Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” —The Editors
When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?
Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.
But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More