The Rise of Reassurance Lit

Charlie Tyson:

My life as an advertiser began at a firm that specialized in one of the oldest American industries: grift. Staffed almost entirely by interns earning minimum wage, the company sold ad space in phone directories that, once printed, were promptly dumped in desolate corners of campus student centers, next to stacks of greasy pizza boxes. Flailing business owners who bought ads were locked into contracts that forbade cancellation. By the time they sensed a scam, it was too late: We would dispatch a collection agency to press them into line.

My job — keep in mind that I was 17 and entirely unskilled — was to make the ads for which the tanning salons, auto-body shops, and pizza joints paid so dearly. I would drag and drop images with whimsical abandon, superimposing brand logos and stock photographs on top of one another in the manner of a Magritte painting.

That adolescent flirtation with advertising was inevitably short-lived. When I chose to go to graduate school in literature, I did so with the maximum possible moral smugness. I dropped meaningful hints among my consultant-friends about the “coarse imperatives of business” and the “disfiguring strictures of our capitalist order,” all of which, I suggested, I would sidestep by bowing into the university’s hallowed halls.

You know how the story ends, how the academy makes advertisers of us all. Exhortations to promote our work, to lure undergraduates into our courses, to specialize in a sexy brand or niche (“I’m an ecocritic focusing on the aquatic imaginary [translation: I read books about dolphins]”), turn nearly every young scholar into a walking PR firm.