January 26, 2015

Tucker Max shifts from creepy bro writer to inspirational bro entrepreneur


via YouTube

via YouTube

In high school, some of my friends really enjoyed reading Tucker Max, whom Wikipedia bloodlessly describes as “an American author and public speaker,” and whom I’d describe as one of America’s most famous bros, and one of its more notorious assholes. (Frustratingly for my purposes, this is also likely how Max would describe himself.)

I no longer speak to those friends. Not because Max formed a rift between us, but because anyone who enjoys reading Tucker Max is a terrible person.

Tucker Max began his writing career with a website where he posted allegedly true stories, most of which involved some combination of intercourse, vomit, and alcohol. Max had tried to get these stories published, but, like so many writers whose vision of modernity was simply too bold and bleak, he was rejected by the publishing industry. (Also because, perhaps, he was a random guy with no following trying to publish a book comprised largely of (I’ll admit) not horribly written stories about his sexual conquests and binge drinking-related episodes.)

But as Max’s online success grew, literary success followed, and his books—I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Assholes Finish First, and Hilarity Ensues, along with a collection of odds and ends called . . . ugh, Sloppy Seconds—were enormously successful. (As were other books that belonged to a genre that the New York Times’s Warren St. John perhaps inevitably dubbed fratire.) In a 2012 Bookforum essay, Alec Hanley Bemis suggested that Max’s success, though huge, was a niche success, but that the niche was a large one. Bemis’s examples of other niche writers were Michael Azerrad, Dave Hickey, and Melville House author Slavoj Žižek, and while this is quite an unusual foursome, Bemis’s argument is persuasive:

I think Max’s success is simply due to the fact that the world contains a greater number of frustrated college students who want to cut loose but are destined to work in cubicles forever than it does aspirants to the hallowed halls of indie rock, art and philosophy. What explains Max’s popularity, then, is not mainstream curb appeal or a lowest-common-denominator approach but a naturally enormous demographic and his extremely effective method of speaking to them.

The rest of the piece is provocative and interesting, but even the most engaged literary criticism shouldn’t (and can’t) absolve Max of responsibility for the vile garbage that he published for years until his 2012 “retirement,” which was chronicled in a Forbes article I couldn’t read beyond the first page of. So this is from said first page:

Tucker is not just retiring from writing about his hard-drinking, hard-partying, and hard-womanizing, whose recounting made him famous and earned him millions. He is also retiring entirely from that lifestyle of his twenties. Or, I should say, he already has. Unbeknownst to his legions of fans, his legions of critics, or the legions of publishing professionals who want a piece of him, this most public of “I-don’t-wanna-grow-up” males is in fact now in the midst of a serious, intentional and devoted period of cleaning up and growing up.

And grow he did. Earlier this month, Max took to Medium to write about Book In a Box, the new company he started last fall. The company is essentially a book packager that promises prospective authors that all they need to produce a finished book is twelve hours of their time (or less) and . . . money. Money is definitely involved. Let Max explain the whole process in this video, where he performs a reasonably decent imitation of a modest person:

The title of Max’s Medium piece was “My Startup Made 200k In It’s First Two Months… And I’m Embarrassed,” but I’m not particularly interested in pointing out the fact that a guy who can’t distinguish “it’s” from “its” should, perhaps, not be trusted to package a book. (That would be petty—and indeed, there’s no reason why Tucker Max is any less qualified than, say, a random person on the street, to assist in the publication of a book called The Pop Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age.) Instead, I’m curious about why it is that people like Max—and the people willing to pay him money to produce books for them—are so invested in the concept of a book in the first place.

Here’s a long but, I think, revealing excerpt from the Medium piece:

Is writing really a necessary part of creating books? What if you eliminated writing from the book creation process, what would that look like?

I started unpacking all of this in my head with a little one-man Socratic method:

Q. What is a book?
A. A book is just a collection of thoughts that are expressed in words, and assembled in the form of a finite, defined text.

Q. What purpose do books serve?
A. Books—especially non-fiction books—exist to take a singular, contained idea out of the head of the author, and put it into the head of readers.

Q. What part does writing play in this?
A. Writing thoughts down in words and sentences is the process by which the ideas are put into books.

Q. Are there other ways to get ideas into books?
A. If books exist to transfer ideas from one head to another, AND writing is the way by which people commit their ideas to words to put into books—is there another way to get those thoughts into a book, without writing? How would that happen? Of course there is—talking!!

And thus Book In a Box was born.

What’s striking to me about this set of questions and answers, other than its haunting idiocy, is the extent to which it doesn’t ask what would, in this context, be a perfectly reasonable alternative set of questions:

Q. Why books?

Q. Why are books the most successful and appealing way of communicating an idea?

Q. Why couldn’t the author of The Pop Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age created a TED Talk or a podcast to make her case?

Even Tucker Max, a person who wouldn’t meet anyone’s definition of an elitist, seems to take for granted that books are, if nothing else, a kind of exalted form of self-promotion. And Max’s clients agree—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have wasted their money on fucking Book In a Box.

In his Bookforum piece, Bemis wrote that “Max may be the ultimate example of a post-book literature, one in which books begin as digital artifacts rather than print ones,” but if the promotional materials for Book In a Box and Max’s self-congratulatory thinkpiece are to be believed, there’s nothing post- about this literature. Hacks, schemers, and strivers have published books for centuries, and their collective output surely represents the vast majority of the work that has been distributed, acquired, and consumed over that same period.

It’s truly odd to read the corporate manifesto of a famous vile-bro-turned-publishing-guru and conclude that though he and I may differ in our views of human morality, we share a belief in the book as a nimble and capacious form—one that even our glorious age of disruption doesn’t seem to have improved on. Max’s take on the matter is considerably more cynical than mine, and unlike him, I don’t think that every half-assed, half-formed, half-literate idea (or set thereof) needs to be published between two covers, but that’s actually a pretty modest distinction.

This is the point in this piece where I should come full circle and say that I may have misjudged my Tucker Max-loving friends, because Max and I have something in common. I should declare my intention to seek these friends out on Facebook and reestablish our bonds.

But I’m not going to do that, because despite his 2012 reinvention and his self-serving but correct stance on the utility of the written and published word, Max is still a monster, and his works have done significantly more harm than good.

But yes, okay, Tucker Max is right—sort of—about books.


Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.