Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” for novelists

The Presentation for Self in Everyday Life endures because while it is nominally about sociology, its observations fit into other fields too: One could read it as a work of literary criticism but without literature, or a novelist’s handbook about how people behave around other people. It is filled interesting observations, like “not a few psychotherapists find employment in [. . .] making their living by telling individuals the facts of other people’s lives.” Or, colloquially, one reason people like fiction, memoirs, and blogs is to figure out how fucked up other people’s lives are. Few of us wish to advertise the fucked up parts of our lives and so in everyday experience those parts are hidden. I for one wish that I’d realized as much when I was younger.

Goffman gets the game theory aspect of punishing defectors from collective norms:

Similarly, a girl at a party who is flagrantly accessible may be shunned by the other girls who are present, but in certain matters she is part of their team and cannot fail to threaten the definition they are collectively maintaining that girls are difficult sexual prizes. Thus [. . .] teammates are often persons who agree informally to guide their efforts in a certain way as a means of self-protection and by doing so constitute an informal group.

Goffman selfThe sexual double standard is maintained more by women than by men, which Goffman got in 1959. He describes the way “teammates everywhere employ an informally and often unconsciously learned vocabulary of gestures and looks by which collusive staging cues can be conveyed.” Novelists should attend to that vocabulary and those clues when they discuss characters in specific worlds. One’s cultural world and coworkers color one’s viewpoint. A professional photographer cannot help but seeing the world partially through photography terms, and lawyers see cases waiting to happen everywhere. In the underworld this is most obvious, which is one reason why The Friends of Eddie Coyle works.

Goffman gets the way that people are groupish and feel conflicting loyalties towards their groups and towards outsiders who may be taken advantage of. In my own life, I feel more loyalty to readers than to the nonprofits and governments I write about in Grant Writing Confidential. The same is true of many bloggers in many fields who choose to pull back the curtain, so to speak; doctors and lawyers have scads of blogs devoted to that topic, as do hookers like Belle de Jour (whose Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl is good).

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is also a defense of privacy, and novels are generally experienced in private.

There are sections that are dated or dubious, as when Goffman writes that

we may have some sympathy for those who have but one fatal flaw and who attempt to conceal the fact that they are, for example, ex-convicts, deflowered, epileptic, or racially impure.

By now being “deflowered” is generally a positive, being epileptic is a medical condition, and racial purity is itself a bogus concept. Nonetheless the number of abstract lessons is large and Goffman’s observations are sharp. I haven’t exhausted the book based on a first reading. Much of human life is about politics. Human life will always have a strong political component because everyone learns from everyone else and there is no way to be as effective acting alone as one can act in groups.

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