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How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior Hardcover – August 31, 2010
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We all relish a good scandal—the larger the figure (governor, judge) and more shocking the particulars (diapers, cigars)—the better. But why do people feel compelled to act out their tangled psychodramas on the national stage, and why do we so enjoy watching them, hurling our condemnations while savoring every lurid detail?
With "pointed daggers of prose" (The New Yorker), Laura Kipnis examines contemporary downfall sagas to lay bare the American psyche: what we desire, what we punish, and what we disavow. She delivers virtuoso analyses of four paradigmatic cases: a lovelorn astronaut, an unhinged judge, a venomous whistleblower, and an over-imaginative memoirist. The motifs are classic—revenge, betrayal, ambition, madness—though the pitfalls are ones we all negotiate daily. After all, every one of us is a potential scandal in the making: failed self-knowledge and colossal self-deception—the necessary ingredients—are our collective plight. In How to Become a Scandal, bad behavior is the entry point for a brilliant cultural romp as well as an anti-civics lesson. "Shove your rules," says scandal, and no doubt every upright citizen, deep within, cheers the transgression—as long as it's someone else's head on the block.
Amazon Exclusive: Tina Brown, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, Reviews How to Become a Scandal
A brilliant curtain-raiser on exactly why it’s so delicious to watch self-destruction, How to Become a Scandal is a must-read for anyone unable to look away from another’s fall from grace. Laura Kipnis argues that it takes two to make a scandal and cuts through the tangled relationship between the scandalized victims and us as the voyeurs, noting that the audience is equally to blame for whipping up such frenzy. A thoughtful and juicy take on familiar targets (Linda Tripp and the NASA love triangle among them), Kipnis sees what we all do: some scandals are just thinly veiled self-sabotage. And the best stories aren’t self-contained; they’re far-reaching, full-blooded dramas, complete with a cast of characters who overtake the global stage. Of course, scandal’s an all-inclusive monster, but a bigger star and more disturbing details make for an even better flameout. Kipnis astutely points out that the ceremonial shunning of whistleblowers, plagiarists, and cheaters is cathartic and neatly packages something amorphous: why America jumps on the wagon all over again each time someone violates social mores with lust and betrayal and jealousy. Reading her clever book is like sitting in a front-row seat at Scandal Theory 101—and serves as a cautionary tale for those tiptoeing on the edges of indignity. Revisiting the denouements of James Frey, Sol Wachtler et al is a strangely elegant exercise in how to crash, burn, and ultimately survive. How to Become a Scandal is as transfixing and engrossing as the tremendously chaotic tales she recounts with exacting detail.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Two very public downfalls and two very public uproars guide us through the contemporary infernal regions of scandal: the downfall of the lovelorn astronaut, Lisa Nowak, and an unreasonable judge, Sol Wachter, and the uproar set off by Linda Tripp and James Frey. Familiar as they may be, Kipnis (Against Love) freshly illuminates her subjects' plights, while scrutinizing the public delight in their misfortune, wearing her learning so lightly that the reader is easily seduced by her quick wit and her camouflaged erudition. Kipnis ties psychoanalysis and reality TV, detectives and literary critics, talk show hosts and sociologists, along with the scandalizers and the scandalized into a persuasive bundle: Scandals aren't just fiascoes other people get themselves embroiled in while the rest of us go innocently about our business, she argues. e all have crucial roles to play. A deliciously flippant tone serves the reader the juicy details we savor so about scandal, while tossing in some timeless questions and speculations about the deeper meaning of it all ( free will, moral luck, the stranglehold of desire, the difference between right and wrong ) as though they were mere garniture. This is a dead serious book that's an utter lark to read.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top customer reviews
"How to Become a Scandal" is filed under sociology and psychology which is misleading. Laura Kipknis is actually a professor of Radio/TV/Film and tho' she often references the likes of Freud and she is quite honest and upfront in her angles. She is discussing topics that capture 'her' attention and interest, not because they offer in significant solutions, credibility, or intellectual stimulation in the field of irregular mental behaviors. Nope! Ms. Kipknis is very honest and upfront in her true intentions: She just wants to dish.
The entire book is based on her own conjecture and speculations as to why these four very specific individuals were motivated to do what they did. It is not a particularly educated treatise or even based on actual psychological analysis so I really didn't find out what I was hoping to learn. In fact I wound up getting so depressed over Ms. Kipknis ongoing salacious flagellation of these, admittedly warped souls I was unable to finish.
I don't think this quite deserves blurber Jacob Weisberg's description as cultural criticism of the highest order, but with one cavil, I enjoyed the book and found it thought-provoking. Reading about the self-destruction of most of the people cited herein, I couldn't help thinking about my own self-destructive and foolish impulses, one's inability to see oneself as others see us, and the fragility of self-insight. The scandals are explored in some detail, which is much more satisfying that reading about bits and pieces, especially since some of these unfolded over a fairly lengthy period of time. The information is also sourced, which raises the reliability above the scandal magazines, or someone just trying to throw together a quickie book that sells. Kipnis makes some interesting points along the way, she is witty, insightful, and sometimes compassionate. I personally love this sort of tragi-comedy, which is not going to be to everyone's taste. Someone who enjoys it might also like Jennifer Wright's It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History
Criticism tends to get longer than praise, so I don't want the following to detract too much from my praise of the book. I thought Kipnis got a bit off-track with her section on James Frey and Oprah Winfrey. Let me say that I have a bit of a soft spot for Winfrey since I remember her from when she was on WJZ, so I've always been happy that she did well. I wouldn't consider myself to be a fan, since I've seen her show perhaps three times and we don't exactly share a world-view. I tend to assume that if Oprah recommends a book, I am NOT going to enjoy it, though I admire her for promoting reading. Hence I never read James Frey's so-called memoir until it became a scandal and I wondered what the shouting was about. And if I had read it before, I wouldn't have understood what was so redemptive about an addicted obnoxious jerk becoming, at least briefly and quite possibly temporarily, a clean obnoxious jerk.
In this section of the book, Kipnis mostly abandons her stance as observer to become an advocate: "I may be the only American who felt bad for him ..." Well, no, as comments on The Smoking Gun and Amazon show, but the "everybody's doing it" schtick that runs through the chapter is a feeble justification. I don't think that the use of literary techniques in writing it is a sufficient tipoff either. I will accept that even conversations in quotes are reconstructions, but the author is walking a fine line and needs to be careful about putting words in other people's mouths. If something is billed as a memoir, I will be suspicious that there are may be self-serving omissions, but I don't accept outright lies. After reading it, and reading about it, I am inclined to think that it isn't 95% true as Frey claims, but more like 5% true. If he got away with behaving anything like he claims at the rehab center, it can't be a well-run place, in addition to all the lies that The Smoking Gun found.
Other people write "memoirs," but admit that they have novelized the material, and I don't have a problem with that if they have a disclaimer. Jacob Tomsky's (Thomas Jacobs's) Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality includes the disclaimer:
"To protect the guilty and the innocent alike, I have deconstructed all hotels and rebuilt them into personal properties, changed all names, and shredded all personalities and reattached them to shreds from other personalities, creating a book of amalgams that, working together, establish, essentially a world of truth. I mean, damn, I even change my own name."
I feel like I learned a lot more about the hotel business from Tomsky than I learned about anything from Frey.
Kipnis's reluctance to hold Frey responsible for his deceptions gives me pause about her own work, although it least she has some documentation, and it sure makes me wonder about Nan Talese's operation. It brings up a point that I don't think Kipnis considers in her work: sure, you can do what you want and break the rules, but at your own risk. If you decide that you don't take into consideration what other people think, don't be surprised if they decide that they don't think well of you.
To counter the criticism of Frey, Kipnis presents Oprah as another "self-mythologizer," but I think it misfires. Winfrey, as far as I know doesn't present actual lies about herself, and if Kipnis knows any different, she doesn't say so. She is funny when she describes Oprah, in her second encounter with Frey on her show, as a wrathful demi-goddess, but her discussion of Oprah's weight issues really doesn't work as a counterpart to Frey's fictitious memoir. That isn't a real scandal, although the scandal rags that claim that Jennifer Anniston has been pregnant multiple times or that George W. Bush was going to leave his wife for Condoleezza Rice may try to make it one. Even if one disapproves of Oprah's talk show, indiscreet confessions aren't the same as lying.
I thought the whole approach is represented by Kipnis's discussion of Oprah's first name, which was supposed to be Orpah. She has a footnote telling us that Orpah was an obscure Old Testament character, sister of Ruth, daughter-in-law to Naomi, mother to Goliath, promiscuous woman, etc. What sort of parents would saddle their child with such a name? What were they thinking? she asks. Wait a minute, I thought. I remember the Ruth and Naomi part, but I certainly couldn't remember the rest of the wild tale. That's because it's not in the Bible, it's in rabbinic literature, which I doubt Oprah's parents were familiar with, so that whole analysis is silly.
As I said, the criticism got a bit long, but I really did enjoy the book as a whole, and it is interesting to think about the points Kipnis made, so I recommend it to readers who find such things interesting.
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