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Ben Purkert tackles masculinity and ego within the advertising industry in new novel


Some people are self-confident and deserve to be. Others have an inflated sense of confidence, and they work in industries that encourage bluster and swagger, like the advertising business in Ben Purkert's view. He's written a new novel called "The Men Can't Be Saved," about a young ad guy named Seth whose puffed-up ego gets a harsh dose of reality. When I spoke with Purkert earlier this week, I asked him to describe his main character.

BEN PURKERT: When we meet Seth, he's a tagline copywriter at an agency, and he's really riding high. He's just written a tagline that's gone viral, albeit it's for a brand of adult diapers. But be that as it may, he thinks he's going to make partner any day now. And then pretty quickly, it becomes clear that he has vastly overstated his own achievement, and he's headed for a pretty serious downward spiral.

PFEIFFER: We should note that you personally have experience in marketing branding. So to some degree - to a great degree - you're writing with some first-person experience. Tell us about your professional background.

PURKERT: So my first job out of college was working as a tagline copywriter, a lot like my main character. And I started right when the show "Mad Men" debuted in 2007. It was a really exciting time to work at an agency. It felt like there was a lot of social capital. There was a lot of attention. And then the next year, the Great Recession hit, and suddenly, a lot of my friends, a lot of my coworkers were being laid off. It was a hard time, but it was also revealing insofar as it pulled back the curtain a little bit. And it was painful to see how an industry that is so much about image suddenly was struggling in this really deep way.

PFEIFFER: It's interesting you mention "Mad Men" because I thought of that as I was reading it. And I found myself thinking, is this meant to be the 2020s version of "Mad Men," a updated, novelized version? Although one of my colleagues thought it felt like the anti-"Mad Men." Where do you feel it fits in that canon?

PURKERT: Ooh, that's interesting. You know, I think it certainly was inspired in many ways by the show. My coworkers, when that show aired, what we would do is - I believe it was on Sunday nights. And then on Mondays we'd come into the office, and that was the first thing we'd want to discuss. And we would talk about it in two ways. The first was - look at everything that's changed from the 1960s to today. But then the other thing, the more interesting thing that we'd talk about, is - look at all the ways in which agencies haven't changed at all. Culturally, so many of the things from that show remain the same, for better or worse. And so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the agency world looks like today - right? - and not to glorify it but to present it in all of its toxicity, all of its electricity, all of its color. So in many ways, I do think the book attempts to be "Mad Men" for the contemporary agency landscape.

PFEIFFER: The book, as we said, the title has men in it, "The Men Can't Be Saved." And some of the marketing of the book has talked about it illustrating toxic masculinity. I find that term a little trendy in a way I don't like, a little eggheady (ph). But I did wonder how much you are trying to illustrate men in particular or men in a certain industry, versus just the way certain people in the business or corporate world act.

PURKERT: I do think that term toxic masculinity can feel really trendy. And at the same time, you know, I think that if we look at a lot of society's problems today, we can trace them back to men making bad decisions in various capacities and being in power in positions where those decisions have a real ripple effect and a real impact. You know, I think that it's incumbent upon men to look within. My main character, Seth, if he has a fatal flaw - and he has many flaws, but I think the one that really dooms him on some level is that he can't see himself at all. And that unwillingness of a lot of men, frankly, to look inward, to be vulnerable, to examine oneself in a harsh light potentially, that reluctance is something that I really wanted to study. So that's not to say that there aren't toxic women in workplaces. People are wonderful and toxic in all various ways. But that was not the goal of the book. The goal really was to look at men in the agency world in particular.

PFEIFFER: One of my colleagues who also read this book felt like there was a lot of what she called performing manhood, men acting like they think they're supposed to act, whether you're the cool guy who's a rock-'n-roller to any other variation of men who might be out there. Do you feel like sometimes men are performative, trying to be what they think a man is supposed to be rather than what they might really feel inside or want to be?

PURKERT: Sometimes? I think it's a perpetual condition, and maybe I'm just doing it wrong. But one of the things that strikes me is that Seth in the book, a lot of the things that he does, it's really hard to distinguish what he's doing for his own desire versus what he's doing in order to project or perform some notion of what he's supposed to do. So he really wants to make partner at his agency. Does he actually want that, or does he just want the business card? Does he want the corner office?

I think Seth wants partnership in the deeper sense. I think he wants closeness. I think he wants brotherhood. I think he wants fraternity. But he could never admit that to himself. So on some level, I think him desiring that partner title is itself a performance. And so many of us do this. I'm no different. You know, in our jobs, we want the big, shiny title. We want to feel like we've advanced and climbed up the ladder as far as we can. But do we want those things, or do we want to just be able to put them on our LinkedIn profile? That's an open question, I think.

PFEIFFER: Going back, Ben, to your own history working in the branding marketing industry, was there a specific moment where you realized this could become a novel, or was it observations over time that made you realize you had a book in you based on your work experience?

PURKERT: So because I started the job around the Great Recession, that experience of coming to work and seeing desks that had been full of family photos, full of creative that we'd printed out, suddenly Windexed (ph) clean and a person's history at the agency just wiped away on a Monday morning because they'd been laid off, that was not a moment where I said to myself, ooh, I've got an idea for a novel. It was a moment where I felt pitted. My stomach - like, I just, you know - it was a really impactful moment emotionally. I was lucky. I was so junior at the agency, I was effectively too cheap to fire. No one barely knew that I was there. But for friends and colleagues of mine, losing that job, it meant losing their identity because to work at the agency was such a huge part of who a person was. And so again, I don't think I had the inspiration in that moment to write a novel, but I feel like I had the emotional weight to not let that go. And if you can't let something go, oftentimes it just has to become a book.

PFEIFFER: It also sounds like maybe you came away with some valuable life lessons from that experience. Do you think it did that for you?

PURKERT: I do. It made me pretty clear-eyed about what it means to work for an organization, and it's given me pause throughout my life. I think one of the nice things about being a writer - because there are some not nice things, but one of the nice things is that you get to be your own boss. So I can be as hard on myself as I want, but at the end of the day, I know that my desk is not going to be Windexed the next day I come to it.

PFEIFFER: Whereas working for an organization, a company, they decide, maybe, when they're done with you and what your value is.

PURKERT: I think so.

PFEIFFER: That's Ben Purkert. His novel is called "The Men Can't Be Saved." Thank you for talking with us.

PURKERT: Thank you.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.