Questions About Questionnaires


Arts & Culture

All images from A Proust Questionnaire by Joanna Neborsky, TarcherPerigee, 2016.

Evan Kindley and Joanna Neborsky both happen to have new books dealing with questionnaires. Kindley’s Questionnaire, part of the Object Lessons series, charts the history of “the form as form” from its inception in the late nineteenth century to its current apotheosis in our data-crazy present. Neborsky’s A Proust Questionnaire, meanwhile, revives one of the earliest examples of quiz mania—the questionnaire filled out by a teenaged Marcel Proust in the 1880s—for a new generation of confessors.

Neborsky is an illustrator and animator who has contributed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review Daily, and has illustrated books by Félix Fénéon and Daniil Kharms; Kindley is a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Both live in Los Angeles. Earlier this month the two corresponded about questionnaires, using the Proust Questionnaire’s famous prompts as a basic framework.



I’ve long wondered—since we met that one time, at that party, next to the pretzel mix in a dark office courtyard—what do you consider the lowest form of misery? And why did you write this book? 



I guess the facile answer to your first question would be “writing a book is the lowest form of misery,” but I can’t say I actually feel that way. The lowest form of misery might be wanting to write a book but not having an idea or an opportunity or time. Though, actually, the death of a loved one is probably worse than even this.

Anyway, in response to your second question, I wrote Questionnaire because I wanted to contribute to the Object Lessons series—short books on everyday objects, loosely defined. I realized this format would be a good receptacle for some inchoate thoughts I’d been having about the history of social science, on the one hand, and current trends in Internet data collection, on the other. Basically I wanted to draw a line from Francis Galton, the father of the self-report questionnaire, to BuzzFeed. And I did, but that line turned out to be a lot wigglier than I’d anticipated.

What attracted you, as an artist, to the Proust questionnaire? And what is your favorite occupation?

“With which historical figure do you most identify?”


In 2015, my publisher wrote me with a proposal for an illustrated version of the Proust questionnaire. Like many American readers, I mostly knew the PQ from Vanity Fair’s back page, a bonbon of petite wisdoms and revelations from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Sophia Loren, Joan Rivers. I said yes, followed soon by YES. I needed the job. Even better, the job fit. I’ve made a habit of illustrating Frenchmen. Félix Fénéon’s novels in three lines, Flaubert’s animal rugs. While Proust’s association with the questionnaire was glancing and youthful, and its ascension in the culture one that he might’ve derided—a point your book argues persuasively—his name can’t help but Frenchify the project, make it civilizing and elegant … even though the quiz’s civilizing and elegant pedigree is more truly Victorian. (Notice Victorian women also rarely get the credit they deserve for originating the art of collage, the other animating spark of A Proust Questionnaire. Look at these scrapbooks!)

Have I thoroughly avoided your question? Favorite occupation—surfing the baby waves of San Elijo beach, north of San Diego, alone.

The history of the questionnaire touches the history of science, art, mass culture, politics. How did you traverse this open terrain? And how did you unearth everything I couldn’t find about the Proust Questionnaire?

PS: What’s your personal motto?

“What is your greatest achievement?”


Research is difficult, and frustrating, but in my experience you almost always end up with something surprising and amazing that ends up transforming your work. Your question reminds me of a passage by yet another Frenchman, the sociologist Bruno Latour, who in his fantastic book Aramis, or the Love of Technology writes:

Research projects … do not have … an elegant order: the crowds that were thought to be behind the project disappear without a word; or, conversely, unexpected allies turn up and demand to be taken into account. It’s like a reception where the invited guests have failed to show; in their place, a bunch of unruly louts turn up and ruin everything.

In the case of Questionnaire, lots of louts turned up. One was Proust himself, who seemed to be loudly demanding that I set the record straight about the Proust Questionnaire, which has borne his name for about a century but which he neither created nor promoted. The term Proust questionnaire, as I discuss in my book, and in this excerpt from it on The New Yorker website, actually refers to two separate documents filled out by Proust at the tender ages of fourteen and twenty (or thereabouts—there’s some inconsistency of dating in the sources I found). These were pages from confession albums, a genre that originated in Victorian England and subsequently spread across Europe and America. Proust was only one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of nineteenth-century people who participated in this activity. Moreover, the adult Proust had decidedly mixed feelings about revealing personal information (despite writing an enormous semiautobiographical novel full of veiled confession) and about public interest in the private lives of writers.

So that was one surprise—that the Proust Questionnaire had little to do with Proust at its inception, and that Proust himself probably would be dismayed by the persistent association of it with his name. There were lots of others, though. I hadn’t expected to write so much about eugenics, for instance, or about computers, but it quickly became clear that both had a lot to do with the history of the questionnaire.

My personal motto? Never answer a question in fewer than three paragraphs.

Now, back to A Proust Questionnaire. Where did you take your aesthetic inspiration for your book, aside from Victorian scrapbooks? And for what fault have you most toleration?

“What physical possession do you treasure the most?”


At one point I fantasized about rewriting the questions in a surreal, self-referential style. There’s something funny to me about a questionnaire that doesn’t know it’s a questionnaire. Maybe the unnamed inquirer would grow impatient, pleading, unhappy, give up, reveal too much—I think I was thinking of Steve Martin’s tweets, or John Chamberlain’s inanely open-ended memo that I spied at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But I realized that versions of the questions that referenced Dr. Zizmor, dermatologist, or kept implying that respondents were morally compromised would squelch any sincerity that a reader might bring to the project. Better to deliver the questions (mostly) straight, and let the images carry the joke.

My illustrations crib from Bruno Munari, Corita Kent, Edward Lear, Franciszka Themerson, Maira Kalman, Saul Steinberg, Williams Steig and Wondriska, Terry Gilliam’s collages, Andy Warhol’s children’s books, the miscellanies of the Pushpin Group. These folks. I mention the scrapbooks of Victorian women because, enabled by rise of the cheap, reproducible carte de visite, they were the first to isolate the photographic figure—we know they had a lot to work from, all those reliably stern pictures of Dorcas and Abner—and extend them into unlike things. The results are narrative scenes mixing watercolor, drawing, and photo that don’t worry about sense or scale, which is what I do, or try to do.

We are getting near the end, which is how, in A Proust Questionnaire, I announce the arrival of this question—how would you like to die? I pose this same question to you, not at all uncomfortably alongside another one about your book. We share a city. Los Angeles is famously home to a million experimental cultures of the self. It’s a city that likes its questionnaires. You spend some time on Scientology and BuzzFeed, both organizations with visible local presences that have attracted adherents by way of personality quizzes. Did anything about living in LA inform your thinking about the uses of questionnaires?

(For which fault do I have the most toleration? I don’t mind–and might even relish–the French exit, or Irish goodbye. I’m giving you an out!)

“What do you dislike the most about your appearance?”


I would like to die … in Los Angeles. Well, no, not necessarily, although there are probably worse places to be laid to rest. Certainly it’s a great place to live. I haven’t thought consciously until now about how it’s affected the writing of this particular book, but moving here from New York in 2010 had huge repercussions for the kind of work I do and the way I think. I delivered the earliest version of this research as a lecture at the Errata Salon, a local nonfiction reading series organized by the writers Amina Cain and Ariana Kelly, and I’m not sure I could have found a venue that was simultaneously as intellectually stimulating and as low profile in New York City. One of the nice things about being a writer in LA is that, while there are plenty of other writers around and a growing wealth of literary institutions, it isn’t where you go to be a writer in the same way New York is. (Unless you mean a screenwriter, in which case God have mercy on your soul.) So the competition is less fierce, and the egos a little more to scale. There also may be more of a willingness among intellectuals to consider “trivial” things like BuzzFeed quizzes as worthy of critical notice.

As for Scientology, how could I not write about it? Those people are everywhere in LA. The pleated pants are a dead giveaway. The one act of journalistic derring-do I performed while researching Questionnaire was going to the big blue Scientology building on Sunset and taking an Oxford Capacity Analysis test. The creepy side of the questionnaire’s history does seem to run, over and over, through Los Angeles. Aside from Hubbard and his minions, there’s Paul Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations, which had headquarters in Hollywood and then later in Pasadena. Popenoe—who, in his youth, authored books with charming titles like Sterilization for Human Betterment—brought eugenics to the masses in the form of marriage counseling, and questionnaire-based personality tests were a major weapon in his arsenal. His tests provided the models for the kind of personality quizzes you find in women’s magazines, like Cosmopolitan, which in turn have influenced the form and content of the BuzzFeed quiz. You see, it’s all connected!

I’ll close with a final query, taken not from the original Proust questionnaire but from James Lipton’s rather loose adaptation of it for Inside the Actors’ Studio (actually an adaptation of an adaptation, since Lipton got it from the French TV presenter Bernard Pivot): What would you like to hear Saint Peter say, when you arrive at the pearly gates?

“What is your favorite way of spending time?”


“Good timing, renouncing Judaism right before that asteroid! You’re in section N4. Don’t try to swap or upgrade. We know how you Neborskys do. Take a water, move toward the perfect beauty. Or follow the signs.”

“That’s weird–I knew you were about to tell me about your greatest extravagance.”