Click-bait narratives and a mid-life crisis

By Andrea Johnson

The New York Times recently released a list of their 15 most popular articles of 2014.

Of the 15, there are three that cause my inner hopeful idealist to weep and my inner cynic to laugh. Two are obituaries — Philip Seymour Hoffman’s and Robin Williams’ at numbers four and nine, respectively.

The third is a piece by Pamela Druckerman called “What you learn in your 40s.”

How such an insipid essay made it past the editors at the Times is beyond me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Druckerman is the author of a parenting memoir with a French word in the title. If anything more appealing to Gen X’ers exists, it’s called CrossFit.

That the author hopes to “sum up” her fourth decade’s “main point” is unbelievably naïve, and that she’s going to do it as a 43-year-old—don’t worry, she assures us, she’s turning 44 soon!—is laughable.

But you know those people in their 40s—always so busy teaching their babies to speak Mandarin Chinese and fretting over GMOs. Druckerman is probably just trying to save some time down the road by, you know, understanding the ultimate meaning of her life with all its vagaries now instead of later.

As if gaining some understanding about our lives isn’t a process that happens over an entire lifetime. As if the decades of one’s life are its most significant benchmarks. As if each of those decades has some easy, 400-word takeaway.

Given the inane set-up of this piece, it’s no wonder that unintelligent drivel follows. One example: Druckerman assures her midlife crisis-nearing compatriots that, “It’s O.K. if you don’t like jazz.” There isn’t an eye roll sarcastic enough to express my exasperation with the weird defensiveness that occurs when people who think they’re smart encounter jazz and “don’t get it.”

First, who gives a rip? Second, what if you aren’t supposed to “get it?” What if you can’t parcel out a jazz tune into little manageable bits, each with its own easy-to-understand message—much like the decades of one’s life?!

Not only are Druckerman’s “lessons” uninteresting and cliché, they’re also so very unapologetically upper/upper-middle class. She bestows upon us, among other things, her 43-year-old wisdom on how to deal with friends bragging about their six-figure salaries, and what to wear to lunch with someone in the fashion industry.

This wouldn’t be so grating if the title of the piece weren’t, “What you learn in your 40s.” Further, Druckerman’s use of the royal “we” throughout the piece makes it clear that she’s writing about all people in their 40s. As if all people in their 40s … Yeah, I’m getting tired of this.

I wrote earlier that I didn’t understand how such a piece of dross made it into the Grey Lady. I do understand, however, how it could have become one of their most popular articles—despite concluding with this bit of insight: “When you’re unsure if it’s a woman or a man, it’s a woman.” That isn’t even funny!

I suspect not a small part of its success had to do with readers’ ability to live vicariously through this wealthy American writer/mother living in Paris. Indeed, this writer just sighed longingly over that last sentence.

Another reason is that the article recreates the unspecific, drily humorous yet vaguely heartwarming tone of so many similar Thought Catalog/Buzzfeed listicles.

This tone is evident when Druckerman writes that a “soul mate isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s an earned title.” Thank you ever so much for bursting that little illusion for me with pop culture’s signature brand of gratingly straightforward, desperately no-bullshit wisdom. Except that this entire article is bullshit, both for the reasons above and for this one: it is cliché-ridden articles like these that make thinking and becoming a better person too easy.

I bet someone has already embroidered “Soul mate is an earned title” on a throw pillow, tossed it on the settee in their Tuscan villa and called it good.

Clichés are powerful when they consist of a boiled-down truth, no matter how over-used or saccharine. They are dangerous when that’s where it’s left.

Take as a counterpoint my current obsession, David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, “This is Water.”

Wallace throws out a cliché not five minutes into the talk when he says, “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Probably every graduate at that point was nodding their tasseled heads in agreement. “That seems right; yeah, that’s kind of interesting.” And that’s where the critical thinking would have ended if Wallace didn’t go on to call it what it was—“a banal platitude”—and expanded on the idea.

To be effective devices, clichés need context and elucidation. I think this may be why novels exist. I mean, just think how much more successful and entertaining this piece would be if Druckerman gave us the story that led her to believe that “People’s youthful quirks can harden into adult pathologies.” That sounds like some good Jon Ronson stuff right there.

But then, to do so would take Druckerman out of her idealistic, wealthy la-la land and into what Wallace called “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence.” And her readers would have had to pause over her piece to consider how they themselves act in similar situations, and think critically about the answer.

Would that have been a less popular piece? Almost certainly, considering that thought-out, well-illustrated pieces like our own Professor McGlynn’s “Please Forgive My Spotless Home,” which ran in the Times last year, were nowhere to be found on the list.

Here’s hoping that by the time we’re 40 we’ll have learned to value this latter kind of essay, rather than paint-by-numbers emotional click bait.