Letter #2 – The Argument Deepens

American Psychiatric Press, Inc.
1400 K Street N.W., Suite 1101
Washington DC 20005

Dear Dr. Krasner:

With reference to your letter, of course it goes without saying that I’m disappointed to have Aspiring Writer Syndrome denied inclusion in the DSM. I think part of the misunderstanding here is that the entry I provided was a kind of truncated, or model, beginning. Just the tip of the iceberg. I thought that would be obvious, and further thought that providing you with a fun video to watch would make your job easier and endear my work to you. I did not anticipate, as I perhaps should have, that I would be viewed as an “amateur scientist” and “charlatan.”

Yes, I understand that you and your team rely heavily on lab research and clinical studies. Okay, independent verification, peer review—all duly noted. I didn’t mean to mislead you: of course AspiringWriterSyndrome.com is my website. I would just say that there are two ways to look at this: does this make me a “lone crackpot” or does it make me the most qualified and experienced candidate for authoring the DSM’s entry on the condition? Clearly my view would endorse the latter.

So we got off on the wrong foot. Record-scratch. Back to square one. I’m happy to provide further thoughts to elevate your views on AWS and enlighten you to the need to include it in your important work.

Consider my own situation, if you would. To me, so much copy about novels, about short story collections, reads like promotional copy, like a sales pitch, and I’m immediately put in mind of my role as a consumer, at which point, one, I feel immediately fatigued by it. We spend so much time already defending ourselves from the sight of billboards on roadsides and from spam phone calls and spam texts and spam emails and pop-up ads, and a commercials loading before our YouTube video, etc.; and two, it brings to mind the omnipresence of the mining of consumer data, and the reality that these metrics are used in publishing as well, and so whatever book I’m looking at has been shown to me for a highly impersonal reason by someone who wants my money. The confusion and internal conflict that the writer born in the analog world feels today about his role as a “content creator” is vast and goes a long ways towards exacerbating the aspirant’s condition.

But the fact is, books are made just as anything else is made, and with books the same thing happens after going to market as would happen with a soft drink. Someone makes a soft drink, they spend money convincing people it’s wonderful. These days, advertising is so embedded in our every device, in our every experience. Some people think nothing of this. Just doing business, they say, in fact their god-damn right! But with the failures and hazards of the capitalist way upon us, the connection between art and commerce has gotten a lot trickier. This is true in the last five years especially, as the climate crisis has been exacerbated to a critical point and the destruction, threats, and losses of property and life are made more and more real every day, in America and around the globe. It’s undeniably apparent that capitalism has driven this damage, and created these threats. Decades ago, when I was a teenager, the word “environment” was enlisted as an indistinct euphemism for something immeasurably precious; and now the frightening realities of our ecological crisis are such that the term “existential crisis” is mort apt. Which is a shame, because this puts a connotation of idle musing on it. Oh, an existential crisis, that’s something to do with Kierkegaard, who lived a long time ago and didn’t even know how to send a text message. I wish there were an alternative to the phrase “existential crisis” that would remind us that this is not an abstract philosophical matter, but an issue that threatens to end the lives of us all.

In its basest form, science fiction literature is a commercial product that capitalizes on our fears and anxieties about our future without actually doing anything to improve it. Literature’s justification for itself has been that we need these stories of apocalypse and Martian ventures in order to visualize outcomes that collectively we need to understand and ward off. That clearly hasn’t happened, and it’s too late now.

In this historical context the promotion of things, even our beloved literature—even my treasured literature—reeks of impropriety. It’s a continuation of the materialistic status quo. It’s getting people to buy stuff, acquire it, and tell others to buy it and acquire it. Which involves shipping, electricity at a manufacturing facility, cars to be driven by the employees, waste to be created, not to mention trees downed. But probably the biggest hazard is the inveterate sameness of it, the way it resembles habits of centuries past, when now the complacency and comfort book buyers get from buying books cannot be afforded any longer. Commerce itself is tainted, it’s donned a shameful cloak—and I say that in full hypocritical flight, as someone who loves owning tennis rackets, stereos, bikes, and other gadgets, all of which I use, creating just much waste as anyone.

In the midst of all this is the writer. In the progressive outreaches of our great nation, people track your credentials on these matters as a measure of a writer’s morals, so I am happy to share that I have bought about four items from Amazon, ever. I lived in Minneapolis when Amazon.com bought out the wonderful brick and mortar bookshop on Hennepin Avenue called Amazon Books, and Bezos’ megacorporation has been a villain in my eyes ever since.

We all have these moments in our lives when the lunacy of capitalism, of consumerism, dawned on us. One of mine was some decades ago, on Christmas, when my mother, who is not the type to make light of injustice or inequality, remarked, “I wonder what the poor people are doing?” as a way to acknowledge the sheer gluttony of what we had just participated in, exchanging gifts. Another seminal moment was around 2017 when I read in the news one morning that a server rack had been lowered into the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, a massive piece of internet-driving equipment to be kept cool by ocean waters. Excuse me, isn’t this near the fucking artic circle, where the ice caps are already melting? What’s being stored and transmitted by these servers, our selfies and dog memes? Or was it my all-important unpublished novels living in the cloud? In either case, we’re all culpable. We’ve all been enjoying apps and tech powered by fossil fuels. I’m sure a climate scientist would point out that this one piece of equipment is not enough to move the needle on the ocean’s thermometer, but that’s not the point. The point is, in the aughts and the 2010s, as concerns for our planet’s health rose, humanity went entirely in the wrong direction several times, in several ways, and it happened in plain sight, and it’s our collective addiction to consumption, including digital streaming in all its forms, that made us blind to our hubris.

I remember when Amazon added consumer goods and invented Prime, and next day delivery, and one-click shopping. This was a third moment when the sad absurdity of our lives was laid bare: Adding tens of thousands of gasoline-powered deliveries per day on a planet with a fragile, injured atmosphere did not seem well-considered. I can’t wait to receive the press release from Amazon that they have, in fact, beefed up their fleet of electric vehicles, and I’ll enjoy watching that news float by on an iPad when the waters rise over my kitchen counter.

Now when it comes to consuming, of course, there’s a big difference between junk food and lawn furniture and books—at least, we Aspiring Writers hope there is. But writers and other artists have surely counted themselves out when it comes to moral accountability. They’ve given themselves special exemptions on the argument that literature is for the good of civilization. Which it can be, and has been in the past, but look around. Today I saw four people walking on a sidewalk in single file, each of them with their heads in their phones. I didn’t see four people walking with their heads in books. The cultural benefits of literature are now but a spot of dry soil amid the deluge that is the internet, mobile technology, and social media platforms. Harumph, get off my lawn, and so forth—if that’s what this makes me, so be it. I’m only stating a fact.

Though people can learn from what you depict in a story, the defense of literature against capitalism breaks down in light of the social and political realities of our world, which is that politicians and people everywhere are malevolently controlling narratives using the stuff that used to be the fiction-writer’s tools: acceptable lies. We now have over 8 billion arbiters of truth on the planet. Perhaps the very concept of fiction, telling “true lies,” is irrelevant in light of “alternative facts” and their billion-pointed proliferation.

Let us look to the recent presidential lexicon and remember the entry for Hydroxychloroquine. Okay, political spin has been around for ages, that’s not a shocker. But it does seem that egregious falsehoods used to be the exception, not the rule. Lies were an undesirable presence at the periphery. Liars were called out, and there was some circling of the moral wagons. People lived by humane principals, and the politicians were there telling lies to other people elsewhere. No? Is this just me reliving the naivety of my youth? Well, perfidy was not all right where I grew up, when I grew up. Dishonesty was regarded as a regrettable part of the game. Now the scales are tipped, and the whole scale has toppled off the ledge, and the ledge itself is a puddle. The population at large, via their involvement with social media, is publishing, advertising, broadcasting, and selling their views, their opinions, their lifestyles, their everything, and in doing so spreading whatever they want to be the truth, like so much smooth peanut butter in a school lunchroom. They hope we’ll all file through for a serving and anoint them president, I guess.

A million realities, a million bubbles. A million micro-bubbles? Reams of nonfiction describe all this, I imagine. I wouldn’t know—I’m more often in the fiction section. Are these books changing any of it? Are they making it better? People who are not interested in the truth cannot be interested in books. Why would they be, when they can post, or write, their life, their viewpoint, their reality and declare it canonical, a best-seller, “the best book ever”? On Q-Anon Anonymous, I heard the story of the woman in Canada who declared herself queen and went to arrest those enforcing mask mandates and lockdowns. She actually made about $25,000 on a crowd funding site.

A headier waft inside this travelling rhetorical bus is the question: How can fiction thrive when artistry such as this takes place? To the literary-minded, something is obscured and bastardized by the simple efficiency of this infallible formula employed now by so many: just make the lie completely obvious.

Online, you can even rewrite history before it happens. “The election is rigged; vote for me.” In the many cases of grievance that occupy our world’s internet servers and backbones, there may be many people with valid points who had good cause to vent. But we’re all plagued by the saturation of opinions, stories, images, videos, rants, and tweets of others. Yet despite this nausea, the internet is so novel, and so capable, that we feel compelled to populate it. It’s ubiquitous, and staggeringly easy. The other night I was driving home from a tennis club and was notified when the son of Frank Zappa emailed me—a situation I never thought possible. He wanted to tell me about his latest subscription offering. I’m just that close to the legends, and this confirms my view that I always deserved to be.

I remember reading David Foster Wallace in the ‘90s on advertising and its effects on American minds and on the stylistic and technical choices of young American writers. The issue has persisted and deepened beyond Mr. Wallace’s expectations, I’m sure; it must have, since the pervasively false and sanctimonious tone of advertising has grown so prevalent that it evades even our noticing its noxious presence.

In Wisconsin, at my in-laws, where I write this, the TV plays to no one at times, and I get drawn into its digital maw of imagery. I have noticed that a great many ads seem to aspire to the profundity of a Terrance Malik film, which I find insulting to art. But more curious is the new breed of ad that features a spokesperson appearing on a mobile phone’s screen. Not a person on my screen speaking of a product, but a person in a mobile screen on my TV screen speaking of a product. The intent, it seems, is to show a recognizable vista to the viewer: a recorded video playing back, or a friend in FaceTime, or in an Instagram Reel, TikTok, etc. The sight is relatable, welcome and up-to-the-minute. Even the imitation of streaming content lends merit and value to not-really-streaming content.

Again, I take part in these things that I’m vaguely decrying. I do it too. I post videos places. But how uninteresting is the page of a book, when it doesn’t show a mobile phone inside it? Books don’t have cameras in them—not yet. The digital/visual dominates our cultural landscape, and print is massively overshadowed and outdated. A sheet of paper has zero pixels.

This week, Facebook changed its name to META. Though the CEO is risible and detestable, he is right that there is a metaverse. Obviously he’s trying to capitalize on that, and I’ll bet he succeeds. Like our former president, it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s so blatantly, shamelessly self-interested. Do we forgive him that because we all are?

Will the deepening of our meta-involvement, or meta-existence, help our political, cultural or environmental realities? With near-certainty that would satisfy the most exacting lab researcher, I postulate that it will not.

And here stands the Aspiring Writer. This is why, Dr. Krasner, it’s imperative that AWS be included—if you want the DSM to be at all relevant. A writer in this day and age must demonstrate fluency in internet rhetoric to appear at all relatable. That is a constraint and an imperative that threatens psychological identity greatly, one that is easily likened to an illness, a disease.

The writer isn’t therefore the most in need of pity, aid, compassion, and corrective justice. That’s not what I’m saying. The issue for the writer is that when everyone can produce luscious falsehoods with such great haste and ease, the writer has slim odds in the contest for attention that is the digital media landscape, of which book publishing has helplessly become a part.

Thank goodness for those who remain infatuated with books. May they enjoy the final years of the literate era.

These are the reasons that the existing terminology and language around disease are a touch insufficient on the matter of Aspiring Writer Syndrome’s definition. Those suffering from AWS still want to write, despite the apparent failing economics of it—monetary, spiritual, cultural, moral. They can’t help themselves. AWS is a condition that has to be managed. You have to manage this want, this wish, this foolish belief. And manage the fact that it feels like the original reasons we wrote are played out. The hopes we had for ourselves as writers are gone. Tell stories, spin moral fiber? We don’t have time to wait for a print production cycle. All the ideas I write today will be gone tomorrow. Too much has changed. In the media sky, books have been eclipsed in volume by other, massive spheres.

In light of this, I beg your to reconsider.

Kind Regards,
Benjamin Obler