When Merve Emre took her first Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, she was twenty-two years old, working as an assistant marketing consultant for Bain & Company. She was baffled by the test’s questions, which she found naïve and simplistic. But she also understood how the test seduces—how its clear and consistent message draws you in, promising to reveal your authentic self.
That was years ago, and Emre has since left marketing behind. “It seems like another life and another self,” she told me over Skype recently from her office at Oxford University, where she’s now an associate professor of English. Still, Emre never forgot the personality test, and after engaging in extensive reporting and research on the origins of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, she uncovered an unlikely narrative.
The result is The Personality Brokers, a gorgeously written and engrossing book, which tells the surprising story of the mother-daughter team that developed the test. It also explores the limits of personality testing and our moth-like attraction to discovering who we truly are—even if the instrument testing us is blunt and what we learn is crude.
I spoke to Emre about her latest book, as well as her literary criticism. Her reviews, published in outlets like the Boston Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books, are proof of a deep appreciation of literature and its powers; she tells us what makes a book tick, and how it might contribute to high art. If she doesn’t love a work, she doesn’t hesitate to point out its perceived flaws, which some have called harsh. Lena Dunham tweeted that one of Emre’s negative reviews was “rude, patronizing bullshit.”
But Emre says the backlash doesn’t phase her. During a Skype session, we spoke about what motivates her bad reviews, why she loves Mary Gaitskill, and her fascination with cruel female artists. We also discussed the self—its construction in narrative, as a lens through which to view the world, and as an idea that unites her creative, critical, and scholarly work. Emre finds that the modern obsession with the self is evidence of narcissism and gets in the way of good art. “To me, interesting artists are not people who are constantly telling you how they think or feel, but rather people who are routing their personalities through their aesthetic sensibilities, through their descriptions of other people, objects, art, and places,” she says. It became clear over the course of our wide-ranging conversation that, in the way of the artists she most admires, the object of her intellect is the world beyond herself.
—Regan Penaluna for Guernica
Guernica: Why did you write a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? It doesn’t strike me as a topic that an English scholar would necessarily be drawn to.
Merve Emre: One of the things I talk a lot about in the book is the way that I have come to understand personality, and the way I think that Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs understood personality, which was as an elaborate story that one narrates about one’s self and one’s place in the world. The Type Indicator is a kind of heuristic, an easy shorthand for figuring out what kind of story you want to tell about who you are. So in some ways, it actually seemed like the perfect project for somebody who studies narrative, and who’s interested in the construction of the self through a particular style of narration.
I argue in the book that the personality test is a technology of the self, a kind of portal to self-discovery, and that it teaches you how to speak a language about the self that has a very specific set of rules, forms, and styles. That, to me, is completely adjacent to what I think about all the time in my literary criticism.
Guernica: What does the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator say about human personality, and what do you think are its limitations?
Emre: The indicator is supposed to chronicle your preferences along four different dimensions, creating a composite image of the person as one of sixteen different types. It is also supposed to be a kind of chronicle of the differences among normal people (by which the creators meant people who don’t have any kind of emotional or psychological disturbance or illness). But it’s also supposed to be general enough that it can show you the continuity among different people. That seems to me to be its great selling point: it’s offering you both this fantasy of individuality and this fantasy of sociality. So you are both one in sixteen and one in a million, as I like to say.
What are the drawbacks? I think there are a number. I think, if you are someone who’s invested in these kinds of instruments being reliable or valid, it is neither reliable nor valid. That’s not particularly what I’m interested in. If you’re interested, more generally, in how these instruments have been wielded—which I am interested in—then the primary concern is that these types of systems are all used to sort of flatten human beings out, and that they are used by the largest institutions of capitalist modernity to try to colonize people’s psychological livelihood, to try to make your personality into something that is not only knowable, but also usable by corporations, by universities, by the military, by religious institutions, by online dating sites. And that, to me, seems to be the biggest, darkest side of what personality testing imagines it can do.
Guernica: If the indicator isn’t reliable or valid, as you say, why do you think it has such a draw?
Emre: I think the promise of self-knowledge is incredibly appealing. The promise that you can come to know yourself in a quick and relatively painless way, and without doing the kind of sustained or expensive work that something like therapy might require. And I do mean painless, in the sense that the Myers-Briggs is so vigilant about reminding people that there are no bad types, that all types are created equal, and that what you are getting a glimpse into is the strongest and most appealing version of yourself.
Also, I think it really does trade on many people’s narcissism. We like thinking about who we are, and the fact that we can do it in this fun way, rather than as a really serious and sober project of the self, is one of the things that makes it incredibly appealing to so many people.
One of the arguments I make in the book, too, is that it’s not a coincidence that the rise of these kinds of tests or indicators happens at the same time that you saw the rise of service work in the United States. So, the more it was that people were marketing their personalities as part of their jobs, the more important it became for corporations or universities or what have you to figure out a language in which to discuss that product that was being commoditized and sold.
Guernica: I really enjoyed learning about the story of Katharine and Isabel, the mother and daughter who together developed the indicator. Why did you think it was important to emphasize their narrative in your book?
Emre: There are a few reasons, but one was that so few people I talked to knew that the indicator was created by two women. The assumption was always that it was two male scientists who happened to encounter each other in a laboratory and generated this questionnaire. I thought it was really important to show how the thinking behind the indicator came about because of specifically feminized concerns: how to raise children, how to feel like you could professionalize domestic labor, how to understand your feelings of subjugation to your husband. Also, I think, as female characters, they had some ideas about gender that actually appear quite radical, and others that appeared totally retrograde, and that to me made them fascinating human beings.
Guernica: You seem to have an abiding interest in personality and its construction through narrative. Do you think the impulse to know ourselves is inevitable, and if so, are there better or worse ways of going about it?
Emre: I don’t think it’s inevitable. I do think that there are so many historical and cultural forces right now that are telling us that it is important to know ourselves, that it is important to work on ourselves, that it is important to take care of ourselves. This seems to me to be such an abiding feature of the neoliberal discourse: this real emphasis on the self, and on self-cultivation. Maybe it’s inevitable now, because historically, we’re kind of past the point where we can be like, Oh we’re not going to worry about this anymore.
I would prefer that, instead of spending so much time thinking about the self, we think more about community and solidarity, and that our questions are less about how do I develop into this particular kind of person, or how do I find out what kind of person I am, and more about how can I think about working with others to create the kinds of conditions under which lots of different people, no matter who they are, can flourish? So that, to me, is a more urgent and interesting question than how I think about who I am, or discover who I am.
Guernica: In your essay, “Two Paths for the Personal Essay,” published last summer in the Boston Review, you write: “If, in the early twentieth century, the ‘I’ of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one.” And you don’t use “mindful” as a compliment. So what have we lost in this shift from the educated to the mindful, and what is the antidote?
Emre: I think this is actually related to the last question you asked me about the book, which is: “With what would we replace the mindful person, or the ‘I’ that’s intent on self-discovery?” And my answer in that essay, and my general feeling as a critic, is that we would replace it with writers who are keen on articulating the forms or styles of objects outside of themselves.
This is one of the reasons that I really like someone like Mary Gaitskill. The sense you get of who she is is almost entirely conveyed through her particular aesthetic sensibilities. So it’s in her analysis of formed relationships that you understand her preferences. It’s a kind of reverse-engineering of personality from a set of aesthetic preferences, so that if I can tell you how it is that I see the world—if I can describe something through writing that is not about myself—you can still tell something about me from my descriptions of or my evocations of the world as I see it.
Guernica: You also argue that the writer of a good personal essay forges a contract with the reader—something you find missing in bad personal essays.
Emre: The kind of contract that I was thinking about was one that was forged simply by clarity. Saying that it’s not enough to describe the world in descriptions that seem artful to me, but that those descriptions have to do the work of clarifying or illuminating some kind of truth to the reader that was not otherwise apparent. But it can’t just be obfuscating, or it can’t just be a performance of one’s own stylistic prowess. I don’t find that kind of writing interesting or useful.
Guernica: Some people thought your criticisms in that piece on the problem with the personal essay were too harsh, as if you were burning down the house of a community of female writers. I get the sense that you think there’s more at stake than offending writers’ feelings.
Emre: Yeah, I don’t really care about their feelings. I think it’s incredibly condescending to hold women writers to such low standards of style that anything anyone writes is supposed to be critically validated. It’s bad for art, and I think it’s bad for women’s art in particular.
Guernica: You’re not afraid to give a bad review. What motivates you to write one?
Emre: You know, it’s really a simple and maybe stupid answer, but I just have a particular set of criteria that I think make for good writing, and I feel like, when novels or books are in violation of those criteria, it just doesn’t seem to me like it’s a problem to express that. I think one needs to be clear about what those criteria are, so I would not offer a negative review of a book without saying what it was that I thought it was failing to do, and why it was important that it was failing to do that.
But, to me, it just seems like a natural extension of being someone who spends time thinking about and teaching literature: that we be able to articulate what it is we want novels to do, and what we admire, what kinds of artistic projects we think are worthwhile. I’m not sure what criticism is if it’s not that. But I don’t actually enjoy writing negative reviews.
I would still much prefer to write a positive review. I think it gives you so much more to work with. For example, I wrote this piece at Harper’s on Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, Outline, Transit, and Kudos. That was just such a delight to write, edit, and think about, because there was so much material there that I wanted to work with and to show other people how to appreciate. I think it’s a more challenging, and a more worthwhile task for me to show people what to appreciate in novels, rather than to show them what doesn’t work, or what doesn’t meet whatever my criteria are for the novel. So I’m asking people not to assign me books that they think I will dislike.
Guernica: In your book Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, you describe how bad readers were created when people were taught to interpret texts according to more propagandistic and political criteria, rather than purely aesthetic criteria. Does this insight motivate your criticism?
Emre: Paraliterary is much more interested in readers than it is in writers. But I think one of the things that it’s important to do in our criticism is to indicate what our methodological commitments are. So, if what we want to do is promote a sustained aesthetic engagement with different texts, then we should be saying that. If what we want to do is write a piece that is supposed to teach people how to think in a particular way about race, or gender, or class, then we should single that out too. And these things are not incompatible with one another. But as critics, it’s important to think about who our audiences are, who our readers are, and what it is that we want to give those readers. And this goes back to the contract that I was talking about in the personal essay.
Guernica: What’s next on your plate?
Emre: I have two projects at the moment. I’m working on an academic book that looks at the rise of literary studies programs in business schools, medical schools, and law schools. It re-examines what we call the crisis of the humanities: this persuasive, seemingly unimpeachable narrative that people are no longer interested in reading, and that it’s bad to be an English major because you’ll never get a job.
I’m also working on a trade book called The Female Cool, which is about cold, cruel, unsentimental, unempathetic women writers and artists. And that, as I’m sure you can guess, comes out of a lot of the criticism that I have been writing recently. A lot of the arguments that I was trying out in “Two Paths for the Personal Essay,” or in this piece on cruelty that I wrote in Harper’s about Cusk, are leading up to a larger schematic of the different ways in which women can be cool in their writing.
So one of the things that I’m trying to figure out now is how one can actually model literary interpretation in a way that is enjoyable and still has a narrative thrust that feels urgent and seductive for a wide audience.
Guernica: Are you also trying to make better readers?
Emre: I think so. I think about my criticism the way that I think about my teaching, and a lot of it is organized in the same way. There is a thesis statement that’s proposed up front and supported through readings. It works in the classroom, and I think it works in the essay, but the question for me is how you can do that in an entire book.