Kind Masterminds

First, some personal backstory: after a few meetings with a career counselor not long ago, I took a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test and a Strong Interest Inventory. The assessments were extremely satisfying and helpful for me: it’s not that I learned anything about myself that I didn’t already know, but the assessments gave voice to and legitimated my preferences for the work sphere. I’m introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judgmental, but I have a stronger interest in artistic pursuits than is usually associated with the INTJ type. This means that I’m often the person who provides structure in a creative environment; I’m inventive, but will take no risks without scrupulous research; I’ll take charge when needed, but prefer to work quietly in the background.

I know that such tests, MBTI in particular, have their flaws, but I found my results tremendously empowering. Instead of feeling self-conscious about the dynamic I introduce  when I focus on bottom lines and practical applications, I consider such intervention a strength that I can offer. Instead of feeling harassed by emails and phone calls and frustrated with my own lack of patience, I can remember that I prefer to be the one to initiate interactions, and make informed choices about when and how to make myself available to others. (Theoretically one would discover these work style preferences through the Two Exercises I advocate for jobhunters, but the temptation to downplay introverted idiosyncrasies in favor of a ready-for-anything Game Face is strong.)

Still coasting on the glow of these revelations, I gleefully followed a Tumblr meme to learn what characters in literature share my MB type.  TV Tropes calls INTJs the “Mastermind” type, and its examples are mostly nerds, outcasts, and villains: Ross Gellar and Ben Wyatt, Jafar and Scar, Batman, Smaug. How unflattering! I’m reminded of a book my press published some time ago about eggheads in popular culture: during an awkward phase between the calculated mass destruction of WW2 and the physics-powered Space Race, while Americans were both fascinated and terrified by the power of the atom,the planners and schemers of television and literature tended to be suspicious characters. Even today, you rarely encounter a kind mastermind in popular culture: at worst, you get megalomaniacs and villains; at best, even the good guys tend to lack emotional reasoning and social bonds.

Such characterizations make me long for representations of INTJ-types who use their powers for good instead of evil: characters who are introverted, but not sociopathic; intuitive, not irrational; thinking, but not unfeeling; judging, but not always judgmental. Here is a short list of relatable and even emulatable characters who may or may not be INTJs but share a characteristic love of logic, self-sufficiency, and pragmatism:

Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice. Say what you will about his charms or lack thereof, but when the people he cares about need help, Mr. Darcy gets shit done. Then he gets all flustered and weird about people knowing and thanking him for his help.

Sherlock Holmes, various adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. Although Sherlock Holmes is pretty terrible about human interactions, he is a mastermind who more or less acts in favor of the common good–or at least reacts, since he’s not so much devising benevolent schemes as dismantling malevolent ones. The BBC adaptation in particular dramatizes this juxtaposition of Sherlock’s particular skills and limitations with those of evil geniuses.

Olivia Pope, Scandal. Olivia solves problems for a living. She is a quick thinker and a pragmatic planner, but also a quiet aesthete who values her alone time. As I noted in Things I Love About Scandal, it’s unusual for an introverted character to carry a company and a television series the way Olivia Pope does. But other characters allow her to tell them what to do, not because they fear her or love her, but because they know she’s right.

Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit. Bilbo makes a much better INTJ than Smaug. Sure, they both live in holes and prefer not to be bothered, but when it comes down to a battle of wits, it’s Bilbo who bends the slippery logic of riddles in his favor. Smaug loses his head and flies off in a fiery huff; Bilbo, who (like me) abhors a risk, adventures with caution.

Violet Baudelaire, A Series of Unfortunate Events series. Violet has a talent for inventions, a practical form of problem-solving that is most effective when combined with her little brother’s imagination and her baby sister’s brute force.

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, Mass Effect series. Even during her adolescent pilgrimage, Tali is already a mechanical genius with enviable survival skills and enough self-possession to travel the galaxy on her own. But like most quarians, she understands pragmatism doesn’t mean self-interest; she is deeply invested in promoting positive outcomes for her community and team.

I welcome further examples of introverted leaders and unlikely heroes who use their analytical prowess for good.

More fun with personality types:

Judging books by their covers

As I’ve described, my office occasionally receives galleys of forthcoming books, usually fiction directed toward women (although last month we got something that looks like a mash-up of World War Z and Sex in the City). Sometimes they come addressed to the marketing department, sometimes to me or to the marketing assistant. Usually, publicists send galleys to potential reviewers, which we are not in the position to do (unless we do so on Goodreads, which I just quit). Instead, we make fun of the books, most of which sound like they came out of a focus group (see above example!). The arrival of a new galley therefore generates a certain amount of excitement, although probably not in the way their publishers anticipated.

My coworker brought one in this morning and read the full title, which offered a twist on the current fashion of subtitling everything “A Novel.” (In this case, it’s “A Novel of Suspense.) The cover was dark and grim, depicting a room photographed so out-of-focus as to seem abstract.

The marketing assistant began reading the copy: “‘Chasing a hot story, journalist [redacted] uncovers information that sends her back to the past–‘”

“And a kidnapping,” I interrupted. “That cover says kidnapping to me.”

“‘–to the disappearance of a close friend who vanished without a trace a decade ago,'” she continued, and laughed. “Called it!

We in the academic publishing business have our own cover conventions, certainly, but it’s a lot more fun to mock the repetitive imagery of trade books, particularly those that are marketed or shelved into “literary fiction” and yet packaged as genre fiction. Maureen Johnson’s #Coverflip is getting a lot of attention for this reason: when you take covers of books by well-known male or female authors and then redesign the covers as though the author were gender-neutral or the opposite gender, it becomes strikingly obvious how books by women are packaged as though “books by women” were a genre, featuring the same plot elements and character archetypes over and over again. The repetition of similar themes or elements in cover design, like the fashionable title constructions du jour, is a legit marketing strategy: the similarities signal to us what to expect by alluding to previous books we might have enjoyed or at least heard about. When employed less artfully by potboiler books pushed out on the market too soon and too carelessly, the allusion becomes a caricature.

A game for book snobs

So awhile ago on Twitter, I linked to an article that satisfyingly applied charts and graphs to my pet peeve of book titling, “The ___’s Daughter.” (To be fair, my expressed peeve was with “The ___’s Wife,” but you can see the connection.) The article at The Millions also called out the title construction “The Secret Life of ___.” I would add “The Art of ___” and, perhaps, “How to [be] ___” to the list of overused, suspicious constructions as well.

Maybe the recent books released with these titles are good ones, but I now hesitate to pick them up. The marketing idea here–that you’re more likely to browse or spontaneously buy (or download a free sample) when a title sounds like other award-winners or best-sellers–seems to work, but I feel put off by the implication that I’m this impressionable.

What if your favorite books had been marketed under one of these slick, familiar names? I had a look at the last few novels I finished, and re-named them according to Bestseller Formula.

  1. The Art of Racing Zombies in the Apocalypse
  2. The Secret Life of Libertines
  3. How to Get Away With Murder
  4. The Vampire’s Daughter
  5. The Statesman’s Wife

Not really an improvement, in most cases. Yours?

Why I Don’t Participate in Book Surveys on Facebook

This post was first published on Peachleaves. 

They leave a lot of books out.
When I see one of these, I don’t ask myself how many books on the list I’ve read. I do ask: who put this list together? Why? How did they choose book for this list? What is having read them supposed to represent about you?

The following list is not the only book survey going around, but it’s the most recent one I’ve seen. First, a little debunking: the list goes around with the intro “The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?” This premise seems to be a mash-up of two British media lists: the BBC’s The Big Read, which bears very little resemblance to this list; and The Guardian‘s Books You Can’t Live Without, which is nearly the same list. Both lists were compiled from audience votes or suggestions, so these are books that on average many people have read. (It also explains why there are some repeats, such as Complete Works of Shakespeare AND Hamlet, Chronicles of Narnia AND The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) I’m intrigued that the lists are circulated under the premise that the survey-taker may feel superior to this mythical average person.

But let’s return to the question. How DO your reading habits stack up. . . to this list of Britain’s most popular books in 2007? If your list closely aligned with this list, what DOES that suggest about your taste and influences?

I’ve notated the list with the shorthand described below, and tallied them up at the bottom. I may have made some mistakes – I did this list in about a half-hour, so I didn’t check every book on the list. The purpose of this notation is to call attention to the way book lists – whether they are compilations of a certain demographic’s favorite books, or the books we think we ought to be proud of having read – tend to reaffirm certain expectations about what great books are, and who great authors are. Perhaps instead we can use book lists to open up questions about how we make such lists, how taste in books tends to be perpetuated and reinforced, and what great books and authors are being left out of these lists – to no one’s benefit.

W: “White” author
NW: “Nonwhite” author. These racial categories are simplistic and debatable, but echo the way books tend to be classified in bookstores and even in academics: books by white authors are books; books by person of color are hyphenated. (African-American, Latin-American, etc…)
M: male author
F: female author. These categories are slippery too – what, no trans or intersex authors? But for a few special cases, there is the notation:
F/M: female author who wrote under a male pseudonym
A: Anthology or collected works. (One wonders if you must read the whole thing to check it off.)
28: Published in my lifetime (I’m 28). This notation is to call attention to contemporary books; these especially beg the question of how books qualify for such a list. Old books might become favorites because they are taught in schools or passed down by parents. Newer books achieve wider circulation and/or canonization through other means: film adaptations, Oprah’s Book Club, etc.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen- W F
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien – W M A
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte W F/M
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling W F A 28
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – W F
6 The Bible – NW M A [NW because this book was written down by a collection of people who no doubt would be hyphenated in contemporary Anglo-American culture.]
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte W F
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell – W M
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman W M 28
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens W M
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott W F
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy W M
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller W M
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare – W M A
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier W F
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – W M
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk – W M 28
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger – W M
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger W F 28
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot W F/M
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell W F
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald W M
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens W M
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – W M
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams W M [A and 28 if you count the later books in the “trilogy”]
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – W M
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck – W M
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll-W M
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame- W M
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy – W M
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens- W M
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis – W M A
34 Emma-Jane Austen – W F
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen – W F
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis – W M
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini – NW M 28
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres – W M 28
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden W M 28
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne W M
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell – W M
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown W M 28
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez NW M
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving W M 28
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins W M
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery W F
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy W M
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood W F 28
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding – W M
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan W M 28
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel NW M 28 [Well, he’s Spanish-Canadian… see, racial/ethnic categories are slippery.]
52 Dune – Frank Herbert- W M
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons W F
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen- W F
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth NW M 28
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon NW M 28
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens – W M
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – W M
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon W M 28
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez NW M 28
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – W M
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov- W M
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt W F 28
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold W F 28
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas NW M
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac – W M
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy W M
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding- W F 28
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie NW M 28
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville – W M
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens- W M
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker- W M
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett –W F
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson – W M 28
75 Ulysses – James Joyce- W M
76 The Inferno – Dante- W M
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome W M
78 Germinal – Emile Zola W M
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray- W M
80 Possession – AS Byatt W F 28
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens – W M
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell W M 28
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker NW F
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro NW M 28
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – W M
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – NW M 28
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White W M
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom W M 28
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- W M
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton W F
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad – W M
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery – W M
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks – W M 28
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams- W M
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – W M
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute W M
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas- NW M
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare- W M
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl- W M
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo- W M

Out of 100 books. . .
Books by male authors: 77
Books by female authors: 23, two of whom published under male pseudonyms.
Books by white authors: 87
Books by nonwhite authors: 13
Books by male white authors: 65, 20 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by male nonwhite authors: 12, 8 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by female white authors: 22, 6 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by female nonwhite authors: 1