You’re Not Much Use to Anyone: David Shapiro on His Self-Effacing First Novel

An interview with the Pitchfork Reviews Reviews founder turned novelist.

July 28, 2014

Near the end of You're Not Much Use to Anyone, the novel's 20-something narrator—a New York City Fire Pension Fund Employee and writer of the defunct music Tumblr Pitchfork Reviews Reviews—meets Barack Obama. He's volunteered as a driver in the president's motorcade on a day when Obama is visiting New York, and when the president asks him what he does for a living, he replies, "I write a blog about a popular music website." Obama seems confused about this. When the narrator asks him if he's ever heard of Pitchfork, Obama smiles at him and says, "No, but I'll have to look into it!" It's a comic anti-climax in a story of internet micro-celebrity, registering a new high point in the protagonist's budding notoriety (a blog post he writes on the experience attracts the attention of The Washington Post) and also the exceedingly niche, perhaps irrelevant-in-the-wide-scheme-of-things nature of his post-college creative pastime. Largely inspired by Shapiro's own life, and written in a conservational tone that will appeal to fans of his real-life, Pitchfork-trolling website, the book follows the narrator through two aborted relationships and the lifespan of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, from the moment he writes the first post on his Blackberry at work to the day when he wakes up and realizes that he's finally run out of ideas. It's as full of enough modest triumphs and mild disappointments to resonate with anyone who's ever graduated college and felt a little bit lost. Fittingly, in conversation about the book, Shapiro was just as self-deprecating as his semi-fictional alter ego—but also just as brutally and endearingly honest.

To what extent is You're Not Much Use to Anyone based on your own life? The perspective of the narrator is a part of me, but it’s represented in the book as being all of me. I’d say almost all of the things that happen occurred in real life in some way, with the exception of a lot of the things that other characters say. Those are often words put into other people’s mouths that the real life basis for the characters never said, but are helpful and convenient for the book. But it’s autobiographical enough to be genuinely embarrassing, if people ascribe all of the things the character says or does or thinks to me. I guess 80% is true.

So you’re saying that it’s inspired by a part of your personality. What part is that? Uh… selfish. Like the character doesn’t have any regard for the thoughts or actions of other people, and gets by on other people being nicer to him and better to him than he is to them. In real life, I guess I’d like to imagine that I am more, um, sensitive to other people than the character is.

Why was it interesting for you to simplify your personality in that way? I guess it’s a part of me that is easiest to write. It’s easy for me to write in a self-effacing way and to think about what I have written in a self-effacing way. You know, there are people who I read who write with authority, and I feel like I am not one of them. Sometimes I read something online and I think, Wow that writer really cracked this nut. But I see how my own writing is done and I feel like I rarely crack the nut. It’s just easier to feel like I am writing from outside. I was on the phone with my editor talking about doing press and stuff for the book, and he said I should be more confident about the book, because it’s a thing that I’m selling, in a way, and it’s not becoming for the salesman of a product to not stand behind it. And I was like, "If I was more confident, I wouldn’t have written this book." I think he understood.

The book chronicles the narrator's experience of that in-between stage when you’ve just graduated college but haven’t settled into a career yet. Would you say you were looking to capture a time in your life when you felt particularly vulnerable? I wrote it at the beginning of May of 2011, when a lot of the things in the book had happened, and I felt like a lot of good stuff had happened to me and I didn’t feel any better about myself. Like, I had no direction. I’d never felt proud or good about anything I’d done, and then I went through a time when people were like oh, David, you’re good at something. And then I stopped writing; I didn’t have anything left to say. I felt like I had found something I was decent at but I couldn’t do it anymore, and I felt like I wanted to save it in some way, so I could remember it. And when I wrote the book, I sent it to my agent and I was like, is this a book? It doesn’t have characters, it doesn’t have significant relationships, the character doesn’t learn anything at the end. I thought they would read it and call my parents and be like, You need to get help for this for your kid, who is obviously suffering in some way. And I had to explain that there were parts that weren’t true and it wasn’t a complete representation of me as a person. But I was worried that it eventually would wind up not as a book but in a file in a psychiatric institution.

How did you come up with the structure for the book? When I was writing my blog, I wanted every post to have an interesting enough nugget in it so that the person who got there on that day would follow it. They would like the first thing that they saw enough to be interested in the rest. I guess that’s why I burned out after a couple months; I didn’t have that many ideas. But I feel like with the book, I wanted to incorporate not every but almost every thing that occurred during that period that I found to be interesting in some way. So I just strung those together and thought about an arc that would unite the observations that are the constitution of the book. I didn’t know what would have to be incorporated for it to be a book, but the arcs just seemed like things that books have. This book has three arcs, I guess: the two relationships [the main character has] and the blog. None of the three end in a satisfying way. I still think of the time in my life that the fictionalized version is based on as being defined by those three arcs. I guess also because I have a very strong memory of the first time that I didn’t know what to write: it was like the worst feeling.

That's a hard feeling to have when you’re so young at the beginning of your career. Yeah, I feel like that’s part of why I don’t want to be a book writer as a career. I understand this notion that an artist will have a lifetime of things to say; there’s a business reason for it. But I I feel like, if you’re really lucky, as an artist, then you will have one good or interesting thing to say, and then if you’re in the .01% of people who can consistently come up with good things to say, then you are exceedingly lucky. But I only have the one thing to say, and it’s basically in the book.

How do you feel now about having started Pitchfork Reviews Reviews in the first place? I feel, in relation to Pitchfork, a little guilty. I think they think that I have exploited their brand and their name. The premise of the blog was that it would be reviews of Pitchfork reviews, but the real substance of it was personal writing. And I feel like they felt like I used them. Like I would insult them, and then use their platform as a stepping-stone for my own writing, and then insult them. So I feel guilty about that, but at the same time, it’s hard to feel guilty about wronging people who are more successful and better off than you, in a way. No matter what I say about them, in fifteen minutes, they will have more readers than I will in my life. There are more people who have gone to since we started this interview than will ever have heard of my blog. So in a way, it’s hard to feel guilty. But I still feel a little guilty, because I know there are people on the other end of the computers.

Would you say, with the book, that you were trying to also capture the experience of being a young person in New York at this particular moment in time? Before I wrote it, I hadn’t read something about someone who was 21 or 22 that captured feeling, like, dejected. It seems like most 22-year-olds have jobs that are similarly frustrating, or not rewarding. In high school, I could imagine what life would be like in college, and in college, I pictured what life would be like by the end of my twenties. I could picture later periods in my life. But the time between when I graduated college and when I figured out what I was really supposed to do was totally opaque. I don’t know how representative my own experience is. I feel like people write books or music or art in some way to let other people know that they’re suffering. I had a hard time talking to people about it, because I felt like people thought that because my writing had achieved some sort of minor or micro renown, that I had succeeded in some way or that I was happier. But I just wanted to let people know that I was suffering.

The main character in the book seemed to have a lot of pressure on him coming from many sides at once. There’s the pressure coming from the parents, there’s the pressure coming from the job, and then there’s the pressure coming from wanting to fit in in the literary world. I thought about that a lot as it was happening. I guess there’s just the pressure to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. I felt like I had to choose between making a life for myself where I would be comfortable in the future and one where I would be satisfied with what I was doing. And I wish that someone had explained that they weren’t mutually exclusive, but I felt like it was really either/or. And I felt frustrated to feel like I had to make that choice. I feel like I was raised at a time when I was presented with an understanding that anything was possible and I could take a while to figure myself out and figure out what I want to do—while I think I would have appreciated being forced to, like, pick something at 13 or 14. My dad grew up in Israel, and I think when he was growing up, by the time he was 14 or 15, you were supposed to know what you wanted to do. I think ultimately that’s a better strategy for making adults because laboring under the illusion that one day you will wake up and realize what you want to do is really destructive and makes people really unhappy. Luckily, my parents were really passionate about me going to law school, I think because they knew that I was kind of adrift. I feel like the pressure to choose between, like, ideally something that you find fulfilling creatively and something that is a lucrative career is a product of poor planning.

But you’ve kind of managed to do both. Yeah, because I’ve been really lucky, and people have been really good to me, much more than I deserve. But I wouldn’t use my example as a viable career path.

You’re Not Much Use to Anyone: David Shapiro on His Self-Effacing First Novel