Table for One: “Making It” & the Promotion of Narcissism

Photo by Nicole Heffron

Photo by Nicole Heffron

This fall, while I was working on a few artist statements for a few different applications, I was concurrently reading up on Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I was particularly interested in how Narcissus almost did not make it into the DSM-V. He eventually held on to his spot in the Personality Disorder section, despite all the debate. So proud of you, phenomenal Narcissism! You survived your potential death knell and continue to plague society. Or is it society that plagues the Narcissist? Arguably, this particular “disorder” has socially constructed, rather than biological, roots. In a nutshell, rates are higher in the US than most other countries, and are higher among men than women. These facts are not surprising. Our capitalist, individualist culture fuels narcissistic tendencies, surely. But do our literary and artistic communities need to feed narcissistic tendencies? Or is there room for all sorts of brilliance to shine, equitably?

I have tremendous gratitude for the publishing, fellowship and residency opportunities that have impacted my own life and artistic practices, and I am grateful for those opportunities that have impacted the lives of other writers and artists whose work I admire and have yet to explore. So, I write the following observations about narcissism with my tongue in my cheek, and for the purposes of 1. checking the ebb and flow of my own ego as I continue to send creative work out into this world, and 2. to open up discussion about how our current publication/award/exhibition models serve to celebrate individual artists/writers while ignoring and discouraging so many others. How can we feed artistic communities and build dialogue among audiences and artists with so many statements that sound like: “Out of nearly 700 submissions, we are thrilled to announce that based on the extraordinary merit of your work, YOU have been selected”?

Here’s the breakdown of the characteristics of the Narcissist, as outlined by the DSM-V, and some thoughts on how these characteristics sneak their way into the lives of artists:

Narcissists prefer to only associate with “special” people. Like other award-winning, highly published writers. Their associates are deserving, like them. No room to mingle with the occasional poet.

Narcissists lack empathy. Ok, so lots of artists and writers appreciate and empathize with each other, but what about empathizing with those not-so-special folks? It’s happened that someone, upon receiving the old “Out of nearly 700 applicants, you’ve been selected” went on to exclaim, “See the rest of you 699 suckas later!” Meanwhile, what might that opportunity have meant to other people? And by what models can opportunities be shared?

Narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It is seriously hard to not, at least slightly, enter into a self-important head-space when sending creative work out into the world. How else can you talk about your “project” for pages? The opposite also happens–writers and artists get bogged down with a “why bother” and “what the hell am I doing anyway?” attitude. The necessary confidence rides a fine line between arrogance and self-deprecation.

Narcissists have fantasies of unlimited success and unlimited brilliance. Have you ever felt just one inch away from the National Book Award and the Pulitzer and an Oscar and your own network television show about your own fascinating shenanigans? Mmmhmmm. While the occasional fantasy is nothing but fun, if these thoughts are overtaking your mind, you might be in darker waters than you think.

Narcissists require excessive admiration. “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like”“Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like”“Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like” “Like”


Narcissists have a sense of entitlement. This probably relates to why narcissists are overwhelmingly some combination of male and/or American. While we all, rightly, feel deserving of certain opportunities, entitlement is the next level. It’s a claim that the next big thing is our right – and that we are bound for it. And it’s this sense that allows some artists  to plow through the world expecting that everyone will take notice. Lots of artists do deep internal work to develop a sense that they too are deserving, perhaps to compensate for a lack of society’s expectation of artistic success, or a lack of silver platters handed to them in their lifetimes. This is quite different from the unchecked “I’m bound for glory” mentality that rises, like cream, through prestigious institutions of art training.  

Narcissists selfishly take advantage of others. Can you take a look at this manuscript? Can you blurb my book? Can you review my book? Can you write me a letter of reference? Can you pass this on to the editor? Can you hook me up with a reading? Can you put me in touch with so-and-so? Can you can you can you pretty please? To be fair, as artists we all have to call in favors at times. I know I do. Hopefully, we’re giving back to other artists along the way, especially those who most need a boost, of whatever emotional or tangible sort.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissists are envious of others or believe that others are envious of them. That pang when you see on Facebook that someone just got a book deal or a gallery show. Or, conversely, catching yourself saying for the sixth time this week (and it’s Monday), “Oh they’re just jealous of me.” When these voices come, it’s time to sit, close your eyes, and breathe breathe breathe yourself back to kindness.

Narcissists are arrogant, haughty, and patronizing. I mean, since I’ve been able, by the sheer talent of my writing and strength of my efforts, to become a contributor at Weird Sister, I’m sure that even you can figure out a way to find a home for your little voice. Just kidding. About the tone, not about you finding a home for your huge and beautiful voice. AAARRRGHGHHHHH!

Ok, so I’m not saying that you’re a narcissist, nor am I confessing to my own self-diagnosis. Nor am I suggesting that you use the above framework to diagnose that guy at work, or your sister-in-law or best friend’s partner, or the fiction writer who won that prize or whoever. But I do think this is a useful framework for reflecting on one’s own art-making and submission practices. And if you wield any small shred of power in this crazy beautiful world–as a curator, editor, or the like–it might be useful to consider the practices by which you solicit and invite other artists in. What questions are you asking? What models are you creating, and how might those models stoke/stroke better-than-thou behaviors? How much room do you make for Narcissus at your table?


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