shows a significant “rise in college students’ narcissism over the generations.”7 According to Twenge and Campbell,
Social networking sites reinforce narcissism in an endless loop. Narcissists have more ‘friends’ and connections on these sites, and narcissistic behavior and images are rewarded with more comments and more ‘adds.’ Thus users are more likely to be connected with people who are more narcissistic than the average person. So in addition to the site structure facilitating narcissistic self-promotion, the way users are connected may pull the norm for behavior and self-presentation toward narcissism.8
Considering the state of television news and entertainment, the “indulge thyself” strategies of corporate marketing, the “everyone gets a trophy” age of entitlement, along with the powerful and prevalent MySpace mentality fostered by social media technologies that encourage “self-admiration” and unabashed self-promotion, we very well may have the “perfect storm” of narcissistic advocacy and encouragement—contributing factors in what has taken Generation Me to new extremes.
Given these extremes, we might find ourselves wondering what we can do when faced with a classroom of students who have been raised in environments rife with “narcissistic cultural values” and may very well be displaying narcissistic behaviors of their own. How can we encourage and inspire our students to do anything that they do not see as instantly gratifying and materially worthwhile? Fortunately for Creative Writing instructors, writing can still elicit fantasies of wealth and fame. Even for those students who do not harbor such grand delusions (or at least not with writing), there can still be value in encouraging students to be self-indulgent. That is, encouraging students to write about themselves and the personalities they see around them (what other subjects are there, anyway?). The exercises I discuss later in this essay (and the larger list of prompts I provide in the Appendix) give students opportunities to amplify, exaggerate, and extend the narratives that are swirling within and around them, adding distance between the writers and their personal stories and the incentive to say something about their surroundings in a creative and often satirical way. But to make the most of these exercises, students should heed Eudora Welty’s advice to “write about what you don’t know about what you know.” They must explore the questions; engage the familiar with a sense of wonder; immerse themselves into the mystery. To do this most effectively, the writing must be combined with reading and discussion.
Even for those students who do not harbor such grand delusions (or at least not with writing), there can still be value in encouraging students to be self-indulgent.
When bringing up the term narcissism in the classroom, I have found that most students are familiar with the term, have a general sense of what it means, and largely see it as bad. When asking about the tendencies and trends that may encourage narcissistic behaviors, I have also found that most students are quick to point out examples in others, and to a lesser extent themselves, and label an assortment of actions and individuals as narcissistic. In Jan Hoffman’s 2008 New York Times article “Here’s Looking at Me, Kid,” she suggests that narcissism “has become the go-to diagnosis by columnists, bloggers and television psychologists.” According to Hoffman, “We love to label the offensive behavior of others to separate them from us. …‘Narcissist’ is among our current favorites.”9 So the behavior is not only around us, but the label is too. Not to mention the tendency to see such proclivities in others while not always seeing the same in ourselves.
Humor theorist Joseph Boskin contends that effective humor “must relate, in an intimate way, to the scope and direction of society.”10 Fiction often has a similar aim: to magnify the “scope and direction” of a time and of a place. Not unlike satirical humor, socially conscious fiction attempts to reveal something about the world in which we live—the troubling trends, hypocrisies, contradictions. In the early 21st-century United States––where increasingly, serious matters, as grave as war and famine and terrorism, are disseminated through social media headlines and suspect websites, processed in startlingly short intervals, bound to be trivialized and misunderstood—there is an opportunity to convey this trivialization and misunderstanding, without writing essay-like about it (as I am doing here). In a Creative Writing class, there is unique space for writers to experiment with personas—to perform them on the page. In this case, a writer can take on the voice of someone whose “central drama” is entangled in American media culture where the space between what is real and what is not real has already begun to collapse. In other words, writing from the voice of someone a young writer sees everyday (in person and though various forms of media).
While the inspiration for the writing may be all around us, and there are many writing prompts that can unleash the inner or imagined narcissist (see Appendix), it is important to consider models of such writing, so students and instructors can analyze and discuss how an exercise might be turned into a fully realized, voice-driven story—ideally one that is timely and compelling. With that in mind, I would like to look at a few contemporary examples of what I call First-Person Narcissistic Narratives—stories driven by first-person narrators whose narcissistic tendencies are central to the stories themselves.
In any story, voice reveals something about character. Who says what when and why will always offer some insight about the speaker (or the character who chooses not to speak). In a first-person narrative, as we all know, the narrator is a character and his/her voice is a crucial part of how we know and understand that character. In First-Person Narcissistic Narratives, the voice is not only a character, but in many cases, the voice is the story itself. Although examples do vary, many of these pieces have limited dialogue since the story is dominated by the telling, and the sentences and paragraphs are often stretched out in streams of consciousness. What is said and how it is said become more significant than the particulars of plot.
To illustrate, I will start by discussing Aimee Bender’s short story “Off,” from her 2005 collection Willful Creatures. The sentences and paragraphs in “Off” are notable to the eye, the ear, and the breath, and have an impact on the reading experience that can be discussed in a classroom. The style of the writing is an important feature to analyze—one that students tend to be especially adept at interpreting. As this story takes shape, we start to see paragraph-long sentences leading into three-plus page paragraphs. Prose written in such a style can affect our breath even when we are reading silently. That said, it is valuable (and sadistically entertaining) to ask students to read such passages aloud, to demonstrate how defying conventional sentence and paragraph structure can impact the reading experience and elicit a visceral reaction in the reader.
Prose written in such a style can affect our breath even when we are reading silently.
The opening lines of “Off” establish the setting and the actions that drive the plot, and they offer insight into the narrator’s frame of mind—the real story in this case:
At the party I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blond. Not necessarily in that order. I’m alone at the party and I have my drink in a mug because by the time I got here, at the ideal moment of lateness, the host had used all her bluish glasses with fluted stems that she bought from the local home-supply store that all others within a ten-block radius had bought too because at some inexplicable point in time, everybody woke up with identical taste. I see two matching sweaters and four similar handbags. It’s enough to make you want to buy ugly except other people are having that reaction too and I spot three identically ugly pairs of shoes. There’s just nowhere to hide.11
From these opening lines, the scenario is established. Our narrator is at a party, and she has set an unusual, but obtainable goal. She arrives alone, and is very conscious about exactly when she arrives—“the ideal moment of lateness.” She is acutely aware of her surroundings and is critical of others whom she implies are as self-conscious as she is, but far more conformist and contrived.
As we read on, we learn more about our narrator not from her interactions with others as much as the way she describes her surroundings and encounters, all while she tries to fulfill the goal she has set in the opening line—the plot line, in this case. After finding a red-haired boy drunk on a couch, she invites him into the bedroom to help her look for a purse she has not actually brought to the party. When looking at the jackets and personal items heaped on the bed, she tells us: “I am rich, but I consider stealing some of the stuff because they are so trusting, these people, and I feel like wrecking their trust.”12 Now we can add the claim of wealth, along with jealousy and spite, to the details that open the story. By this very early point in the narrative, the narcissism is already suggested, but it gets more explicit as the story proceeds, not only by the content of what is said, but by the way the content is delivered. When the red-haired boy reveals that he remembers the narrator as the “one with the inheritance,” she tells him:
I was really good at painting too and he says, ‘Really? I don’t remember that.’ So I am through with him. … I turn around and he looms above me and I can see the freckles on his collarbone and that means he has a chest of freckles and a back of freckles and knees of freckles and freckled inner thighs and I was the best artist in grade school for several years until that dumb girl moved here from Korea, and he is laughing more because he knew me as a little kid and is remembering something and I barely remember what it was like to be a little kid so it seems rude that he would recall something about me that I couldn’t myself. If I can’t remember it, then it should mean no one else can either.13
In this passage, the heart of which consists of one discursive sentence, the narcissism of the narrator emerges in what is said (the solipsistic final note, “If I can’t remember it, then it should mean no one else can either,” one explicit example), but also in how it is said—the stream of consciousness an important factor of characterization, in this case. What has been triggered by this incident with the red-haired boy shows up on the page itself.
After returning to the party, the narrator lets us know that “[t]he blond is next,” instigating a paragraph that goes on for three and a half pages and reveals a more intense, yet strikingly relatable degree of narcissism, consistent with the character and the voice we have been introduced to thus far. This style of prose brings us deeper into the character’s mind and deeper into the story itself. By now, it is abundantly clear that this story is not about what happens—kissing three boys with different colored hair—but it is about the mind of someone who would conceive of such a thing. That mind is laid out on the page—it is the voice that’s driving this story—and it tells us, implicitly and explicitly, about loneliness and entitlement and jealousy and uncertainty and fear and fleeting moments of happiness and satisfaction, among other things, many of which are at the forefront of students’ minds today.
Writing Exercise #1: What is the most curious social goal you have heard of or could imagine? Allow your narrator to present such a goal to his/her readers and write about what happens when s/he tries to realize this goal. As the story develops, more complex influences, motivations, and personal attributes should emerge. (What you don’t know about what you know.)
Before moving on, I would also like to point to Writing Exercise #2, inspired by a story I am not going to talk about here, but I have used many times in the classroom: Adam Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer” from his short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Although there is quite a lot to this story, it has many of the narrative features found in Bender’s piece, and the narcissistic element can be imagined by the title itself.
Writing Exercise #2: Write from the point of view of a character who is convinced of his/her own brilliance and importance, and believes s/he has come up with an idea that would revolutionize the world. Have him/her relate this idea—or the sheer importance of this idea—to a friend, family member, or colleague.
It is not simply the self-absorbed and the self-deluded aspect of narcissism that is compelling, but the desire to enter into the private spaces of others and the urge to project the personal and the private into spaces that are increasingly shared by others.
It is not simply the self-absorbed and the self-deluded aspect of narcissism that is compelling, but the desire to enter into the private spaces of others and the urge to project the personal and the private into spaces that are increasingly shared by others. These desires and compulsions not only influence innovations in social technologies, but also the major trends in mainstream programming. According to Susan Douglas, “[t]he mass media pander to… [an increasingly self-absorbed population] and offer fare obsessed with sex, relationships, self-surveillance, physical challenges, voyeurism, the humiliation of others, and incessant celebrity psychodramas.”14 While the influence of media can be detected in Bender’s and Haslett’s stories, it is even more explicit in the chapter “Forty-Minute Lunch” from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. (This chapter was originally published as a short story in Harper’s Magazine and the novel, comprised of chapters that can all stand alone, works incredibly well in the classroom.)
In this chapter, Egan takes the breathless, tangential style of the narcissistic narrator to another level, adding several Em dashes, and long parenthetical asides, and footnotes that dwarf the general content at times, while presenting the entire chapter as a newspaper article with large margins and slender columns of prose. In this case, the narrator, a celebrity reporter, makes his article as much about himself as about Kitty Jackson, the actress he is meant to interview. Similar to the narrator in Bender’s “Off,” the narrator in Egan’s chapter displays a self-consciousness that swallows up the story he is ostensibly trying to tell—becoming the story himself—providing layers of narrative digressions that meander and extend, appealing to and tampering with the eye, the ear, and the breath. In a further layer of self-awareness, the narrator tries to rationalize why he is inserting himself into his profile of Kitty Jackson, suggesting:
The most interesting thing about her is the effect she has upon others, and since the “other” whose inner life is most readily available for our collective inspection happens to be myself, it is only natural—indeed, it is required (‘I’m begging you; please make this work so I don’t look like an asshole for assigning it to you’—Atticus Levi, during a recent phone conversation in which I expressed to him my despair of writing further celebrity profiles)—that the alleged story of my lunch with Kitty Jackson actually be the story of the myriad effects Kitty Jackson has upon me during the course of said lunch. And for those effects to be remotely comprehensible, you must bear in mind that Janet Green, my girlfriend of three years and my fiancée for one month and thirteen days, dumped me two weeks ago for a male memoirist whose recent book details his adolescent penchant for masturbating into the family fish tank (‘At least he’s working on himself!’—Janet Green, during a recent phone conversation in which I tried to point out what a colossal error she’d made).15
In this case, the narrator has married his reluctant investment, but significant immersion, in the celebrity stories that consume the public with his own self-absorption, all of which is evident from the path and appearance of the narrative. Egan’s chapter hits just about all of Douglas’s points noted above, offering an account “obsessed with sex, relationships, self-surveillance, physical challenges, voyeurism, the humiliation of others, and incessant celebrity psychodramas” and demonstrates how the focus turns in, and the story and the object of humiliation become the narrator himself. As spiraling and introspective as this narrative can be, I have found that many students relate to this chapter in personal and significant ways, and can use it to inspire their own writing—it offers a frame of reference and a course of thought that many are familiar with.
Writing Exercise #3: Have your narrator write a “profile” about a celebrity (or any person the narrator may revere or fear or despise), allowing that profile to focus almost exclusively on the narrator’s own feelings, rather than the descriptions, experiences, and opinions of the person who is supposed to be the subject of the piece. (I tend to think of this as the We’re Not Worthy exercise.)
The last exercise I will touch on here is inspired by an excerpt from Jay Caspian Kang’s 2012 novel The Dead Do Not Improve, which offers a murder mystery told from someone immersed in the narcissistic cultural values of his time:
I learned about the death of the Baby Molester because I was bored and Googling myself. I had found nothing but the same shit I always find—a five-hundred word essay I had written for a now-defunct blog about how Illmatic had helped me grieve for my dead parents (number 14 in search), a published excerpt of my ultimately unpublished novel (number 183 in search), a pixelated photo of me, fatter, reading at a bar in Brooklyn (number 2 in image search).16
Since the time and effort put into such egosurfing—in this case, re-scrolling through pages of information before switching to search exclusively for self-images—is evident enough, I will cut right to Writing Exercise #4: Write from the point of view of someone obsessed with his/her own image and persona; detail the extremes this person would go (and has gone) to track and promote him/herself.
In the United States, there has long been a fascination with the ways in which individual identities are established, projected, and understood. In an age where consumption with and projection of the self has reached new heights—especially for the college age population—narratives that speak to this presence can be especially cogent. Although few have the following or the reach of Sarah Silverman, the efforts she has made to satirize our self-obsessed times have put an important light on troubling behavioral trends. In the Creative Writing classroom, students searching for subjects and voices may find that First-Person Narcissistic Narratives offer compelling angles to approach their own short fiction—angles that may raise questions or reveal something about our contemporary age.
The exercises I have provided (and there are a handful of others in the Appendix) may challenge some of the conventions about dialogue, character, and form. In an introductory Creative Writing course, where the goal might be to introduce and create opportunities for students to understand and apply the conventions of the short story form—and efforts are often made to privilege showing over telling—First-Person Narcissistic Narratives might not be ideal models. Yet they still have value for drawing out a voice in an isolated exercise, reminding students of the myriad ways a story may be told, and helping young writers note the difference between the author and the narrator. For intermediate or advanced Fiction Writing classes, however, where the whole semester is spent writing fiction and students may be itching to experiment and say something meaningful, these exercises can unleash a whole new energy and excitement into the workshop and help liberate the Creative Writing classroom from the restrictions of common conventions. Many can relate to and get into this voice, which can be funny and poignant and even frightening all at once. When students are invested in the activity—and this is an activity students slide into with tremendous ease since they are writing about a subject they know very well—the results can yield compelling characters, as well as details and circumstances that can be instructive, engaging, poignant, and socially relevant.
Exercises to Unleash the Inner or Imagined Narcissist
Inspired by Aimee Bender’s short story “Off”
- What is the most curious social goal you have heard of or could imagine? Allow your narrator to present such a goal to his/her readers and tell about what happens when s/he tries to realize this goal. As the story develops, more complex influences, motivations, and personal attributes should emerge.
Inspired by Adam Haslett’s short story “Notes to My Biographer”
- Write from the point of view of a character who is convinced of his/her own brilliance and importance, and believes s/he has come up with an idea that would revolutionize the world. Have him/her relate this idea—or the sheer importance of this idea—to a friend, family member, or colleague.
Inspired by Jennifer Egan’s chapter/story “Forty Minute Lunch”
- Have your narrator write a “profile” about a celebrity (or any person the narrator may revere or fear or despise), allowing that profile to focus almost exclusively on the narrator’s own feelings, rather than the descriptions, experiences, and opinions of the person who is supposed to be the subject of the piece.
Inspired by Jay Caspian Kang’s novel The Dead Do Not Improve
- Write from the point of view of someone obsessed with his/her own image and persona; detail the extremes this person would go (and has gone) to track and promote him/herself.
Additional Writing Ideas to Inspire First-Person Narcissistic Narratives
- Tell a story in Facebook, Twitter and/or other social networking posts/exchanges; this might also be framed as a series of blog entries.
- Retell a story from the point of view of a side character who imagines him/herself as the central character (as if every action and event is really about him/her).
Search the internet for absurd celebrity stories (it won’t take long), modify a detail and write down the opening line for a first-person freewrite
Examples (taken from real celebrity stories):
- You would have punched the psychic (change to librarian?) too if you knew what the jealous hag was thinking!
- The minute my monkey (change to emu?) was detained at customs, I knew it was going to be a rough trip.
- When I commissioned the painting of myself as a centaur (change to chimera?), I clearly stated I wanted it mounted in the foyer, not in the bedroom
- What makes you (or a person you might imagine) most self-conscious? Write a story from the point of view of someone who is unable to recognize what is really taking place because s/he cannot see beyond his/her own insecurity.
Aaron Tillman is an Associate Professor of English at Newbury College. Braddock Avenue Books will publish his short story collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain, in 2017. He received a Short Story Award for New Writers from Glimmer Train Stories, and his short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, the Madison Review, Arcadia Magazine, the Carolina Quarterly, great weather for MEDIA, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere.
- Sarah Silverman, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. Dir. Liam Lynch, Roadside Attractions, 2006, DVD.
- Susan J. Douglas, “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World,”American Quarterly 58.3 (2006): p. 619.
- Ibid., p. 620.
- Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Free Press, 2009), p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- Ibid., p. 111.
- Jan Hoffman, “Here’s Looking at Me, Kid,” The New York Times. 20 July, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/fashion/20narcissist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0#
- Joseph Boskin, “The Ethics of Laughter and Humor,” The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, Ed. John Morreall (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 254.
- Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures (New York: Doubleday, 2005), pp. 31–32.
- Ibid., pp. 33–34.
- Ibid., pp. 34–35.
- Douglas, “The Turn Within,” p. 636.
- Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), pp. 174–175.
- Jay Caspian Kang, The Dead Do Not Improve (New York: Hogarth, 2012), p. 3.