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I use the word “loser,” in a semi-praiseworthy sense, a lot. I’m not… really sure when I started doing this. I’ve done it at least twice in this newsletter’s history. If I dig in I begin to fear that this word entered my regular vocabulary because of Trump. But, no, I think it predates him. I hope it predates him? It has to predate him. (I also use the word “quitter” in a praiseworthy sense. I am a quitter, I quit stuff all the time.)
Anyway. Herein follows an attempt to try to develop a kind of “loser theory” and then maybe try to turn the tables around on myself. I honestly use this word so much that I could just call this entire substack “loser theory” but I’m not gonna do that. No, this thing is going to be called “notebook” until we all die. But I imagine loser theory will be periodically updated.
A brief disclaimer about loser theory. Loser theory is not going to help with the material conditions of your life. It will not affect the advantages or disadvantages you accrue in terms of race or gender or height or beauty or wealth. Loser theory is more a method of getting on with it.
You can think of the basic starting point of loser theory as: everyone says it’s better to be a winner, but what this theory presupposes…1 Don’t take anything that follows too seriously.
I. Who Is “A Loser”?
Almost everybody reading this. I mean… uh… not you, I’m sure.
A more serious answer: losers are the people who don’t get famous and don’t get rich. Or: you’re a loser if anybody can plausibly call you that. Which is almost everybody, but not quite everybody.
II. Toward a General Theory of “The Loser”
Put simply, loser theory posits that there are at least two measurements of “success”: excellence and prestige. These measurements aren’t mutually exclusive, but they don’t inform each other either. You can score high on one, low on the other.
“Prestige” here is a slippery concept. It’s a little different from older ideas like “glory” or “honor,” but obviously bears some relationship to them. Part of what makes prestige much harder to chase is that while glory and honor are tied to obvious community values (whether those values are good or not), prestige is so contextual that there is no real all-communicating prestigious object. (Think of the Oscars: winning one should be an honor, but it can also completely damn you for the people whose admiration you might most particularly want.)
Part of the psychological advantage of loser theory is that it avoids the escalating social paranoia that seeking prestige can create. Because loser theory says you should focus only on excellence (which is under your control) and preemptively embrace losing the game of prestige (which is not). Loser theory means taking your work seriously but not taking yourself seriously.
Does this mean that loser theory is secretly…
III. Oh Dear.
Well, yes, it does mean that. “Being a loser” is a way of over-obviously, even self-deprecatingly, opting out of the general cultural world’s obsession with status by declaring yourself not a threat before anyone cares about you. It’s the opposite of the advice that you should make yourself really big to scare off a bear. But obviously you view yourself as winning in some higher way on some higher ground. That is just human psychology.
Every aesthetic or lifestyle manifesto mentions that the ideal is to do things without seeming to try. Loser theory is no different. If you try too hard to prove you’re a loser you end up jockeying for prestige again. I only made it halfway through Reality Bites but I would say Ethan Hawke’s character in that, at least halfway through, is a prime example of a loser try-hard. He really wants people to respect him for repeatedly sabotaging himself.
In Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, our hero has fealty toward his “idea” which he carefully never actually defines in order to be able to hold it over others:
‘‘I’ll see what comes of it,’’ I reasoned, ‘‘in any case, I’ll be connected with him only for a time, maybe a very short time. But the moment I see that this step, even if it’s conditional and small, still moves me further away from the main thing, I’ll immediately break with them, drop everything, and withdraw into my shell.’’ Precisely into a shell! ‘‘I’ll hide in it like a turtle’’—the comparison pleased me very much. ‘‘I won’t be alone,’’ I went on calculating, going around in a fuddle all those last days in Moscow, ‘‘I’ll never be alone now as I was for all those terrible years before: I’ll have my idea with me, which I’ll never betray, even in the event that I like them all there, and they give me happiness, and I live with them for ten years!’’
This is another example of the try-hard loser. “I’ll hide in it like a turtle”—the slogan of the winner in waiting. If you actually win at something then of course you must acknowledge your newfound station with elegance.
IV. Toward a General Theory of “The Loser,” Contd
Sometimes people will ask me if I think something is “possible”—do I think it’s “possible” to live a real life of the mind, do I think it’s possible to be primarily concerned with beauty, do I think it’s possible to….
The answer to this is that anything is possible, but what these questions are really asking is “will I be socially and financially rewarded for these things in the way I want,” can I raise a family doing these things, will I feel respected by my peers.
To which my answer is, at least: who knows?
One of the great things about the world is that
no matter where you’re situated,
is looking down on you.
If you publish a best-selling novel that makes you a household name you know that people who are writing books that are published with the Dalkey Archive and sell maybe 300 copies think you’re mediocre, and vice versa. If you do well, you’re shallow and if you don’t, you didn’t have what it takes. It’s not even just careers: We tell ourselves married people are coping with their lack of freedom but then single people are coping with being alone. Academics write terrible prose no one will read (say popular writers) but at least they aren’t pathetic writers for trade presses (say academics).
Everybody, to somebody, is a failure, a sell out, and settling for something. You’re a wanna-be or a has-been; you’re minor until you’re overrated. You can live your life thinking about this but there’s no impregnable winning position. Status, should you acquire it, should make you feel safe, but mostly, it just reminds you of what you have to lose. And, of course, it also makes you a target.
But if you were a plumber and wrote beautiful, insightful essays which were read by a community of twenty people—twenty real readers—would that work for you? If not, why not? Philip Glass was a plumber. But there’s only so much time in the day of course, all these decisions have costs.2 Your range of choices can be severely circumscribed by any number of things beyond your control, but you still have them.
Loser theory is choosing taste over branding, content over signal. Loser theory is living in a world where everything just says what it means. Loser theory is trying to learn to be happy with yourself. In short, loser theory is stuff that is good—as opposed to stuff that is bad. It’s that simple!3
V. Loser Canon
Canonical texts of loser theory include Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment (and most of Dostoevsky), Revolutionary Road,4 Sleepless Nights, The Night Porter, Moby Dick, The Bookshop, Washington Square, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, Bringing out the Dead, The Clown (and most of Heinrich Böll), Conversations with Friends (but not Normal People), The Smiths, Huckleberry Finn, The Phenomenology of Spirit (or so I’m told), and The X-Files (first seven seasons only).5
VI. Real Loser Theory Has Never Been Tried
Loser theory is a kind of companion to my occassionally resurfacing piece about “sore winners,” i.e., the pernicious effect of intense status anxiety on intellectual life. This is not a thing that afflicts everybody. Furthermore, for some people, I’m not sure it’s really an affliction—it interests them, like they’re watching nature documentaries.
I’m not such an idiot as to think that we can just do away with status and status anxiety through thinking it so.6 Furthermore, the fact is, the bent of these things is toward success stories. I gave up on love, and then, the perfect man walked right into my life…. No one really wants to hear I gave up on winning, and then… I didn’t win.
You’re supposed to give up so that it’s nice when you win. You give up, and what’s that? A story? No. It’s just a sentence.
How much of this post is a joke? More than zero, less than one hundred.
This is not to say that freelance rates are fine, or low pay is fine, or any of the economic conditions that create the freefloating resentment sketched out above are fine. Just that under loser theory you recognize that many things are possible, but costly. Again, loser theory is not intended to dismiss or fix problems, just provide you with the means to deal with them.
But not Stoner, the smuggest work of secret winner theory of all.
Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels I wondered if they are part of this canon. Two books in, I think the answer is no, but they nonetheless have a lot of light to shed on this subject.
OK I am.