The Brain Eater

So, let’s say, there’s this writer.

(It doesn’t have to be a writer. It could be a musician, or painter, or actor, any aspirant in any creative or indeed competitive field, in which there will be many who participate but few who will end up on top, commercially or critically.)

Let’s also posit this writer is probably white and straight and male. Mind you, for this exercise, one doesn’t have to be white and/or straight and/or male — it’s possible that others could be slotted into this exercise — but let’s also allow that this exercise requires a certain amount of expectation, whether consciously acknowledged or not, that there is a path, and the path is achievable; and indeed not only achievable but achievable by them; and one might say, not only achievable, but expected.

So, again: This writer. He starts in his twenties in his field, writing short stories and perhaps working on a novel. And things start to happen for this writer. He gets work accepted by magazines and publishers. People start to talk about his work. He starts getting good notices and acceptance in his field. He begins to see his name pop up in conversations about the best work of the year, and selected for anthologies with the word “best” somewhere in the title. He has peers coming up with him. They hang out at conventions and book fairs.

One day, to his delight, as he edges into his thirties, he discovers some of his work has been nominated for an award, or possibly even two. Now when he goes to conventions and book fairs, his peers high-five him. When he sits on a panel, he no longer modestly suggests that he doesn’t know why he’s there when everyone else on the panel is so better known than he is. An agent at a convention asks him if he’s working on a novel (and of course he is, even if he wasn’t two seconds previously) and gives him a card and tells him they’d love to see it. Magazine editors invite him to submit. Anthology editors do the same, hinting that his name might even make it onto the cover.

The writer goes home and starts work on a novel. The agent likes the work and takes him on. When the novel is finished, the agent shops it — and it finds a home. The writer announces the deal on social media to the acclaim of peers and fans. The books goes out to reviewers and the first reviews are kind. The book hits stores and the sales are good! For a debut.

Our writer smiles to himself and says, now I am on my way. The path so far has been an unbroken upward road — not without challenges but one still clear and tractable — and from his vantage point he can see everything that lies on that upward path: More award nominations, this time for his novel(s), and then award wins. Then bestseller status and with it attention from film and TV producers. A novel is adapted into a film and launches the book into the stratosphere of general public consciousness. He’s liked, and admired, and in appropriate time new writers speak of him as a signal influence on their own work. From there, he garners his career awards — a Grand Master accolade, maybe a National Book Award or even a Pulitzer — and is comfortable in the knowledge that his work, his legacy, his part in the national conversation — is assured, even when he’s gone. This continuing upward path is not without its challenges, of course. Of course! But again, the path so far has been clear and tractable. There’s no reason for him not to be able to continue on it, predictably, inevitably.

And, then, one day, our writer looks around and he’s fifty. And he realizes that the book awards and the bestsellers and the movie deals haven’t come. He’s still publishing his novels (or maybe he isn’t), but he and his peers not part of the conversation like they used to be (well, one or two of them are. Just not him). His sales are slowly declining and some of his previous work is out of print. His agent admits that it’s harder to sell his work than it used to be. New writers — who are these kids? — are coming up and winning the awards, hitting the best seller lists, getting those TV and movie deals.

Our writer’s body is thicker than it used to be, and slower, and creaks. He’s not young anymore nor ever will be again. He’s not one of the Young Turks; he senses he’s barely part of the establishment. The new writers coming up treat him like just another writer; he’s not an influence, he’s just another jobber in the word mines. His upward path — that clear and tractable path, the expected and one would dare to say entitled path — is not the path he’s on. He’s on a path that has plateaued and indeed may be starting to run downhill, getting steeper as it goes.

How did this happen?

Well, our writer thinks, it can’t be because of him; he’s done the work, put in the words, is writing at the same level he always has. He’d been up for awards, back in the day, and doesn’t know why he shouldn’t still be. And it can’t be just be because sometimes, despite your best efforts, things don’t happen for you — that you could have been in the right place at the right time but weren’t, and someone else was, and they got a boost and you didn’t because on occassion that’s the way it goes. No, things don’t just happen, things happen for a reason.

And things, in particular, are happening to our writer — or more accurately, aren’t happening, because someone or a group of someones, are actively making it not happen. Our writer looks around at who is new, who is hot, who is making it in the field and who isn’t, adds up the anecdotal evidence that doesn’t involve the impossible factors of himself or just plain bad luck. And then he thinks to himself:

You know, maybe it really is the Jews keeping me down.

Or the blacks. Or the gays. Or the liberals! Or the Millennials! The lousy SJWs and the feminists! Or all of them! All at once! For starters!

And that’s when our writer looks up from the path, and in front of him stands the Brain Eater.

Who pulls out a spoon, cracks open our writer’s skull, and starts feasting, while our writer goes onto the Internet and talks angrily and at length about who it is that is keeping him from what he deserves.

Please note that this is just one representative example. Not every path to the Brain Eater is traced into the dirt like this particular one. Some come to the Brain Eater sooner; some come later. Some get further along in their career before they arrive at the Brain Eater, having won accolades and fame (but just not enough); some leap into its arms at the first available opportunity. What’s important is the gap, that wide space between where they think should have been and where they are now — and the “fact” that someone else, not them and not chance, is solely responsible for their failure to be who they are supposed to be, and their failure to achieve what they were entitled to achieve.

Please also note that no one has to come to the Brain Eater at all. Even folks statistically most susceptible to the Brain Eater can realize how much luck, circumstance and timing plays a part in one’s career, and resist the temptation to ascribe their own situation to a shadowy cabal out to defeat them personally. They might also realize that the “expected” path isn’t and never was real, and that nothing in one’s career or even life is ever a given.

They might also recognize that in writing, at least, it is never too late — as long as you’re writing and submitting and putting your work out there, there’s always another chance for you and your work. There are writers who failed and failed and failed and failed and hit. There are writers who hit, hit bottom, and hit again. There are writers who didn’t start publishing until they were in their fifties, or beyond. There are writers who started early, kept at it, never “hit,” but nevertheless loved the life that being a writer gave them.

There is no expected path. Believing that there is will only make you unhappy, and from there, bitter, and from there, blame-seeking. There is only the path you make for yourself and where it takes you, however long you choose to be on it.

Or, you can let the Brain Eater feast. It might make you feel better temporarily. But then you might find that what you’ve long suspected is actually true: People don’t want to work with you. Not because of some shadowy cabal directive but simply because people are reluctant to work with someone who descends into blame-seeking and bigotry when things don’t go their way. It’s unpleasant to watch and deal with, and people will suspect that if everything doesn’t go your way, sooner or later that your impulse to blame will be directed at them.

And thus the irony of the Brain Eater: It makes you become, by your own hand, the thing you suspect others were working so hard to make you be: A failure.

100 Comments on “The Brain Eater”

  1. Notes:

    1. I suspect this one might generate a lot of comments, so remember: The Mallet is out. Play nice with each other.

    2. To the ones who might moan that once again it’s the straight white dudes being singled out — I note it’s not exclusive to straight white dudes (and yes, I include cis-ness in there), and indeed I can think of some for whom (in my opinion) the Brain Eater has come who are not male (or straight, or white). But in my opinion, when I see the Brain Eater feasting, straight white dudes tend to be the main entree, if you get my drift.

    3. Also, to get ahead of the inevitable, “why aren’t [insert non straight white dude group of your choosing] accused of the Brain Eater when they complain?”, one, maybe sometimes they are in the throes of Brain Eater, but two, you know, in writing/publishing at least, there’s actually a lot of non-anecdotal evidence that minorities are disproportionally underrepresented in the mainstream and have significant challenges getting on equal footing in terms of access to the marketplace. This comment thread will not be the place to 101 this particular aspect of writing and publishing, but it’s worth it to note it’s there.

    And, to the point, of the Brain Eater aspect of this, non-SWMs, at least in my anecdotal experience, don’t just assume a path to glory; they know (or very quickly find out from personal experience) that their path is, shall we say, beset.

    4. For those curious: I don’t suspect I myself will find the Brain Eater standing in front of me — I’m pretty happy with my career and at this point consider anything else positive that happens to me a delightful bonus rather than an expected milestone — but if it does Krissy has instructions to take me out into the yard and hit me with a shovel. She’ll do it, too.

  2. I admit, I was thinking of something completely different; I’ve always heard ‘Brain Eater’ as a term for those important in the field who, in their latter days, descend into mediocrity (common symptoms: Too Big to Edit, Series Disease, trying to connect all your work together into a shared universe, etc.).

    But oh, yeah, in the last few years I’ve definitely seen the kind of thing you’re talking about, without naming names…

  3. Wow, better keep the mallet handy for this one. I think your metaphor is apt, but I suspect that the TL;DR version of this would be something like, “Beware false career expectations, they may make you cranky and vulnerable to being an asshole.”

  4. This applies in many career paths. Of all the smart young lieutenants in the army, how many end up being generals? Don’t know where “brain eaters” come from. I suppose writers who become bitter have a the opportunity to show their ignorance more than others.

  5. This is different from the brain eater I always heard of, that Travis Butler mentioned.

    There’s also the literal brain eater that seems to have gotten a certain older writer who was always right wing, but still quite readable, and even has a long running blog. But he went full on conspiracy theorist a few years ago.

  6. There is also a certain amount of older writer behavior that derives from decades of seeing other writers grabbed by the Brain Eater and desperately hoping not to sound like them. Particularly if one is disappointed by the failure to move along an expected path that isn’t the path that people expect you to expect, there can be a strong desire not to say anything that can be construed as envious or jealous because not only does it make one unattractive but it makes one unattractive inaccurately. Also it frankly feels more foolish to have missed on ambitions that most people don’t share (and have to admit to being sad about it) than it does to miss on an ambition that is widely shared — people understand the guy who never had the money to own a Mercedes a lot better than they understand the guy who never had time to learn Tibetan.

    I know a bit about this because,uh, like, I know some guys.

  7. @Miles:
    There are at least two things that many people find hard to accept:
    One: You are not as good at (whatever you do) as you think you are and as you’d like to be.
    Two: Sometimes things happen at random. Good or bad luck will have some influence on your path.

    Denying both of these makes you basically brain eater bait.

  8. If you are good at something when you are young, people tend to tell you that YOU ARE GOOD and YOU ARE TALENTED and YOU’LL GO FAR. Not, “you’re working hard and studying a lot and practicing, and if you do that every day things might still be kinda fucked and that’s okay,” but you ARE going to do great things. So then if you don’t … how do you get out of that? How do you fix it in your head? When it’s what you are, it’s all you’ve ever been good at, and you think it’s inherent instead of learned?

    As you put it, you can turn that anger outward, and blame others. And you can turn it inward, and blame yourself. Both destructive and not serviceable for the work. You have to look at writing as work. You have to realize there are slumps, and missed opportunities, and it won’t all be okay. Some things will never be okay, but YOU will be okay even if that happens.


  9. I just turned 40 last December, and I’m still working steadily, but not setting the world on fire, as I seemed maybe poised to do ten years ago, and you know what? I’m okay with that. My dream as a kid was to publish some novels I was proud of, and to be able to write and publish stories, and I got those things. I’m still selling books to good publishers, even, and I think I’m doing my best work these days. I’m not a bestseller, but I remember the first time my career cratered, I looked around and went, hmm, and thought, “If you can’t be a headliner, there’s no shame in being a respected session musician,” and settled in. (Of course, every new book is another spin of the roulette wheel, so you never know, but if this is my ultimate level? It’s farther than I had any reason to believe I’d go.)

  10. “Even folks statistically most susceptible to the Brain Eater can realize how much luck, circumstance and timing plays a part in one’s career, and resist the temptation to ascribe their own situation to a shadowy cabal out to defeat them personally. ”

    I’m an old, white, male fud. I suffer from that part of the Brain Eater that prevents me from remembering stuff I wrote a year or more ago (sometimes a few months). But I know how much of a part luck plays in what happens to you. Hell, I invented the next big game after Pictionary, just in time to see Nintendo completely and permanently restructure the games biz. I got a big publisher to bring out my funny, whimsical debut novels just in time for 911 to change the US national mood. Believe me, I know.

    That being said, I have to admit it’s just possible I have been singled out by an ancient and sinister cabal for special treatment. I comfort myself with the thought that I am being tested and tempered for my eventual fabulous destiny. It’s just that, since I’m turning 68 this month and don’t figure to live that much longer, I wish they’d get around to it.

  11. Like Travis, I associate the term with a perceived decline in quality of an established author’s work, not this expectation thing. In many cases, the victim having already achieved grandmaster status.

  12. Does this “Brain Eater” have anything to do with authors who cry “plagiarism!” whenever someone releases a blockbuster piece of work that bears even the slightest resemblance to something of theirs, or is that another beast entirely?

  13. Yeah, I’m not where I thought I would be in my career, and there is some general demographics that made it that way, but I am happy where I am and doing what I love to do. The Brain Eater or The Green Eyed Monster has little room to feast here.

  14. I’ve met a few whose brains have been eaten. It’s not a pretty sight. There should probably be a home in the woods for them all to go to where they can’t hurt anyone but themselves.

  15. I’m 50 and I formally began my writing career two years ago. I’m doing everything on my own, with no expectations or preconceptions.

    I think maybe this was the best way to do this all along.

  16. Could this be apt for the scientific or mathematical fields? If so, could a scientist or mathematician who is also a Whatever reader point out what the “brain eater” would be for them? I ask this as a mid-level statistician and I don’t want to go down that path.

  17. As a 44-year-old Straight White Male who’s achieved modest-but-not-immense success, I read this thinking There But For The Grace of God Go I. If I’m being honest, sometimes I sense that Brain Eater lurking around waiting for that moment to pounce.

    I stave it off as best I can. A thing I keep coming back to– as corny as it is– is a line from that graduation-speech-as-spoken-word-song from the 90s: “Remember, the race is long, and ultimately, it’s only with yourself.”

  18. I wanted to be a scientist. Instead, I stumbled into a far less glorious but far more lucrative career as a computer programmer.

    Some of this was pure luck of the draw, largely unforeseeable consequences of career choices I made early on. I rejected a scientific field that subsequently went through a series of exciting revolutions in thought, in favor of one that seemed more promising at the time but turned out to be largely moribund. Meanwhile, an extraordinary economic boom gave me an opening into my backup career.

    I think if the money hadn’t turned out to be better anyway, I’d be a lot more bitter.

  19. “And it can’t be just be because sometimes, despite your best efforts, things don’t happen for you — that you could have been in the right place at the right time but weren’t, and someone else was, and they got a boost and you didn’t because on occassion that’s the way it goes. No, things don’t just happen, things happen for a reason.”

    It’s especially hard to accept this when it means realizing that your early success wasn’t due solely to your talent and hard work, but that an element of chance played a part. So not only don’t you have the future you thought you’d have, you don’t even have the past you thought you did.

    (Me, I’m in my mid 40s and only starting to pull up out of the “blaming myself” dive. And I am responsible for my failures, in part. But I no longer define myself as a failure, and that makes a different future possible.)

  20. Thanks for writing this. It always irritates me when I see already successful (usually white/male/straight) authors complaining about an up & coming author along the lines of “it’s because she is a woman / gay / minority / etc. and/or is writing about these SJW issues.” For the record, if I see something like that, I mentally vow to 1.) Never read the complainer’s work 2.) Never buy the complainer’s work and 3.) Check out the person they were complaining about. I wonder if sometimes these complainers don’t understand why some of us get *so* excited to read diverse books by diverse authors — books about a Himba mathematical genius woman hanging in space with aliens? Yes please. I grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi, and it was so rare for me to see anything other than a white male character in this role… I never saw anyone who looked like my mother cast as the hero (heck, even seeing someone who looked like her was rare enough).

    I have limited book funds, and I sure as hell am not going to spend my money on an asshole. (Of course – perfectly happy to buy works of white/male/straight authors who are non-assholes, such as our generous host here).

  21. @Mike J: There’s an analogous phrase I’ve heard, “going emeritus”. It usually involves distinguished, elderly professors either stubbornly persisting in trying to rescue their favorite rejected ideas, or deciding that they have revolutionary notions that will overturn some field of science distant from their original specialty. When the consensus is not sympathetic, they start insisting that an entrenched cabal is keeping them down.

    British cosmologists seem particularly susceptible, for some reason.

  22. Mike J: Engineer (Civil) here. Yes, yes it can. Forms I’ve seen it take (in addition to straight-up racism and misogyny):
    * Taking credit for underlings’ work, aka Me-itis.
    * Being nasty to reviewers that have fewer years experience and the temerity to point out errors in your work (bonus points for P.E. looking down the nose at non-P.E.)
    * Blaming not being published in professional journals on X, Y, and Z things other than failure to write an acceptable paper.
    * Acronym soup and a plethora of titles/certs dangling after a name *may* be a symptom, depending on situation and/or frequency of occurrence.
    * Taking work in a different state/province and assuming the rules and regs are identical to the place they’ve been working.

  23. “No matter how good you are, there’s always a million people better.” Homer Simpson

    Also, I met you in Parma at the book signing, and you didn’t actually sign the Collapsing Empire I bought for my father in law. You just wrote, “Happy Reading!” which was really my intent all along, but thought he would appreciate it a bit more when I told him I got to meet you. Is there a place I can send it to be properly Hancocked?

  24. You might even be able to say that expectations and a feeling of deservedness are the larval forms of the Brain Eater.

  25. I always thought of Brain Eater the way Travis saw it, and linked it with (especially) “Too Big To Edit” (ahem, without naming names, I’m sure everyone here is probably thinking of the same guy)…and not exclusive to writers. Although the film figure I’m thinking of here may ALWAYS have been Brain Eaten, just managed to get one hit so big he could tell studios to go pound sand almost overnight.

  26. This is true for non-fiction writers and journalists as well. Easy to get your eyes off the work and whine about why the world is so unfair.

  27. Speaking as the guy who now regrets coining the term “Brain Eater”, I meant it in the sense of someone’s prose becoming unreadable. Since some of the examples I had in mind were the victims of literal brain eaters (Keith Laumer, for example), I regret the term and prefer filibuster freefall. Although having casually tossed out the term back when does make it hilarious that I have my own personal brain eater now, a “minor cognitive impairment” of unknown origin and unknown prognosis.

    Part of what I had in mind involved authors losing sight of the difference between what mattered to them and what would plausibly matter to their characters. Poul Anderson and the Those Damn Dirty Hippies bits in There Will Be Time, say, or L. Neil Smith and the rant about a form of baseball nobody in his universe plays, which is like me passionately complaining about the NHL overtime rules in the timeline where Arthur Meighan was the longest serving PM (they drop fire ants from the rafters to encourage faster play; it has to do with how the Rocket Richard riots played out in that world).

    The Brain Eater does seem to feed more deeply on men but I wonder if that’s because men generally just feel more open to sharing their thoughts.

  28. I think (hope) that I dodged that bullet. But maybe only just.

    A fair number of years ago, I set aside the idea of writing professionally. I did it for about a year and a half. I sold some stuff. I was happy with what was going out, but while I could DO the work and was content with the quality, it was becoming apparent that I did not have the connections and contacts to really, properly do it profitably.

    So, back to the ‘real work’ grind of a job etc.

    I still write for fun, and recently even sold a piece unexpectedly (I wrote it without any idea that the fellow whose world inspired me had any intent on buying it – that was a surprise, but a pleasant one) and perhaps, when I retire I may write some more with an idea towards doing it semi professionally.

    But, even when I realized that ‘nope, this isn’t gonna realistically work out’ I walked away from the brain eater. The universe doesn’t ‘owe’ anyone anything. If you want something you have to work for it and often you have to work hard. I did not have the requisite opportunities to make it full bore as a writer. Okay, unfortunate but maybe those will happen later and maybe the opportunity to work properly at developing them will happen later. In the meantime, there are plenty of other things I can do and I am good at.

    No harm, no foul.

    Would have been nice though – I must say that I did really ENJOY that year of writing for a living. But the idea that it is somehow OWED – that’s just BS entitlement.

  29. And some writers don’t achieve recognition during their lifetime,but hit the heights after their death.Moby Dick is a classic example of this. Probably doesn’t help with Brain Eater syndrome, though.

  30. Sadly, as much as I loathe certain assumptions about society and terms like ‘patriarchy’ I think that the reality is that a lot of men really DO feel more ‘entitled’ to things. Not all, to be sure, but some. Other folks do too, but it seems those who are, for want of a better word ‘privileged’ often grow up with certain expectations.

    And I think it’s ‘nurture’ as well. These folks are reared with the ‘you can be anything you like’ and ‘you can do better than your parents’ etc. And they hear it enough and, in fact SEE it enough that they start to think it’s just something that ‘happens’ without realizing how much work often has to go into it and also without seeing those who try and fail – often because those folks entirely fall off their radar.

    With my own daughter, I try and tell her ‘yeah, you CAN try for those things – but you also have to be realistic. You want to be a singer? Maybe, that might happen but it’s a very VERY hard row to hoe and you had better have a lot of luck atop everything else to get there.

    Her idea of shooting for marine biologist – that will require a lot of hard work but, I think, a lot less luck. That moves it into the realm of the possible as opposed to the realm of ‘you are effectively hoping to win the lottery.’

  31. There are always circumstances that are beyond your immediate control.
    Blaming the world for whatever lack of “success” one has is a fallacy.
    Folks who ARE successful work around or through whatever obstacles the world places in front of them.
    Hard work and perseverance are usually rewarded.

    Much more so than whining about a lack of “success”.
    Those people just get labelled a whiner at that point.

    The world doesn’t owe anyone anything.
    Any expectations that “because you’re X you will go far” are only true if you work for it (nepotism aside)

    Staying successful requires work.
    As much work as getting there in the first place.

    “I coulda been” is the lament of those not willing to work hard enough for it.

  32. Lontra Canadensis, and then there’s the final and most severe version in the sciences: Nobel Derangement Syndrome. That’s where a respected scientist wins a Nobel and uses it as an excuse to go way off the deep end: conspiracy theories, plain old nonsense, refuting their own work that won them the Nobel in the first place, generally being insufferable.
    Thankfully, it is rare.

  33. Allison Hantschel: For me the way I got it out of my head was to see some different examples.
    I had a plan, and it didn’t work, and I considered myself a total failure at 24 because I wasn’t in a PhD program.
    In college sci/fi author OSC gave a graduation speech (before we realized what kind of person he was) and he said that all your good ideas are gone by 30, so better catch them all (and he used Einstein as an example). I believed him, and I hated myself for failing.
    Then I read a biography of Julia Child (My Life in France) and realized that this amazing, successful, super-famous woman had *no idea* what she was doing with her life until after she was 30. It blew my mind that you could find an amazing career that late in life (I was 24, 30 seemed a million years away).
    I realized that OSC was *wrong*, Julia Child was an inspiration, and I started (slowly) getting moving again.

    Perhaps some Brain Eaters could be avoided by knowing that there are many paths, not just one.

  34. My philosophy: put yourself out there. Everything that happens after that is gravy. Just commenting on this website is gravy! Thanks!

  35. This Brain Eater affects more than expectations, I think.

    General defensiveness due to being attacked or diminished too often. For instance, POC or transgender folks can get angry at genuine compliments. So can successful authors, if they don’t know the person giving the compliment.

    Political folks on both sides can whale away at goofy remarks without thinking of how petty they’ve become. Kimmel’s heartfelt plea regarding healthcare actually had brain eaten people ridiculing him, where Colbert’s over the line joke was defended by other brain eaten people.

    (And no, I’m not a Trump fan. And yes, I am irresponsibly applying the brain eater to anyone who disagrees with me, which demonstrates that my brain has indeed been eaten!)

  36. When I was young, I was told that I was a prodigy and had amazing talent. I auditioned to get into a top university performing arts program and was one of a few candidates accepted when thousands were rejected. So obviously I was entitled to succeed if I put in the work, right? Ha! Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and thus accustomed to being treated as a second class citizen, but I’ve always assumed that any great success is based mostly on luck vs. talent. Fortunately, for my own happiness I realized WELL before fifty that I wasn’t driven to perform. I enjoyed it, it was fun, but I could live happily without it, so I did. I took a different path, and learned to love the path, not the destination. Every day I know that if I die tomorrow, it’s okay – I lived well, and I made a difference in my own way. In the end, does anything matter more than that?

  37. Wow; this pushed a ton of buttons . . .
    Twice in my life I took on debt, and time out of my life (in the first instance, 7+ years) towards a desired career/job, and both times, it . . . didn’t work out. The first instance was particularly brutal, but rather than entitlement eating my brain, mostly it was self-blame (“if I were truly good at this I would have succeeded”) with a huge dose of fear (“fuckfuckfuck, what am I going to do NOW that all of the eggs in my basket are broken on the ground???” coupled with “fuckfuckfuck I am UNEMPLOYED [for more than a year] I am going to have to move back to my parents’ house in a small town, and I am nearly 40”). There was definitely bitterness and anger, as well, though not directed AT anyone in particular, and I realized, even when I was in the depths of it, that those feelings were mostly born of abject fear as much as anything. Disappointment, too–LOTS of disappointment–but it was hard for me to blame a particular person or group. And it took a lot of work on myself to let go of the anger, the bitterness, the free-floating blame, but I realized I did NOT want to carry all of that around; it’s just too heavy.

    Sometimes shit just happens, and sometimes it’s good shit, and sometimes it’s bad shit. But I (and perhaps most of us?) are susceptible to wanting there to be ORDER in the world, damnit!, and a promise that hard work will pay off in just the ways we want. The reality is that hard work isn’t a sufficient condition, and, sometimes, isn’t even a necessary condition. But it was very very hard to get out of that black mental hole I was in, and it’s very very hard to live with ambiguity, so I can see how the Brain Eater finds its victims.

  38. The two paragraphs before “How did this happen?” are me. I have those thoughts. All the time. I edge toward resentment. All the time. I feel irritation toward the talented and lionized newbies. All the time.


    I freely admit this.

    And if you wanna know what other unworthy thoughts I have, I can peel open the top of the skull and give you a closer look at the writhing materials inside.

    The Brain Eater is always there. It is only natural for it to be there. It may feel good, sometimes, to let it gibber. But life is an exercise in knowing when the voice of your secret inner self is unworthy of you. A successful writing life is an exercise in remembering that the only part of it you really can control is the work.

  39. Yes, I get so excited about interesting diverse books too, what a good checklist. And Binti was a fantastic book!

  40. It’s a good cautionary tale.

    I suspect that the modern Bitter Guy Who Non-Ironically Uses “Friendzone” is a victim of a related Brain Eater, although those guys aren’t generally willing to put in as much work.

  41. This makes me feel kind of lucky that “celebrity programmer” isn’t an expected career arc that anyone talks about. Now that I storta kinda am one to a tiny industry niche, there isn’t really a stereotype I can compare myself to and say “why have I not achieved plateau X yet?”.

  42. “Krissy has instructions to take me out into the yard and hit me with a shovel. She’ll do it, too. ”

    You need help for that? Not me! Since buying my house, I am learning to garden. And I find that I manage to keep hitting myself with the shovel, no assistance needed.


  43. @isabelcooper: But it’s not how much work they actually put in, it’s about how much work they think they’ve put in versus the rewards they’ve gotten. “I opened the door for her, I paid for dinner, I was clearly NICE. Why is she not having sex with me? She must be an evil gold-digger, that’s why!”

    Personally, I’m kind of glad I’m genuinely terrible at monetizing my chosen field of writing (erotica). I write what feels interesting to me, sometimes even if I don’t think it’ll be all that sexy, and I have fun with it. I know I could make more money churning out slight variations on just one or two of my more popular stories, but I’m okay with not succeeding and writing what I like. I have no Brain Eater because I know I’ve chosen a path that fulfills me whether or not it makes me rich, and I’m always grateful to the people who do like my work and are willing to say so.

    (Especially since the people who say so are people who’ve worked up the courage to say, “I definitely read pornography for my nightly entertainment.” It’s a lot harder to write that fanmail than it is to tell Neil Gaiman you really liked ‘Stardust’. :) )

  44. John Scalzi posted: ” So, let’s say, there’s this writer. (It doesn’t have to be a writer. It could be a musician, or painter, or actor, any aspirant in any creative or indeed competitive field, in which there will be many who participate but few who will end up on top,”

  45. This description of Bran Eater syndrome dovetails with my view of the Puppy mess. The rationale that the Puppies often used (and which others often echoed) to frame their antics was conservative-versus-liberal, “culture wars,” “right v. left,” etc.

    But I thought the politics of it were just handy (and ineffectual) camouflage for the driving motivation of the Puppy campaigns, which I thought was self-evident from many of their statements: seething jealousy, crippling envy, and bitter resentment of writers who achieved more and/or got more recognition than the Puppy pack leaders did, as well as a roiling sense of entitlement (i.e. it’s my turn to get a Hugo Award! my turn should have come already! I should have two turns! I want, therefore I merit!) combined with grasping frustration (i.e. why don’t already have everything I want? how dare people hold me accountable for the things I write in public! it’s UNACCEPTABLE that I didn’t get my way!, etc.).

    And that fueled this platform of accusations they built in which they were being shut out of the Hugos by deliberate means (i.e. they weren’t overlooked, they were actively excluded), that a few crafty powers control who gets a Hugo (Tor controls it! PNH controls it! a secret cabal controls it! etc.), that the Hugo awards are decided in an underhanded and illegitimate manner (voters choose minority authors in order to seek approval from the leftists who run sf/f!; fans are indoctrinated to vote against authors who are religious or politically conservative!). And when the vote doesn’t favor them, there must be fraud or a plot (ex. accusations and insinuations that the votes were miscounted on 2015).

    To me, this has all along come across as people consuming themselves (and disrupting the genre) in their own acid baths of obsessive envy, resentment, bitterness, and an unfulfilled sense of entitlement.

  46. “No, things don’t just happen, things happen for a reason.”

    To be fair, things do happen for a reason … but not necessarily the reason our example character is willing to admit to. “My career was sabotaged by {insert non-white ethnic group here}” sounds a whole lot more dramatic than “Maybe if I hadn’t let myself coast for three years my career would be going better”.

  47. “there will be many who participate but few who will end up on top,”
    “No, things don’t just happen, things happen for a reason.”


    So, if the author isn’t successful, they’ve been hit by a brain eater.
    and if the author IS successful, then they’ve got survivorship bias.

    and in the end, no one knows what the hell is going on…

  48. I think this problem is particularly acute when the person is in a creative field. In some careers there’s an accepted and somewhat predictable track that you can follow. Promotions you can expect, raises that come with certain credentials, etc.

    But anyone who works in a creative field like writing, movies, music, art, etc., knows that there is absolutely no way to predict what will happen. You can do everything “right” and work hard and be extremely talented, and still not become a success or even make a living wage. So many artists in all fields have day jobs.

    Artists have to work very hard to escape their own and society’s expectations about how to “get ahead,” and, even more poisonous, the myth that “hard work pays off.” So much of it is luck, as you say, and being able to catch the totally unpredictable wave of what is popular or trendy.

    It’s all too easy for a creative person to think, “I’ve put in my time, worked hard, done all the right things. So why am I not a success?” And then, as you describe, the blaming starts. But creative careers do not work like that. At all. Not at all.

  49. I have the impression that there’s a subset of Brain Eater which devours the capacity of the affected person to take responsibility for their choices. For example: liberals/SJWs forced me to vote for Trump because… reasons. I think of this as retro-adolescence syndrome.

  50. I have a friend who self publishes teen romances. Has a small but loyal following and cranks out 2-3/year, and has a pretty good idea what she’ll earn on each. There will be no movies or awards, and just a few close friends will know what she did. And she’s so gosh darn happy you don’t know whether to envy (I do) or pity her. Thank God for writers like her!!!

  51. This reminds me of some early career/financial advice my dad gave me…
    1. Always have a backup plan;
    2. Your employer* does not love you, they value you (for now);
    3. Savings you don’t need is better than savings you don’t have;
    4. There is no such thing as too much insurance;
    Because, eventually someone or something will toss a spanner in the works.

    substitute employer for publisher, gallery owner, etc.

  52. A lot of this boils down to the reality that the thrill always fades away…and that some people get addicted to the thrill…besides not having a bone of perspective in their body!

  53. This view of the brain eater reminds me a lot of what Anne Lamott called radio station KFKD, which simultaneously plays music to make you feel like an incompetent hack and an unappreciated genius. Listening too closely to the latter, stoking the fires of resentment, seems very akin to the brain eater phenomenon.

  54. @Canucklehead: I think that, at least with regard to the US (where I live), that statement needs to be qualified with a lot more than nepotism. Hard work is usually necessary to make it, but it’s far from sufficient; you need a lot of luck as well, mostly of the “no catastrophe happens” variety. If you start out poor and a member of a suspect minority, you can theoretically work your way up, but one major medical issue or accidental run-in with law enforcement can destroy you.

  55. Yeah, while a cute concept, there is no Brain Eater waiting to take over a person’s ideology. They start with that ideology while still quite a young person. It’s the blue blood superior intellect innately meritorious ideology that is often supported by society and makes various forms of bigotry so very appealing as a way to raise one’s social status, and justify artificial advantages and attacks on those upsetting the more comfortable status quo. It’s the way that they routinely handle all disappointments in their lives, personal and professional, because those disappointments squash the narrative of inherent brilliance and right to dominate, as well as challenges to the idea that their successes are purely from their innate superiority.

    Since that narrative is touted as a quality of WSCM in society, those in that group tend to more likely have that philosophical idea of themselves, though it can happen elsewhere. It is sadly something taught to all guys — that they are in a competition with other men, that they must impress other men, that they must not be seen as “weak” or non-masculine with other men, etc. And so some will go on savage rants about how they are not weak, they’re just persecuted, when they feel they are losing the game and thus losing their identity.

    And they and everybody else suffer for it. We are all riddled with this disease at a societal level and people are dying from it. The planet is dying from it. It’s stagnation, not creativity, and it’s a life-long issue.

  56. I think what throws a lot of younger people is not having a set finish line. When you’re in school, there’s graduation, but of course, in adulthood, there is no finish line, unless you want to count death. So a lot of people in creative professions (and probably in other fields as well, but since you’re a writer, we’ll focus on that) spend years pounding the pavement trying to get noticed and when they have nothing to show for it, they wonder if there’s something wrong with them. Usually, there isn’t, but some people turn that outwards and blame the Jews/Illuminati/lizard people/Hillary Clinton’s emails or something. As one Mr. Gaiman said, it’s a lot like throwing bottles in the ocean, and you might have to send out hundreds for every one that comes back.

  57. Expectations are like horses. Ride them wherever you want to go. Just don’t get your foot caught in the stirrup . . .

  58. John Seavey – Do you write as Chuck Tingle? Cause i understand his stuff is pretty popular among a certain crowd. ;)

  59. When I was a teen in the 70s I was lucky to read “Future Shock” when it was first published. No matter what you think of the book, what it told my teenager self was that the pace of technological change suggests I would not have one steady career in my life. That I would need to keep limber and ready to change because no loyal organization would be there to support me. Fortunately for me that fit my personality quirks quite well: curious about everything and easily bored. So in the last 40 years I’ve changed careers a few times and might be in the middle of another right now.

    Signs of impending change have been income stagnation or rapid loss in income, reduced opportunities, lots of “less skilled” or “other skilled” people entering the field. It is a bit of a wrench when this happens and I can feel the Brain Eater beside me, trying to convince me of the path of least resistance, that I deserve better and that someone else is causing my problems. But then I think of what RA Wilson said about conspiracies, that of course they exist but the kind of person that joins conspiracies is not trustworthy nor trusting, so conspiracies tend to fall apart quickly. Best to just realize that change occurs and that you need to change, so get on with that rather than railing against things.

    I just reread this and realized that I’m now in the crux of it myself, again. I loved my last career and had many high points and lots of excitement, but now I need to look at what is working for me now. Change is scary, especially when you don’t have any idea what will happen, but it can be fun and exciting and open up all sort of new paths. Take deep breaths before you dive….

  60. Imagine, all of this disappears in a post-scarcity society.
    Can we get a Mr Fusion power source and a matter replicator already?
    Where we’re going, we dont need Brain Eaters.

  61. Dear Leah,

    “To be fair, things do happen for a reason …”

    Well, taken literally and absent a context, that’s mostly true. It’s called causality [physicist’s grin].

    But in real life, I don’t think that is being “fair” because the reasons are often beyond one’s control. And especially in the arts and most especially in the business of the arts. It’s a little like saying the reason you got hit (or didn’t get hit) by the driver who blew through the stop sign was because you were going exactly the speed you were instead of 5 mph slower or faster. True. Not especially useful nor valuable as an insight.

    Your comment is the flip side of the same myth that feeds the Brain Eater: that the arts represent some kind of meritocracy. Most perniciously, an efficient meritocracy.

    No matter how one defines merit — talent, hard work, moral character, social class — it’s not. It’s an illusion that so many aspiring artists buy into, that if you’ve got talent/work hard enough/pay your dues/stick to it/meet the right people and/or etc. etc. you will be successful in your art.

    Nuh uh. Not that those things don’t help… But they are no guarantor of success… And many who exhibit less “merit” than you will succeed where you failed. For myriad reasons (far too many to enumerate) well beyond an individual’s control unless they are omniscient and have a time machine.

    “Life is unfair” is a cliché of limited utility, but “life in the arts is unfair” is a truism.

    [In case there are newcomers reading this who don’t know me, I will short-circuit any ad hominem thoughts by noting that this is not expressed out of any kind of bitterness — I am one of the extremely lucky ones. Sure, I got certain chops, but I have reaped rewards *far* beyond the norm for them.]

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  62. My father-in-law fixes old cars up and lives for the work of it, going to the junkyard, putting it together and making everything run, and takes it out for competitions and has won an award or two. He doesn’t blame anyone when someone else wins, his love is in what he made. Then he sells it and works on another because while selling it after all that work is sad, he’s done with it and wants the space to work on the next one because it’s not about the competitions, awards or having a car to show off it’s about his love of the work in putting one together and making it look great and run great.

    A creator creates because it’s their passion and if success comes from it that’s a great bonus but if a person does not find the act of creation itself rewarding then they’re not an artist, they’re a businessperson struggling to find a market for their product. Unless you’re James Patterson then you like to think of ideas and have a successful production line to turn those thoughts into products to sell.

  63. I had a reverse Brain Eater chew on my mind. The short version was that I had a brother who seemed to have everything going right in his life. He had great grades, won small awards, earned parental respect, and had quite a few friends. He was even well-employed. I, on the other hand, had none of these things and was convinced I was just the family embarrassment. Nobody inside or outside the family helped dispute that idea. The end result was that I was convinced before I reached college that I was already going to be a failure in life.

    It took a lot of work and a life-changing event or two for me to kick the Brain Eater to the curb. My current life may not bring me the heights of fame and glory. But I have very supportive friends and a job that’s far better than minimum wage. Yes, making a humongous amount of money would be nice. But in terms of books, films, cat pictures, and other things that make me happy, there are no real complaints here.

  64. @Matt McIrvin
    Granted there are only so many things you can control – its why I said there are circumstances beyond your control.
    Luck is “one of those circumstances you cant control”
    Some people are very good at making the most of those opportunities.
    And some aren’t.

    I’m Canadian – aka a Canuck.
    Here a run in with the law, even getting charged, is not a life destroying event.
    You can get charged, arrested and then found not guilty and still not have it destroy your life.

    Nor is a medical emergency.
    At least not like it can be in the US where medical bankruptcies are common.

    And I will confess that I am NOT a member of a visible minority, or of any other group whose rights are regularly trampled. I do have friends & family who are members of the LGBTQ community and minorities but thats as close as I come to having experience with their issues.

  65. @Mike J

    I don’t know what the math or science portion or a brain-eater attack would look like. But if the victim is also an academic, they may focus their resentment on their students (which is sort of like blaming millennials). It’s practically a tradition.

    I have a few colleagues (mostly design and engineering faculty) with spoon marks on their brains. They may be worried that the students don’t like or respect them the way they used to. They may resent new areas of research that take attention (and publishing opportunities….and grant money) away from their areas of expertise. Or they may be upset that the knowledge that served them well earlier in their career is no longer useful. In some cases it may no longer be true!

    Many of them blame their students, even when it makes no sense, and the results are messy: gossip, public mockery (in the guise of critique), and outright neglect. One instructor even made a “Either they go or I go!” ultimatum over one quarter of our entire junior class! Fortunately he went. Unfortunately for everyone, he came back a couple years later.

  66. Insightful post, and seeing what everyone else has posted here, I must say, I’ve seen the Brain Eater on my road. Would I like to experience “greater” success? Of course. What writer wouldn’t? Of greater importance to me are the readers who’ve said how much they’ve enjoyed something I’ve written. That’ll do.

  67. Shit just happens, and you don’t die for a very long time.

    Every dusty library stack (kids, ask your grandparents what that is) is groaning with books by authors who were critical and commercial stars back in their day who are all but forgotten now. I’m sure we can all reel off lists of books and writers that (in our opinion) should be better known than they are, for all kinds of reasons.

    The cold, hard ugly truth is writers need readers (and publishers to put us in front of them and pay for the privilege) infinitely more than they need us.

    Another one is that the world doesn’t stop moving just because you’re in a good place. Literary fashions, reader’s tastes and publishing trends change. Maybe your last book just wasn’t very good.

    I get the human need to impose pattern and meaning even when they don’t exist. But it’s also importnt, if really difficult, to get a grip on the idea that you aren’t a special snowflake that the ‘verse revolves around.

  68. “They might also recognize that in writing, at least, it is never too late — as long as you’re writing and submitting and putting your work out there, there’s always another chance for you and your work. ”

    I wonder about this just a little bit. Authors who publish under new names because publishers look at a track record under their original name; authors whose books get lost in the shuffle when editors move, or whole imprints get folded; authors who get older than the young editors or sales forces; there are probably more ways for it to be too late, but I haven’t been a bookseller in a while, and the field moves on. Barry Hughart chronicles some of the things that happened to him and Number Ten Ox and Master Li, by way of explaining why there are only three of those books. Judith Tarr has written about how industry changes meant that her advances were going to zero. Elizabeth Willey’s first book was characterized as “nice princes in Amber,” which is both very apt and something that seems like it ought to sell by the bushel. She published three books in the 1990s. Was that all she wrote? Is she still writing? Who knows?

    So I wonder.

  69. I think this could hold for a lot of middle-aged white men, including most of the people who flipped to Trump. They just never really understood the concept of being a victim of circumstance, and are now easy prey for fascist brain-poison because they’re looking for a nice easy scapegoat for their problems. Honestly, all humans are like that to some extent–looking for the easy answer and someone else to blame.

    Days like today I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if Trump started WW3 and we nuked this planet down to the bedrock. I think the net good in the universe would actually go up by a small margin.

  70. If you follow sports at all this is what is happening with ESPN right now. There is a lot of blame shifting for the layoffs on the idea that ESPN is becoming more socially conscious and sports fans are all conservative, so they aren’t watching ESPN now…uh, yeah. It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that cable is expensive and you don’t need it to watch sporting events any more…that couldn’t be it.

  71. Based on just the title and graphic, I expected this post to be about Facebook/Twitter/other Internet toys’n’timewasters. Delighted to be wrong about that.

    Now rather grumpily examining myself for signs of gnawed brain…yup, toothmarks, looky there…oh darn it. OK, something to work on.

  72. I’ve done enough writing to hit the question – am I becoming stale? Hitting the question is a strong indicator that the answer is ‘yes’. Go do other stuff. If/when you actually have something new to say/write, you will. Else, not. Not everyone is a Heinlein, churning out original shit with one foot in the grave…

  73. “You can get discouraged many times, but you are not a failure until you begin to blame somebody else and stop trying.” ― John Burroughs (1837-1920)

  74. Even folks statistically most susceptible to the Brain Eater can realize how much luck, circumstance and timing plays a part in one’s career

    I’ve always been wryly amused by the double meaning of career – one almost the antithesis of the other:
    an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.
    “he seemed destined for a career as an engineer like his father”

    move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way.
    “the coach careered across the road and went through a hedge”

  75. I have one thing to say to those who luxuriate in the idea that destroying the human race would somehow improve the universe:

    You are Trump with even fewer excuses, because you know better. Don’t go down the path of wanting to destroy the world out of self-pity and laziness. The way to improve the world is to fight for decency,sanity and compassion towards others, not to turn everything to dust and feel superior amid the ruins.

  76. I just keep wondering who the hell Brian Eater is? Me thinks he’s got shit for brains. But, I really like what Scalzi says about contentment with regard to doing what you do as a writer, actor, or whatever it is a person does.

  77. And another thing:

    Isn’t there a guy who writes about math, some advanced versions of math anyway, being majic, and sometimes causing little magic monsters to take bites out of people’s brains? Lots of novels

    Not a criticism, this is different, no majic nor magic, and surely no maths. And reality, not fiction… But still, brain eaters? Right?

    John, it’s a joke. ;-)

  78. I dunno. Not to disagree with your theory too much, oh Scalzi, but I suspect the real cases who get the Brain Eater eating their brains sort of already had one in a larval growing form or some Pre-Brain-Eater colony mass organism that grows into it, starting out pretty early. That is, if we’re talking about those who want to blame the this-and-that group for their declining, ah, studly-ness in their chosen field, shall we say. For them to be susceptible to think the this-or-that group could be responsible for their decline in the first place just seems to me to indicate a real lack of critical thinking brain power to begin with, as though they already were, ah, infected. As to why they have this steady decline in creative ability? Or sudden? Hmm, Either the Brain Eater or some other critter that cohabits with the Brain Eater. I don’t know. — And while the Brain Eater sounds a bit like a Doctor Who monster of the week, on the other hand, I think Doctor Who generally handles such things with a heckuva lot of creative tomfoolery that makes it thoroughly enjoyable, so, yeah. — The other thing is, wow, how far along does someone have to be before they are numb to the Brain Eater cracking open their skull and snacking with spoon and chips and so forth? EEeee…darkfic….. And that Brain Eater thingy must like al kinds of brains not just white straight males. EEeee again. — Does anyone ever get cured of the impending demise by Brain Eater? Such a waste, I tell ya.

  79. “I just keep wondering who the hell Brian Eater is?”

    Mr Eater is the son of Atreus and Medea Eater and resides Chez Eater in the lovely town of Scranton PA, where he spends his days enjoying a variety of comestibles.

  80. This is so weird; the previous usage of “brain eater” (dating back to 2002, and still in common use) and the mythology developed around that are so thoroughly embedded in my mind it interferes with seeing the actual points being discussed here.

    My immediate thought was that the first symptom of the brain eater was trying to tie all your fictional universes together, and that this doesn’t correspond with your description of who gets it *at all*.

  81. Off topic but nice Agony Column interview, by the way. Thanks (and thanks to Rick, of course.)

  82. This is more of a reflection on how careers don’t always materialize than a comment on the brain eater. I hope it’s not off-topic.

    I have a couple of examples of people who IMNSHO should have been huge but were only marginally successful and moved on.

    In the SF field, M. A. Foster wrote about 10 books in the mid-70’s and early 80’s. One of these, Gameplayers of Zan, is a masterpiece. It creates an alien society, the Ler, and a dystopic future human society, and throws you into them with minimal exposition. The Ler are actually an offshoot of humanity, but they’re still alien. Foster takes you inside them and makes them normal. Foster was a linguist and devised two Ler languages which influence the book in ways both obvious and subtle. There is a great deal of story to the book and Foster weaves the plots together skillfully. That this was not a Hugo nominee still blows my mind. It compares favorably to the Hugo shortlist from 1978. Jo Walton wrote a review of this on for those who may want more detail.

    It’s a book with enough depth that I’ve been re-reading it every five years or so for nearly 40 years.

    So he released this masterpiece, a couple of others that were nearly as good, and a few perfectly good books. Then he realized that he wasn’t going to make a living as an author. The final book in his Morphodite trilogy reads like an extended outline: the words are there but it doesn’t sing. It’s a shame. In the earlier days of the internet he would sometimes show up on a comic store blog. I remember him referring ruefully to his half-dozen readers. I’d like to meet the other five.

    In popular music, Peter Himmelman seemed like he was about to break out in the early 90’s. He was a great songwriter with a hot band, and a wicked amazing live performer (the least crazy thing he did was make up songs about audience members on the spot). His voice wasn’t that great but he used it well. He released a concept album named Skin in 1994 which still blows me away. It’s a series of loosely connected songs about a schlemiel who is resurrected and grows out of it. He doesn’t hit you over the head with the concept and the songs work on their own. Columbia spent money on a big tour in support of the album to give him that final push but it didn’t find the expected audience and they dropped him.

    Don’t cry for him, he did TV soundtracks so he didn’t suffer. But I miss the music he would have made if he had kept going.

    Anyway, these are both people who definitely had the goods. If major success eludes people as talented as them, then there is definitely nothing predestined about anyone’s career arc.

  83. Henry Adams wrote a book detailing his own brain eater experience, a classic of American literature, The Education of Henry Adams. If there was anyone who had it all, it was Henry Adams, a scion of an authentic US aristo family, rich — never ever had to work for a living or even to manage his wealth, as his brother did it for him. The only unlucky part of his life was that his wife committed a terrible suicide — but he never even mentions her name or the marriage in the book’s litany of failure to be educated for the world into which he’d have to compete. He admits early in the book that with a great-grandfather and grandfather as POTUSes, and a father who was an important political figure (a US senator, a candidate for POTUS for the short-lived Free Soil party, minister to St. James during the Civil War, among many other offices), and many other family members who created wealth and contributed to the public – civil life — he expected that sort of public recognition and achievement for himself. But it never occurred to him to strive for it. What he did do was write, among many other important works, the histories of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison. They did not make the splash he hoped. Thus — The Education in which he laments how unfair life was that didn’t prepare him for the rough and tumble of the eras after the Civil War. He was an 18th century mind of refinement in a brutal and brutish era of grab and exploit.

    Brain eating seems to be particularly rife in eras of get rich quick, hatred for everyone who isn’t rich, active hatred for the other, such as what is popularly called The Gilded Age, in which Adams wrote his Education.

    What is really interesting, that The Education is also a brilliant book, filled with so much information and insight about our nation and its history — political, social, cultural and economic. It couldn’t help but be with Adams being who he was, with the resources and first hand witness and experiences — and people — to draw on.

    So what am I saying here? I’m not sure, but I was so struck by this aspect of The Education this year, upon my fourth re-read of it. He was filled with self-pity for his failure at life, while having had in every way so much success and even comfort. The exception being, of course, that the crass world didn’t admire him — and his marriage ultimately seemed a failure. Yet — even the Education is a success!

  84. @Matthew Hughes: Let me just say I enjoy the heck out of your stories; I’m really glad F&SF publishes you so frequently; and if someone gave me a chance to be Callous Fate for a few days, I would surely shower you with fame and fortune (and possibly also a sardonic fuzzy supernaturally-materialized personal assistant).

  85. To me it looks like you just described Trump voters. I had not noticed that a door to bigotry gets wide open when your (big) expectations for life collide with reality. Not just for writers. Older white people feeling their life isn’t what was promised to them by society do tend to blame everything on immigrants, gays, etc.. Being a Latin woman I’ve felt it. It’s not just bigotry, it is a highly personal anger, like the fact that I exist and am able to do the same things as them – have a house, get an iphone, buy food – must be because I am stealing from them. That is the Brain Eater for sure!

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