Bullshit Envy

With the impending move to Westchester, it appears that my two-year stint at the University of Pennsylvania Press is coming to an end. A tear. Actually, many tears — I hate, hate, hate job hunting. Plus, how am I going to find a job that’s only a 5-minute commute or one that gives off every holiday from MLK to Yom Kippur?

There is one thing from the university press world, though, that I won’t miss: the bizarre way it’s distorted my perception of normalcy. The way I now look at people making more than $30k a year as virtual millionaires. How medievalists now seem like minor celebrities, instead of the academic aliens they truly are. And, worst of all, the way that “trade” books, the ones appealing to an audience larger than 50 or 60 scholars, are just soooo pedestrian.

A perfect example of how this intellectual snootiness has gotten out of control: the response to Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit.” As you may have heard, this slim 80-page, 4×6 tome has been hovering steadily on the New York Times top-10 bestseller list, getting plenty of press, and even being taken seriously by some people (such as the folks at Slate).

Naturally, my colleagues at Penn can’t stand it. And that would be pretty typical of any mainstream success — they can’t even pronounce “Da Vinci Code” without making the overbite-fart sound. But when you take into account that Frankfurt is an emeritus philosophy professor at Princeton, and the book was published by our buddies at the Princeton University Press — well, you’ve got some seriously conflicted acquisitions editors in West Philly.

“It’s not even a real book! It’s just an essay!” is a typical complaint. “They profiled the bullshit book on 60 Minutes. Can you believe that stunt? To publicize a book when you can’t even read the title on air.” It’s not exactly jealousy that’s behind these comments, though I think just about any editor at Penn would kill to get the NY Times coverage that Frankfurt’s been getting (mind you, they can’t print the full title either). And I’m not sure the editors cared a wit about Frankfurt getting interviewed by John Stewart on the Daily Show — despite my insistence that the two men set the basic cable swearing record — est. at 202 utterances of “bullshit.”

Frankfurt on the Daily ShowThe thing that really kills my colleagues, I think, is that we didn’t think of this first. A book all about the philosophical underpinnings of bullshit, with the legitimacy of a university press and the academic clout of a Princeton professor behind it — brilliant, I tell you, just brilliant. Penn actually tried this sort of contrarian project a few years back, with the provocatively titled “Why Education is Useless,” a book about the functions of education throughout the Western civilization. But of course, that title doesn’t have quite the umph of “bullshit.” And the book was still at heart a scholarly monograph, with 256 pages of philosophical analysis, historical overview, and university politics. Frankfurt’s book was adopted from short 20-year-old essay, and boy did Princeton squeeze every last page they could get out of it. Thanks to generous margins, kerning, and font sizes, they managed to stretch the thing to 80 pages, and then packaged it in a stately little green-and-beige hardcover, sans dust jacket. From design to marketing to publicity, Princeton really executed brilliantly on this one.

Jeez, I hope I never hear myself utter that phrase ever again.

One of these days maybe I’ll actually pick up the book and comment on it’s content. For now, I think I’ve given enough book marketing commentary to last me through all of 2005.