The Self-Deprecation Paradox

The most popular story on the New Yorker’s website at the time of my writing is a Daily Shouts piece by (Jewish!) humor writer Bess Kalb: “A Selection of the 30 Most Disappointing Under 30. It’s good.

The piece ends on a self-deprecatory note, adding her own name and age (“Bess Kalb, twenty-nine”) to the list: “Kalb started a screenplay, talked about it to at least thirty friends and family members and two Uber drivers, and then never finished it.”

It is, let me emphasize, a really funny piece – a clever idea and well executed. This is not a surprise: Anyone under 30 and regularly writing humor articles for the New Yorker is going to be incredibly talented and hardworking and… exactly the sort of person likely to inspire the exact anxieties youthful achievement lists tend to elicit. But it’s hard to blame Kalb for including herself as an example. Had she not done so, the piece might have come across as mean-spirited – that is, as a successful 20-something having a laugh at her struggling peers.

So. My immediate response was that it doesn’t make sense for a parody of these lists to come from someone who is just as impressive and envy inspiring. But, upon reflection, it also kind of does: both because that’s who might (rationally) read such lists in the hope of appearing on them, and because of something I have named the Self-Deprecation Paradox.

The Self-Deprecation Paradox goes as follows: You can only tell an anecdote that makes you look unimpressive if you are unambiguously impressive. The protagonist can only be a nebbish if he’s a nebbish who’s popular with women. The protagonist can only crack jokes about her own copious food consumption if she’s slim enough to be conventionally attractive.

But some of that may just be self-deprecation. The Paradox goes further. The Paradox is about what is and isn’t possible in art.

A line had jumped out at me in Heather Havrilesky’s recent (and recently discussed) Ask Polly advice column: “Somehow most people who write books about celebrating the lives of single women seem to secure long-term partners before their books even hit the shelves.” This is very true; I can off the top of my head think of four examples of this, which is one more than would be needed for a trend piece. Maybe it’s chance, or maybe the ‘and she’s still single’ narrative is also out there, but audiences find the other ending more reassuring?

I’m thinking also of comedian Ali Wong, who performed brave (and – odd as this may seem – hilarious) stand-up about a previous miscarriage… while visibly pregnant, near the end of a healthy pregnancy. As Wong told interviewer Michelle Lanz:

“I started joking about my miscarriage immediately after having it. I think the day after. Publicly. It was not working and Laurie Kilmartin who’s a great comic and also a mom told me, I think people need to know that you’re OK in order for the joke to work. What I took from that was either I have to be pregnant, like pretty far along, or had my kid already in order to talk about it. Otherwise, people feel too sad and that it’s too dark if I just had a miscarriage and hadn’t bounced back from it.”

The “too sad” concern doesn’t just impact comedy. There’s a cross-genre convention according to which the really wrenching (or merely embarrassing) personal stories can only be told when the pain was a character building experience en route to everything being just fine.

Partly the Self-Deprecation Paradox is about giving audiences what they want. But it’s also in part about who has an audience in the first place. I’ve written before about the (logistically near-inevitable) tendency for personal writing about poverty and struggle – or even just middle-class blandness! – to come from a place of no longer being in that situation, of having made it. Something similar is true in fiction: Anyone who has written a novel has written a novel, and therefore won’t have firsthand knowledge being the sort of person who, like one of Kalb’s satirical, made-up under-30s, “has written sixteen pages [of a first novel], and they’re not very good.”

The Self-Deprecation Paradox, then, keeps human tragedy, disappointment, and mediocrity from being represented in ways that accurately reflect how they exist in the world. I point this out not to launch a protest of some sort against the phenomenon, but rather to make an observation about what is and isn’t possible where representation is concerned.

Self-Deprecation Overanalyzed

Self-Deprecation Overanalyzed

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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