I’m lounging on the patio of a Venice Beach boardwalk restaurant, reading, writing, and sipping on a local Los Angeles pale ale. You’re at work right now, so I’m having a better time than you. I’ll be in L.A. for two days before losing my money/sanity/dignity in Las Vegas with three friends from college. Still, my MO all weekend is naturally to lose friends and alienate people.
I would say thank God for the handy how-to-- How to Lose Friends and Alienate People* --if it weren’t for the fact that the memoir was so meh. The author, Toby Young, is better known for this book than for the half-hearted writing career the book was based on. In it, he unveils the waspy drama associated with working for the glossy, celeb-centered magazine Vanity Fair. Originally from Britain, he becomes disillusioned by New York’s inevitable indebtedness to the rich and famous. This wasn’t always the case—Toby had aspirations of hard-hitting journalism beholden to no one, much less the wonton vapidity of the upper echelon. Alas, the social Darwinism of the Big Apple overpowered his longing for objective profundity. He once romanticized the role of a New York Writer, a picturesque vision of exposing controversy left and right without losing stride. After a few years stateside, his intellectually confident gait whittled into a snail-paced slither.
Is this a surprise to anyone who has ever opened a magazine nowadays? The memoir is 330 pages, half of which I found myself saying no shit. The guy worked for a powerful, wealthy, glamorous, and well-connected company and then was shocked by their contemptuous, gratuitous actions. Granted, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was published in 2002 and is a little outdated. I might underappreciate his references because they’re before my time. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the relationship between money and influence. That being said, I did enjoy the tidbit about celebrities’ wariness to eat in public for fear of being photographed. Toby claims that on Oscar night, a hangry line of A-list stars pack the McDonald’s drive-thru in their limousines (Young, 105). Roll the window up, sir, I need to pound a Big-Mac alone in the dark while sporting an evening gown (which let’s get real, sounds amazing).
In all, the book is 90% uninteresting fluff, 10% comic relief. The memoir is predicated on the idea that Toby is funny when unfortunately—for the most part—he’s not. You get a keen sense that he’s fumbling through life, making one irrecoverable mistake after another. That’s fine—I just ordered some fireball on tap and have suffered acute regret ever since. But watching a guy not play his cards right career-wise isn’t automatically hilarious. Just as Roger Ebert says, throwing a fat guy in a movie doesn’t make the movie funny…the fat guy needs to do something funny goddamn it! I’m gonna need more than just a few sporadic chuckles in a memoir so dependent on hilarity.
In Toby’s defense, he expressed a few thoughtful insights. For instance, he gave a brief but scathing review on “political correctness” within the American liberal education system based on his experiences at Harvard. He complained that cultural relativism was pushed to the extreme, forsaking the possibility of moral truths by making any/every point of view viable and laudable. He opined that students merely resisted offending anyone when they maintained that no one was “right”. In turn, this led to diluted discourse. Additionally, he quoted Tocqueville, a French philosopher who argued against the United States’ conception of democracy. He agreed with Tocqueville that as a whole, Americans are subject to the “tyranny of the majority”—not truly liberated because the mainstream rules (Young, 20). He went on to condemn our version of meritocracy; we think that we are successful because we earned it and we deserve it. We falsely convince ourselves that all of us start on an even playing field, ignoring the fact that we have essential resources that others lack. We revere a strong work ethic above all, snubbing those below us because “they’re just not working hard enough”. Toby notes that social mobility in Britain is more fluid and Brits who benefit from the aristocratic system are more likely to recognize their class-advantages and donate to the less-fortunate than Americans who assert that the poor remain poor by sheer lack of willpower. He states, “America is a faux meritocracy in which abhorrent levels of inequality are justified by an appeal to a principle of social justice that, however sacred, has yet to be implemented. To use a baseball analogy, America’s most successful citizens were born on third and think they’ve hit a triple” (Young, 241). As you can see, British-American comparisons run abound. In this case, I absolutely agree.
Lastly, he criticized the notion of the Holy Zeitgeist. During his time at the magazine, he was surrounded by people who blindly worshipped fashion fads—people who believed that “the next big thing” was dictated by a divine, invisible hand. New York, as a hub of cultural renaissance, was a kind of Mecca that Toby could not willfully get behind.
While these three redeeming factors-- an argument against cultural relativism, a reconsideration of how democracy intertwines with liberty, and a denunciation of a deified fashion industry—are certainly thought provoking, they comprise only a very small portion of the memoir. I would much rather hear more about those ideas and less about how Anna Wintour wears sunglasses indoors. Overall, Toby is an honest guy, eager to throw everyone he worked with under the bus (including himself), but it doesn’t quite move past the realm of superficiality. As a result, I give it 2 out of 5 camel humps. There are some tiny pellets of potential there that don’t come to fruition, so don’t waste your time.
*Young, Toby. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Boston: First Da Capo Press, 2002. Print.