Let me begin with a true story: in 2008, Americans spent $11 billion on self-help. DVDs and seminars now make up a considerable slice of the "hope industry's" Splenda-sweetened pie, but the original medium is, of course, the book. And not just the Good one: recent bestsellers include works such as The Highly Sensitive Person, Frumpy to Fabulous, and It's Never Crowded Along the Extra Mile. A million back-pats wide and a solitary tear deep, what was once the dominion of Norman Vincent Peale, Richard Nelson Bolles, and other three-named Midwesterners has been relinquished to any eccentric in wacky glasses. None of this is to diminish the problems of the more sensitive among us—heck, I sniffed at picture of a frolicking Australian Shepherd just last week—but rather to merely point out the apparent national deficit of unstoppable confidence. We are, to put it in Scientological terms, off the E-Meter.
"I was sick of all these self-help books coming out that were written by people who had never succeeded at anything besides writing a self-help book."
With such a varied buffet of platitudes to feast on, ridicule couldn't but trot right up to the pity party. And, before long, a new subgenre was born. The incorrigible, those unable or unwilling to walk that uncrowded mile, would finally find their calling.
With How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, Aaron Goldfarb joined this mocking tradition. Most self-help satires—some of the funnier ones include Just Stop Having Problems, Stupid!, You Take the High Road and I'll Take the Bus, and Who Moved My Illusion?—are necessarily blatant, but How to Fail is a novel, and the barbs are softer. (There's a Georgia O'Keeffe joke, but it works.) In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Goldfarb, a 32-year-old Manhattanite, talks to Gelf about upper-middle class people's problems, failure myths, and Ben Stiller's shameful turn toward success.Gelf Magazine: In your book, the narrator attends a weekly Cranium game with a couple named Keith and Erin. Some might not consider this the behavior of "a failure," at least in the classic sense.
Aaron Goldfarb: Exactly right. My book isn't about a deviant (like, say, the lead character in Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-Up), it's about a "failure" only by society's standards. I wanted to write a book about a guy who is chasing dreams that don't involve having a desk job, being married, having kids, and living in the suburbs by the time he's 30. New York is a city full of people that the rest of America look at and go: "What a bunch of failures! Everyone there is still renting!"
(For the record, I love Cranium. Except for the fucking Humdinger category.)
Gelf Magazine: What sort of audience is there for an instruction book on failure? For most, I'd think, it's rather instinctive.
Aaron Goldfarb: Now this does seem true. At virtually every book signing someone comes up to me and goes "How to Fail?! I already know that!" But, in a way, this is less a book about teaching you how to fail, than one telling you that it's OK to fail. That failure is the only path to eventual success and happiness. But that's not quite as pithy of way to pitch a book. Nor does that address that there's plenty of hilarious chapters about masturbation, STDs, and rampant drinking.
Gelf Magazine: What's the biggest myth about failure you'd like to correct?
Aaron Goldfarb: This is getting deep! I think the biggest myth is that everything in life is either a "success" or a "failure." It's not. Sometimes it's neither. Sometimes it's both. Sometimes you look at something you thought was a failure and realize it was actually a great success and you're glad you had that failure in your past.
Gelf Magazine: Who are your favorite failures? Least favorite? Would-be failures who never went all the way?
Aaron Goldfarb: One of my favorite failures is the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. He absolutely "failed" to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief for the big screen. But his failure produced one of the greatest movies of the past decade!
Least favorite failure is any politician that keeps losing, yet keeps running for office year after year. Get a real job.
A would-be failure that never went all the way is Ben Stiller. Back in the 1990s, he was really making some avant garde comedy (peaking with The Ben Stiller Show), but unfortunately he chose to be a success and make lots of money starring in bland movies.
Aaron Goldfarb: I was sick of all these self-help books coming out that were written by people who had never succeeded at anything besides writing a self-help book. I figured, I'm no more successful than them, nor will I claim to be, I'll write a self-hurt guide, the utter opposite.
Gelf Magazine: Did you have any expert failures providing counsel while writing your draft?
Aaron Goldfarb: It would be more like expert successes yelling at me. "What are you doing with your life?" "Do you really think that stupid novel will be published?" "Why are you drunk at noon on a Wednesday?!"
Gelf Magazine: The narrator writes at one point, "I had been having all this terrible sex on the road. At girls' places, supply closets, hotels, motels, and literally the road as in alleys, darkened sidewalks, and children's playgrounds." How biographical is your book?
Aaron Goldfarb: I write emotional autobiographies. Some things are true, most aren't, but it doesn't matter—I've at least felt all the things.
Gelf Magazine: Who's more likeable—the protagonist in your book, or Tucker Max?
Aaron Goldfarb: My protagonist Stu Fish by a long shot! He's at least trying to be a decent human being. Tucker is a lot richer than both of us though so we're jealous of him.
Goldfarb's newest book, The Cheat Sheet, a compendium on dating and doing it in New York, will be out later this month.