1.The novelist and poet George Parsons Lathrop, writing in The North American Review in 1889, complains about “False Modesty in Readers” of fiction.
2. “Our amateur censors,” Lathrop writes, “with their rickety, uncertain and inconsistent standards of false modesty,” can’t determine when a writer has “dwells persistently on the grosser elements of human nature or sexual passion,” among other things.
3. “This false modesty results from a mistaken method of bringing up children—especially girls—and is far more dangerous and insidious than a frank and healthy minded contemplation of even dubious literature, for the reason that it rests upon hypocrisy, error and deceit.”
4. It was my second year of grad school when I got to teach my own college class. I’d taught at a halfway house before, then a hospital and a needle exchange, but never for traditional students. It was NYU, 1996, and the program I was in held a couple of pedagogy meetings to prepare us for the world of undergraduate creative writing.
5. It was at one of those meetings that the novelist and faculty member E.L. Doctorow sat in and gave us advice, assured us we could do a good job, that sort of thing. He was calm and wore a really nice tweed sport jacket.
6. At some point the meeting was opened up for questions, and of course I have to ask something, just to hear myself talk. Or maybe I really wanted to ask a question? I forget.
7. The subject of “difficult material” came up, as in if a student-writer presents a story or language that challenges the sensibilities of the workshop, and then someone else mentioned drug use, writing about it.
8. I raised my hand.
9. “What if you yourself did the drug that’s being described in a student’s piece?” I asked Doctorow. “Is it OK to admit you’ve done drugs?”
10. “Why wouldn’t you mention it?” Doctorow replied. “False modesty?”
11. I didn’t know what he meant, but I think he meant it as a burn, or maybe to brush away a question riddled with bourgeoisie hang-ups. I’m not sure.
12. Lathrop again: “Many readers are pleased with a work of fiction so long as it presents a certain artificial resemblance to life, but begin to clamor against it if they find that it is too nearly true to actual human existence. They do not want a novel to be too real, too outspoken—especially when it deals with vicious or immoral actions.”
13. A relatively new word, “humblebrag,” is somtimes used instead of false modesty.
14. A humblebrag is defined as “a specific type of brag that masks the boasting part of the statement in a faux-humble guise.”
15. Talking about the heroic amounts of drugs I had ingested while an undergraduate to my students might be called false modesty, I guess.
16. Humblebraggers employ self-deprecation—“Ten years ago I was working as a waiter, and now I’m on a TV show!”—while false modesty might be more about trying to appear humble while asserting one’s accomplishments—“The show is a number one hit because of the cast and crew and the writers.”
17. I’ve had times where I have felt embarrassed of my accomplishments, or uncertain whether or how to get those accomplishments across. This might occur during a conversation, writing a cover letter or proposal, but it always bears the same quality of awkwardness. It seems easier for to think that, as opposed to being happy with what I have got or have done, to think there’s something missing, and someone or some outside force is to blame.
17a. In therapy, we call that a personal schema, a core narrative, the easiest and most familiar behavior.
18. The chip on my shoulder can come off as false modesty since both come from being less-than-humble, ungrateful, or even, and this is a word I hate to use, at least referring to myself, entitled.
18a. How we present good things, events, news is as difficult, if not moreso, than complaining about the bad news, disappointments.
19. I guess if there was a Venn diagram of “entitled,” “false modesty,” and “humblebrag,” I would have to come up with another word that comes in the middle. What could it be?
17. Piety maybe? Vainglorious pomposity?