It Was the Worst of Times. Truly.
Andrew Keen on the Rise of the Miserables
Are women more miserable than men? Yes, I know, it’s a miserable question—especially coming from a man. But my sense is that women generally have a much more open—some might say a “healthier” or more “honest”—relationship with grief, misery and bad luck than men.
This question occurred to me earlier this week in an upliftingly miserable Keen On conversation I had with the writer and host of the popular “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” podcast, Nora McInerny. Having lost a husband, a father, and miscarrying a child within several weeks in 2014, McInerny is no stranger to ill fortune. And she’s written about her own complex relationship with grief in a series of bestselling books including No Happy Endings, The Hot Young Widows Club and the just published Bad Vibes Only (and Other Things I Bring to the Table).
I caught up with the memorable Ms. McInerny in Los Angeles where she’s on a twenty-city Terrible, Thanks for Asking/Bad Vibes Only tour. And the audience for this sold-out tour, she told me, is ninety percent female with the ten percent of males being dates, husbands or some other emotional support system. Women, judging from the male/female split at McInerny’s show, want to hear about grief and bad luck and misery; men don’t.
We live, we are told by popular commentators like Nora McInerny, in uniquely miserable times. COVID, economic recession, Ukraine, social media, January 6, addiction and depression, abuse, racism, the end of democracy are all combining to produce a lingering misery. Long COVID is bad enough, but our long apocalypse, they suggest, is even more miserably ubiquitous.
How are things? they ask each other.
“Terrible,” they reply. “But thanks for asking.”
And it’s not just McInerny peddling this misery. Last week on Keen On, I talked with the writer Lynn Melnick about the trauma of drug addiction and sexual violence. Melnick has a new memoir out about her mostly miserable life, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence and Dolly Parton. At least, I guess, she has figured out a useful way to recycle old Dolly Parton.
In these “dark times,” even the professional positive types—the emotional uplifters and healthy lifestyle crowd—are miserable. On Keen On this week, I spoke to Melissa Urban, the supposedly cheerful life-coach and food and diet expert about her new The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits that Will Set You Free. More misery, I’m afraid. More forbidding stories about addiction and emotional abuse and unrealized selves. Urban, I sensed, wanted to smile. She just didn’t know how.
And it’s not just women who are perpetuating what I suspect is the myth of universal misery. Last week, I had the MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya on Keen On to talk about his new book Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. Philosophy, Setiya told me, can help us find our way in a life of infirmity, loneliness and failure. Misfortune favors the brave, Setiya turns the all-too-male Machiavelli upside down. It’s a return to Dark Age philosophy. Only without the Christianity.
Is life really that hard? According to another Keen On guest from last week, the Brookings Scholar Richard Reeves, life is actually harder for men and boys these days than for women. It’s deliciously ironic. Women are not only more successful than men, Reeves suggests, but they are controlling the conversation. Today’s female embrace of misery, his logic suggests, might be a display of cultural power rather than weakness. To make them feel better about themselves, then, men probably need to learn to successfully talk misery. They might even empower themselves by taking their female partner to a Nora McInerny gig.
McInerny suggested to me that America needs what she called a national “Bad Vibes Only” Day. Think of it as a kind of Thanksgiving for misery. (un)Fortunately, however, everyday in America, these days, seems like a Bad Vibes Only day. So I propose the reverse: “A Good Vibe Only” day for the celebration of good news.
And there are lots of reasons to be cheerful these days. I found two Keen On interviews this week particularly encouraging. Both, surprise surprise, with men. LOL.
The first was with Michael Tomasky, the editor of The New Republic and the author of the new book The Middle Out. Tomasky told me that Joe Biden is building a similar effective progressive coalition to FDR and LBJ. Biden’s successful legislation making life less hard for many Americans and that’s really great news for all Americans, even Republicans.
Then there was my Keen On conversation earlier this week with Bruce Usher, the author of the new Investing in the Era of Climate Change. Usher confirmed the unimaginable. That we now have the technologies—wind, solar and battery tech—to actually confront environmental change. The climate apocalypse is postponed, perhaps forever, Usher suggested. And that’s great news for everyone except hardcore climate deniers and millenarians.
“So how things are?” somebody asked me earlier this week. “Excellent,” I responded, with typically misguided male bravado. “And thanks for asking.”