By William Deresiewicz
More now on Generation Sell, my argument with Millennials about the entrepreneurial ethos that seems to define their generation. What’s wrong with selling? one of them said. Selling just means putting something out there, something that embodies your passion and creativity. Well, what’s wrong with selling is that it’s potentially corrupting. In fact, it’s inherently corrupting.
Because you don’t just put something out there, effect a seamless transfer from idea to product. There is packaging; there is advertising; there is marketing (now, with the Web, more than ever). And all of those are designed to create the illusion of value. There may be genuine value underneath, but the whole act of selling—as everybody knows who’s done it and thought honestly about it—is designed to make things appear more valuable than they really are.
That so much of this process happens now in social networks doesn’t make it better; it makes it worse. The buzzword now is authenticity—“people are great bullshit detectors,” one of my respondents said, a phrase to gladden every huckster’s heart—but the authenticity that social networks confer strikes me as rather fake. If anything, turning ourselves into miniature entrepreneurs only allows commercial values to infiltrate spaces that were previously free of them. All of a sudden, people I thought were my friends are trying to sell me shit. In any case, the rhetoric of authenticity is just a more insidious form of commercialism. David Foster Wallace saw this long before there was a Web: how, in an age when everybody’s hip to the pitch, the pitch simply disguises itself as an anti-pitch. Authenticity my ass; the pitch abides.
But the corruptions of commerce do not begin at the point of sale. Selling corrupts the product itself. If you know you’re going to have to sell it, then you’re going to make it salable. For a gadget, this is fine: all it needs is to be useful. But what about art, or thought? The whole purpose of social criticism is to say things that make people uncomfortable, that they don’t want to hear—that they, in both senses, don’t want to buy. The whole idea of the avant-garde is to create art that offers resistance to its audience, that isn’t easily consumable. But if everything needs to be sold, then everything needs to stay within the limits, moral or aesthetic, of what people are comfortable with. So you alter the wording. You drop a controversial idea. You put in a dance beat. You don’t take chances beyond what you think the market will bear. You don’t need a record executive or Hollywood producer to dumb things down or tart them up, because you’re doing it yourself. And worst of all, you may not even realize it.
Besides, what about creators who don’t want to have to sell themselves, who don’t like it, who aren’t good at it, who feel it saps their energy? (Beethoven’s website? Van Gogh’s Facebook page? Kafka’s Twitter feed?) There’s something to be said for agents and managers and publishers and record labels, despite their drain upon the artist’s purse and the artist’s patience—people who are good at things that creators usually aren’t and don’t want to have to be. And then, what about creators who are good at them—but not at, you know, creating? The more that selling becomes central to the process, the more the process will reward people who are good at selling.
But none of my many young respondents seemed to recognize any of this. It’s not that Millennials believe in entrepreneurship; it’s that it’s the only thing so many of them seem to believe in. One correspondent wrote, “Our generation understands that our society is driven by consumption—on every level.” To which of course I replied, isn’t that the very thing we need to question?
Which brings us, next week, to Occupy Wall Street.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.