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Headline Treatment15

Ed Luker on the book as self-improvement

Machiavelli Principe Cover Page

Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe (Geneva, 1550, i.e c.1650).The edition's title page is erroneously labelled earlier to bypass Papal restrictions on the text.

From the commodification of wellness to the popularity and presence of gyms, exhortations towards self-improvement are inescapable and increasingly, these imperatives – to be better, to be softer, to be harder, to work smarter, to gain understanding, to diminish or increase our exposure to experience, to get therapy, not to get therapy, to experiment, to conserve, to understand – are folded into the social expectations of our experiences of art and culture. It is the consumption of certain novels, films, television shows and music that indicates what kind of person you want to be.

We live within an era of the self as project. Bus stops, shop signs, Tube ads, newspapers, targeted digital and social media – we are surrounded by simple language divisible into four parts: buy this; want that; be this; fear that. In contrast, the writers who I like the most are those who are able to distill the barely tolerable complexity of social reality into words that strain and shimmer with the total weight of human emotions and their excess: desire, fear, disgust, pain, the experience of multiple lives within the grotesque architecture of capitalism.

While bourgeois subjectivity is only a few hundred years old, this relationship between books and instruction is ancient. From the Ancient Egyptian Maxims of Ptahhotep (25–24th century BCE) to Plato’s Republic (c.375 BCE), across history many scripts have been written to advise rulers; a genre known as “mirrors for princes,” with Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) one of the most well-known examples. In the common understanding, these texts gave instruction on how to be a good ruler through example and correct advice. However, the image in Machiavelli’s mirror is cracked. He encourages a balance of acts between righteous and immoral, to stress that wielding political power is different from religious authority:

A prince, therefore, provided that he has not to rob his subjects, that he can defend himself, that he does not become poor and abject, that he is not forced to become rapacious, ought to hold of little account a reputation for being mean, for it is one of those vices which will enable him to govern.

Across the tract the author takes on various masks or voices, encouraging the uses of cunning and duplicity within specific circumstances. In contrast to religious edicts, a space is opened up where the function of political power and religious values collide with the unruly nature of authority as it meets the real world. In doing so, it asks – what is the real use of being bad? Could exploring what’s bad even sometimes be instructive?

In the 20th century, Marxists pontificated a lot on the novel as a social form. Thinkers as distinct as Georg Lukács and Raymond Williams saw it as a space where either the bourgeois subject or capitalist society could be made legible. According to McKenzie Wark, in contrast to the Epic and Mythic modes of literature prior, the invention of the novel imbued “every tiny thing... with hegemonic bourgeois morality.” A 2022 report from the Department of Education states: “Better reading might enhance opportunities for individuals to become more engaged politically, increase their tolerance, and involve them in their communities more effectively.” On the BBC Future website, Claudia Hammond outlines the neuroscientific value as: “like a training course in understanding others [whereby] people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel.” If, among liberals, there is a consensus that reading books improves you, to what actual political end does it lead? This vague sense of empathy engendered by reading about people “not like us” may even be more of a panacea than a tool for social understanding.

In the Guardian’s review of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (2019), the reviewer claims that: “Each storyline brings the reader round to a position of empathy.” This happens because the various lives the book describes exist at a remove from the reader’s own: “For many readers, it’s not a familiar world – this is a Britain less often depicted in fiction.” “Many readers”, obviously, means the ones that constitute a homogeneous block with market purchasing power (in a market where new hardback books increasingly cost £20). Here, the tastes of the literary fiction market are assumed to be that of the specific section of British society reading the Guardian: white, predominantly straight, well-educated, middle class, liberal, uniform, nuclear-family types. Implicit in the review is the idea that empathy through culture can help rectify class inequality.

Echoing Wark, critic and Verso editor John Merrick has written: “Our novels and films are filled with the solipsistic tales of middle-class strivers recounting their attempts to be good bourgeois subjects.” In other words, the main traders of popular fiction in Britain are looking for objects that are made in the mirror image of their audience. This isn’t a new phenomenon in literary fiction. Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, Octavia Butler, Gary Indiana, Doris Lessing, Victor Serge, Samuel R. Delany, Samuel Beckett – in various ways many of the novelists I most cherish are reflections of the awful and brutish complexity of the worlds they are born from.

Girl Woman Other

Brontez Purnell, 100 Boyfriends (Cipher, 2021)

But if it is expected by bourgeois society that reading is an act that makes us better by opening up new understandings of experience, then this justification hits a snag when we consider actual novels and the variety of ways they can engage with the complexity of human experience. In Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends (2021), the writer tells fictional tales of hundreds of sexual interactions with men across the United States. In a particularly harrowing encounter, he recounts being dominated by a gothic D&D nerd nicknamed “The Satanist”:

“SILENCE, POSEUR!” he said, and advanced on me. Before I could realize that I had not fully consented to it I was naked with a belt around my neck and being choked to the gods – he made me repeat “FUCK GOD, HAIL SATAN!” over and over again [...] If this was Satan’s best sex warrior it stood to reason why Satanism in general was such a PR nightmare. His stroke game was at about 58 percent and considering how much plot was involved I still felt that instead of fucking him I should have just, like, eaten a cheeseburger and goofed around on the internet. [...] He came in like three minutes and then showed me how to play Magic: The Gathering as promised, and though I never fucked him again I still to this day meet him every other Wednesday to play the game.

Purnell’s mini-narrative explores the proximity of sex and danger and how quickly the exciting grandeur of sex with strangers slips into bathos. Ironic detachment and flippancy counterbalance fear and the ridiculous. The excerpt is also moral in a resolutely non-bourgeois sense; the author describes how he manages to maintain a friendship with someone he had a horrible encounter with. But it is the comic tone that holds ambiguity and perspective in place, such that the reader can think through their own understanding without being instructed to do so. That we are expected to learn how to be better bourgeois subjects by being exposed to the worst consequences of bourgeois reality is a fascinating tension. I don’t think it should challenge our perception of what novels are; more, the limits of moral investigation might be taken as a sign that we can expand our conception of what constitutes a moral aesthetic experience, especially by removing the aim that reading works toward self- improvement.

We could perhaps develop a more Machiavellian understanding of what it means to be moral in art or even develop a more capacious conception of aesthetic experience itself: as Purnell shows (and Delaney, and Baldwin, and Lessing before) bad things can be funny and we can also learn from them.


What’s more, the idea of the novel as inducing self- improvement masks the social contradictions that actual novels are often extremely adept at laying bare. Gary Indiana’s Depraved Indifference (2001) is a grimly comic novel – one laden with disgust at the bourgeois archetypes of the USA. It explores a grotesque Oedipal relationship between Evangeline and Devin Slote, loosely based on murderous con artist Sante Kimes and her son Kenneth.

With the novel having plunged into the depravity of the Slotes, their crime spree, their acts of incest, and the complexity of their bourgeois interior and exterior lives, the following paragraph located near the end of the novel suddenly flashes into the perspective of one of their Argentine housekeepers, Norma, and her experience of the Dirty War years in her native country:

She had not known a single Argentine who had not had someone close to them disappeared. [...] If they were pregnant women they were taken to concentration camps until they gave birth. The babies were given to barren Army couples, the mothers flown out over the Rio Plata and tossed from helicopters. A lot of it had come out in the years where Norma was away, but the ones who did it weren’t punished. Every street in Buenos Aires teemed with ghosts, and with torturers in three-piece suits who now managed companies and brokered real estate. Norma had come to New York to escape all that sadness and quiet horror. She now understood that this was because it was a place without memory.

Truly great novelists like Gary Indiana can strike a resonant truth into our hearts: what if what’s good for me isn’t what’s good for you, or is even what hurts you? What if knowledge of the most inhumane acts of violence was not edifying in the slightest, but deeply melancholic and barely sufferable? The violence wielded by the Slotes is reframed by the state violence experienced by Norma. The weight of human history and experience is so intolerable that our memory is punctured by distortions and repression. The novel is one of few art forms that can hold heterogeneous materials in place without needing to make them all fit together.

Indiana holds up a cracked mirror to the world that shows how corrupted it is; the comic is the precise element that can strip away the fantasies that make reality tolerable, by showcasing the excesses of capitalist consumption and its attendant sprees of rape, violence and murder. Indiana disgusts his readers while making them laugh – wthis duplicitous cunning of disenchantment can be much more powerful than the moral instruction of individuals.

On TikTok teenagers are distressed by contemporary fiction. Publishers reprint Roald Dahl to remove his playful grotesquery. School districts in the state of Texas have banned Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987), John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), and even Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) from the school curriculum. The fascist fear of books of fiction is fundamentally a fear of moral ambiguity as a corrupting force. It is the repudiation of complexity, one that needs clear moral binaries, and to make people into bad objects. Equally prone to this fear is a liberal society that operates its own forms of denial and need for absolute control, exactly in the moment at which the promise of liberalism is in demise. In the end, both sides’ positions reflect a truth about reality. Moral ambiguity does have a powerful social aspect that threatens hegemonic political and social systems! 

It is from reading trans and queer literature that I have learned how fragile certainty is, how easily a certainty around what or who you are can leave you undone, confused, needing to move away. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby (2021) is a sensitive and humorous account of the travails of certainty when it comes to trans experiences, one that depicts trans people with full complexity, both within and beyond their gender experience. It is this capaciousness for the complexity of humanity, beyond the processes of resolve, repudiation or denial that define authoritarian thinking, which literature can help construct.


Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby (One World, 2021) 

Of Mice And Men (1937 1St Ed Dust Jacket)
Lady Chatterley's Lover 1932 UK (Secker)

Moral panics around books and reading are not new. In the Victorian era there was great fear around women reading novels, the echoes of which continued into the 20th century. In 1960, some 30 years after its original publication, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) went on trial for its potential to “deprave and corrupt” its readers, with Mr Justice Byrne pleading to the jury to consider the possible impact of the novel’s depiction of adultery on factory girls on their lunch break. In a report on the trial published 6 November by the Observer, the defences of the novel by a series of “professors, critics, editors and poets” are described as follows: “Clouding the air with their semantic evasions, expressing opinions instead of stating facts, and thus dissolving the fabric of concrete truth on which the world of law was founded when it first began.” It is through fiction that we can explore how social ‘truths’ are constructed and held in place.

The ubiquity of self-improvement is a reflection of the fact that most people have abandoned the belief that we can make a better society. Novels can help us process the impact of a maddening world. We need them because we need new spaces and angles to comprehend how socialised our confusion is – without reducing the contradictions into neatly consumable certainties.

We don’t resolve the complexity of reality in the mirror. We rebuild the world in reality through the difficult work of making its complexity more fully humane, by tolerating irresolution and difference. The Machiavellian mirror might let us understand how novels that expand our sense of political possibility are not only those that depict people doing or experiencing bad things, but enjoying doing bad things, and that we might enjoy them too, for better or for worse. Staring into the heart of a disenchanted society might not improve us, but it might help us get to grips with our desperate need to remake the world we live in. ◉