The Narcissist Challenge: Writing in the Age of Self-Obsession

The market for books is highly competitive, so writers who want to largest audience possible can no longer afford to ignore an important and growing demographic: pathological narcissists.

It’s estimated that thirty percent of the population exhibits traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and that number grows every time a teenager takes a selfie or Donald Trump gives a speech. Writers who want to remain relevant in this new age of self-celebration need to stop seeing narcissists as people who don’t read books, and start seeing them as an under-served market segment ripe for exploitation.

To begin with, it’s important to understand why narcissists don’t read books. The main problem is that most books are about other people, and, since narcissists only care about themselves, other people’s lives do not interest them. Self-help books don’t interest narcissists either, because they don’t need any help. Many books are chock full of information as well—but, because they already know everything, narcissists consider such books redundant. They could have written the book themselves, after all, so what’s the point of reading it? Narcissists don’t read fiction, either, because their psychological handicap makes them incapable of sympathizing with characters in a story. Trying to make them care about another human being—one who doesn’t actually exist, no less—is pointless.

Or at least it used to be.

But the market has shifted. Now that almost a third of the population consists of raging egomaniacs, writers who want to sell more books need to develop storytelling strategies that will appeal to these people, annoying as they may be.

Unfortunately, writers who are trying to serve this growing demographic of self-involved non-readers are caught in a bind. Storytellers have always relied on the capacity of their audience to identify with, and feel compassion for, characters in a story, particularly ones suffering from misfortune, betrayal, or a grossly deformed part of their anatomy that cannot be repaired using conventional surgical techniques. Unable to cultivate sympathy with readers by traditional means, writers are being forced to invent character traits that will resonate with a narcissistic public, such as detectives who are too stupid to catch criminal masterminds, or heroes who, when their good deeds are recognized, call a press conference and give themselves a medal.

Imagining ever-more-amazing character traits for people who are secretly despicable is an ongoing challenge. Fortunately, it appears that a number of new technologies are converging to help solve this problem, making it possible for writers everywhere to create characters that reflect and glorify a society overrun by citizens whose estimation of their own competence borders on the delusional.

Because this is such an important issue, I have spent the past few months working with the folks at Amazon and Barnes & Noble—as well as my good friends at Barnes & Not-Quite-So-Noble—to develop a back-engine software program for e-books called Narcissassist, which turns books that narcissists would normally overlook or ignore into books they can’t put down. The program is still in development, so I can’t share all the details, but here are the basics:

One of the biggest problems with traditional books is that the words are printed on a medium, paper, that can’t be easily altered. But now that more than 72 percent of all reading is done on some form of screen—computer, phone, tablet, e-reader—the words that appear on those screens are just digits and pixels waiting to be manipulated. Without really realizing it, people are also doing most of their reading on a device that records their every thought and action, from phone calls and internet searches to purchase histories, bank records, social media, photos, videos, music, dating profiles, and whatever else narcissists do on computers, such as write love letters to themselves and conduct image searches for “people who look like me.”

Until recently, it was impossible to collect and use this type of information to create content that shamelessly appealed to the person using the device. But now that Big Data is getting bigger, the possibilities are expanding too. People are already accustomed to seeing advertisements pop up for products they have just searched. But this is only the crudest, most obvious benefit of marrying Big Data with artificial intelligence and shameless capitalism.

So much more is possible.

Enter Narcissassist. As soon as the Amazon deal goes through, anyone who downloads an e-book will receive Narcissassist free of charge. Running silently in the background of all e-book downloads, Narcissassist mines the data profile of the “reader” to determine if they are a narcissist. If they are, the program automatically customizes the content of the story they are reading to make it accessible to those whose abnormally high self-regard typically prevents them from giving a shit about anyone else.

Normal readers identify with a character’s thoughts, actions, and feelings by comparing those traits with their own and drawing thoughtful conclusions. Narcissists don’t like to think about other people, though, so Narcissassist helps these psychologically handicapped sociopaths by altering the main character in the story so that he/she looks, thinks, and acts like them. Using the reader’s own data, Narcissassist generates an eerily accurate psychological profile of the “reader,” then customizes the story to fit the reader’s unique ego demands. Once their sense of self is sufficiently inflated, narcissists can enjoy the altered, “improved” story—a pleasure conventional storytelling denies them.

So how does Narcissassist work in practice?

Suppose you’re a woman who has just bought a pair of super-cute Jimmy Choo black-leather ankle boots from Zappos online. If you are a narcissist, Narcissassist would automatically detect your level of self-involvement and seamlessly ensure that the central character in the story you are reading is wearing those very same boots. Having dressed the central character accordingly, Narcissassist would then have another character walk up and say, “Wow, I love those boots. You have such amazing taste,” or, “I wish I could afford those boots, but I’m guessing you’re a lot more successful than I am, so it makes sense that you’re wearing them, not me.” (Note: Narcissassist 2.0 will be able to outfit a character with the boots they want to buy, creating a perfect synergistic connection between the narcissist’s need for approval and their aspirational desire to buy things that affirm their own good taste and judgment.)  

The reason Narcissassist works so well is that the character in the narcissist’s version of the story doesn’t simply dress and act and think like them—it is them! Remember, in the ancient myth, Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with himself; he falls in love with a reflection of himself, whom he mistakes for another person altogether. The beauty of Narcissassist is that, because narcissists have no capacity for self-reflection, they don’t know why they like the character in the book so much; they just think he or she is the most awesome, amazing person they’ve ever read about. Once they get hooked on that character, they can’t get enough—which of course opens up all kinds of possibilities for book sequels or serials featuring the fascinating character who is them.

Another exciting feature of Narcissassist is that it allows narcissists to inject themselves into great literature, adding personal relevance to stories that were once too boring for them to tolerate.

Suppose a narcissist is reading Moby Dick and getting impatient with the whole “gotta kill the whale” thing. Narcissassist would detect their waning attention span and speed things up by having Captain Ahab admit to his shipmates, “Guys, it’s just a whale. I say we quit, go find an island, and name it after me.”

Or let’s say a narcissist is slogging their way through The Scarlet Letter, and finds the whole story ridiculous, because what the hell is shame, anyway? Narcissassist could help the struggling narcissist by inserting a character who approaches Hester Prynne and says something like, “I, too, have a tattoo. Would you like to see it?”—then, to make the story more relevant, seduces Hester into doing things that could get her arrested even in the 21st century.

And even narcissists are required to read George Orwell’s 1984 in high school. But with the help of Narcissassist, this boring history book would suddenly come to life when it turns out that Big Brother, who watches everything and everyone, is really a seventeen-year-old former Boy Scout who smokes pot in his parent’s basement and plays Call of Duty until four in the morning.

The possibilities are endless. And, because Narcissassist is connected to a vast network of artificially intelligent super-computers, it continues to learn about the user’s pathology and refine its ego-stroking algorithm to accommodate the narcissist’s ever-expanding estimation of themselves. (Note: For the purposes of public safety, the program also monitors the narcissist’s levels of vanity, entitlement, and arrogance, and alerts the authorities when a full-blown psychosis appears imminent.)

My hope is that Narcissassist will help writers and publishers serve this growing sector of the population. Not only will it expand the market for books, it will make the pleasure of reading available to those whose psychological dysfunction has turned them into the kind of impossibly boring person one tries to avoid at parties. Reading won’t improve their character or change them, but it will make them feel smarter. And that’s all a narcissist really needs: the illusion that they are better than everyone else.