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Criticism, Fiction, My Novel, Pop Culture, The Writer's Life

The Ikea Effect and My Novel

One of my favorite morning commute radio segments is NPR’s “The Hidden Brain” with Science Correspondent Shankar Vedantam. This week he talked about the theory of The Ikea Effect, which uses the experience of buying and building a table from Ikea as a metaphor for the pride we take in the things we make, no matter the quality. The example given was of someone assembling a table and having it come out crooked. Others see it for what it is—a shoddy piece of workmanship. But if you built it, it looks perfect.

crooked-bookcaseImmediately I thought, oh my God, he may be talking about putting a table together, but he’s really talking about my novel. I wrote it and despite its not yet being published I still think it’s a great work of literature. I’ve often had this idea about other people’s writing—that it’s truly awful but they’ll never realize it because they wrote it and can’t bear the thought of facing the truth. This explains why so much bad writing persists and why self publishing has grown hyperbolically. But now I am forced to look at my six years of effort on this book and consider whether I’ve merely been fooling myself into believing it has literary merit—I put all that work and passion into it, so it must be good. But maybe it’s not.

How deflating. How ego crushing. Have I wasted all that time on an exercise in futility and self-absorption?

A theory like this has much validity, but it can also cause people who actually do have talent to doubt themselves too much. Removing myself from the argument for a moment, I can’t help thinking about the many great writers and artists who took years/decades/lifetimes to achieve acceptance because the public and the critics couldn’t recognize the value of their work. The Ikea Effect didn’t apply to them, but to their critics, whose ossified opinions of artistic merit wouldn’t let them see a different form of creativity.

Then, of course, there are the people who never stopped believing in their art, but never achieved success.

I’m not sure what the message is here. Maybe the Ikea explanation is the pop culture theory of the month, just another attempt to homogenize us into a bland mass of underachievers. Perhaps what this theory really says is that it’s human to take an inordinate amount of pride in the things we personally produce, be they windshield wipers on an assembly line or a field of corn or a novel. Maybe that means we can learn to do better by recognizing our shortcomings and improving them. Or maybe it means we should accept imperfection and failure as an integral part of being human, and move on to acceptance of the boring mediocrity that passes for a lifestyle in our society. Hallelujah!

I’m curious. Many of you are writers or artists. What’s your take on this?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


44 thoughts on “The Ikea Effect and My Novel

  1. The pride in making or creating something is certainly recognizable.

    However, I do not believe we are blind to our mistakes, and I do believe it is possible for people to learn to look critically at their own work without reducing their own self esteem in the process. At least, without reducing their self esteem to the point where they stop creating anything new.

    Also, I think this self-criticism is essential for artists, writers and anyone else who creates anything.

    Posted by W. R. Woolf | February 9, 2013, 2:15 PM
    • So true. It’s so difficult sometimes to know what criticism to take, especially when (like me) you get such a variety of responses. Some people get my stories, others think they’re nonsensical. A writer needs to be able to self-edit as much as possible, but still believe in his/her work. Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 1:45 AM
  2. I have the negative Ikea Effect. I seldom consider my writing worthy of praise and when someone does, I discount it. It’ s the Groucho syndrome. I would never want to belong to a club which would have me as a member. Or perhaps it is the difference between literary writing and genre, with literary prose being held to closer scrutiny. When I read genre, especially my own, even though I try and layer it with subtext and metaphor, I don’t often consider it beyond the entertainment value.

    The key to overcoming the Ikea Effect is time. Let a work sit and come back later, and you will begin seeing the flaws.

    Posted by ssternbergStewart Sternberg | February 9, 2013, 2:17 PM
    • “…beyond the entertainment value.” As though there were something beyond that in fiction. Well, there may be, but that comes later, and may be totally apart from what you intend. First entertain. Gatsby is much more than entertaining, but that was its first job. No one would have given a crap about the meaning of the eyeglasses on the billboard or the light across the bay if the book had not first grabbed readers, drawn them into that glittering world and ENTERTAINED them. Entertainment is not a cheap ploy. It is what we do.

      Posted by Jon Zech | February 9, 2013, 3:04 PM
    • I’m going through that now, on a project I’ll tell you about next time we meet. But as for your writing, don’t sell yourself short. The depth and layering is always fantastic. But others won’t always see it unless you hold them accountable.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 1:48 AM
  3. I get it. And I don’t get it.
    My “getting of it” has more to do with babies than it does putting together the Skandervoort End Table. Babies. Some of them actually are ugly, with lumpy skulls and jawlines made from two different molds. But they’re beautiful to their parents. And time passes, and the child grows and learns and gets out there in the world. If it’s a good child and is bright and charming and interesting, people will love it. As an adult it will have friends and lovers and spouses and make lumpy babies of their own. When they eventually die, they’ll be fondly remembered. So with novels. The casual observer/reader/critic will only see the imperfections; the unresloved issue, the confusing scene. But the open reader will look past these things and just might fall in love.
    I wrote a book. I love my book. I love to reread sections and think to myself, Damn, that’s good. But I also know that it’s a little fat in some places, and twitchy in others. Flaws. But my flaws. My book’s flaws. And I love them. And all in all, it’s good and bright and charming and interesting. A reader, Robert Somebodyorother, dropped a five star comment on Amazon, and that was all I needed. Somebody loved my baby.

    Posted by Jon Zech | February 9, 2013, 2:32 PM
    • The beauty of writing, as my friend and teacher Bruce Holland Rogers likes to say, is that it’s imperfectible. Try as you might it will never be perfect. Thus, the flaws are part of the beauty, and since we who create the writing are human beings, that’s quite fitting. When we do find something considered perfect–a building, an automobile, a supermodel–we tend not to like it that much. Even Jesus (and the Bible thumpers will probably issue a fatwa for me saying this) had flaws.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 1:53 AM
  4. I don’t know that this exactly applies, but reading this post reminded me of something I heard Tom Perrotta say about his work. He’d written ELECTION (his first or second book) and no one wanted to publish it. They all said it was either campy or just plain terrible. He stuck it in a drawer and moved on. A few years later, a producer read one of his books and wanted to make it into a movie. After a few weeks of work, and much excitement, it wasn’t working. End of story?? No, because Tom said to the producer, You know what, I have this other book I wrote a long time ago that I never published. Want to take a look?

    And that’s how ELECTION became an award-winning movie before it was a published book.

    This story always reminds me to keep on working. Good things are bound to happen sooner or later.

    Posted by Teri | February 9, 2013, 2:34 PM
  5. Spending six years on a piece of work is not the equivalent of putting together a wobbly Ikea table. One result comes from a craftsman who has produced a thoughtful, original piece of work that may or may not be commercially viable, the other from someone who only wants to assemble the pieces and race to the finish line, waving his hex wrench and screaming, Look what I made! The intent, care, concentration, and effort to produce a well-crafted book are not on par with someone cranking out a novel a month in the hopes that something will stick.

    I think we writers need to define success in more personal terms. I am trying to do that. I am trying to remember that my books are not going to appeal to a huge audience. I can’t—don’t even want to—do anything about that. I can only refine my work to appeal to MY audience. If the people who are supposed to get me do get me, I will feel I’ve succeeded.

    Posted by Averil Dean | February 9, 2013, 2:37 PM
    • Everything AD says, and well-crafted, handmade things are always a little funky or wabe-sabi or eye-of-the-beholder and self-absorption, I think, is underrated, or unnecessarily pejorative.

      Posted by girl in the hat | February 9, 2013, 10:22 PM
      • Yes! Exactly what Joe was talkiing about the other week. Machines may write perfect prose someday, but the wonky and imperfect human effort is art.

        Posted by Jon Zech | February 10, 2013, 12:45 AM
      • Right Jon and Anna. It’s more important for readers to identify with a piece of writing, than to admire it. I’m trying to learn that.

        Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:24 AM
    • A great point and certainly true. There really is no comparison between the two endeavors. But it is a writer’s curse to work day after day in a solitary environment, a place that breeds the doubt that can be kindled by a random radio spot, or a colleague’s critique.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 1:58 AM
      • Don’t I know it. My confidence was shaken this week by someone I thought was on my side. The criticism has become amplified in the echo chamber of my own head, and I still haven’t been able to shut it down.

        It’s a lonely business, this writing gig.

        Posted by Averil Dean | February 10, 2013, 4:11 AM
  6. Okay, Joe, you gotta snap out of it, man! I mean, look at your updated Gravatar! What’s happening to you?

    Don’t let “them” (whoever “them” be at the moment”) knock you down! Doubt yourself! Do not let them stomp you into the ground! You know as well as most of us that not getting published does NOT mean that work sucks! That you’re worthless. First off, enjoy your efforts in and of themselves. Enjoy the JOURNEY. Enjoy writing for what it IS, man. We all have slumps, I’ve been there, I’m still not traditionally published, but you have to pull yourself up and keep going. I don’t really like posting posts relating to me on other people’s posts, but read this, please: http://chiseledinrock.blogspot.com/2012/09/why-bother.html.

    And try reciting the following out loud and internally at every moment you can: “I am only accepting POSITIVE, CONSTRUCTIVE energy into my life!”

    Now, get on it, Joe! You’re better than this! :-]

    Posted by fpdorchak | February 9, 2013, 3:43 PM
    • Thanks, Frank. It is tough sometimes to see through the daily gloom. But I am far from being defeated. As for the gravatar, I started to think the other one looked a little snooty. This was the only other one I thought fitting. Time to take some new shots, I guess.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:04 AM
      • It’s ok…you have us, here, to help you out! I know, it’s gets tough, but you just have to find a way to “make it work” for ya. It’s better to smile than frown—and uses less muscles! :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | February 10, 2013, 4:15 AM
  7. Writing a book (fiction or nonfiction) takes years, so that gives doubt innumerable chances to creep in. About six or so chapters (a year) into My Call to the Ring, Dee and I flew to a Writer’s Digest conference that offered 50 pages read by an editor for critique. We got Jane Friedman, and her positive feedback got me through the next three years of writing, another year of agent rejections, a year of revisions w/ a publisher that went belly up, and finally to publication with Glasnevin. My advice is to find someone who knows novels to critique your manuscript. It will cost you to find a pro, and if you need a recommendation, send me a message and I’ll give you one.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | February 9, 2013, 4:42 PM
    • Actually, I am looking for some conferences in my region where I might get in front of some agents. I hope the personal approach might yield some greater opportunities.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:08 AM
  8. I now have five out of a projected eight novels published on my blogsite, and though I have a PayPal option set up there, so far I’ve made very little money; people can choose to read the novels for free. I also have a volume of poetry there, on exactly the same terms. They are all copyrighted with the U.S. Copyright Office, all square and above-board. I enjoyed writing them, and think they are good enough to be published in print, as good as or better than many another thing I have read in print. The fact of the matter is, though, that I got tired of searching through books of literary agents (the books had to be bought, and soon became obsolete), writing and sending in samples to literary agents (the copies and mailing had to be paid for), and submitting to publishing companies (the copies and mailing had to be paid for). I simply did not have the time and money to invest. Frankly, at least this way, I get to see that my novels are sometimes read by the lists on my stats of what’s read on my site, and that means that someone is enjoying them possibly too. I’m hoping that maybe someday by some not-too-far-out miracle a good literary agent or publisher happens across my site and “discovers” me, and decides to publish me in print or in an e-book form that would make some money. That’s my sad tale; but I’m still hopeful.

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 9, 2013, 4:49 PM
    • Well I’m pulling for that to happen for you. I’m still pretty much a traditionalist, so I’ve made a resolution this year to really push the novel and the story collection. I’m taking a more aggressive position in my query letters too, pointing out not only my publications, but my social media efforts as well. I think agents like hearing that a writer is willing to market him/herself as well as write.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:11 AM
  9. Good comment thread!

    Did you hear Radio Lab this week? It included some info/research about liars (or people who can deceive themselves) and performance. And those who were better at deception were better performers, too, presumably because of the confidence they could give themselves (e.g., “this novel is going to be GREAT!”) So it would seem the Effect is a good thing for actually writing better anyway.

    Posted by Joni | February 9, 2013, 5:20 PM
    • And writers (at least fiction writers) are among the best liars. If we weren’t on the shy side we’d probably be out there doing standup or acting. Instead we stay at home, write great dialog and act it out when no one’s looking. A little Ikea Effect actually is a good thing for writers.

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:14 AM
  10. I think being open to criticism is a great way to de-Ikea. If you’d written a book without any input or revision, then maybe you’d have a Malm dresser set to worry about. But the fact that you’ve worked hard to revise based on the good advice of others makes me think you’re out of Ektorp territory.

    Posted by Kelly Davio | February 9, 2013, 7:23 PM
    • I’ll assume those are Ikea furniture references. But yes, I did have some excellent and encouraging criticism from beta readers, and after some internal stonewalling, I finally took the advice and went through the book to clean up those rough spots. (thanks)

      Posted by jpon | February 10, 2013, 2:16 AM
  11. I think most writers think their work is rubbish at some stage. It’s only when others read it and offer their critique that you know whether it’s worth the effort. I’ve been writing my book on and off for a similar period of time. Once this draft is out of the way i’ll send it off to some beta readers. Then I’ll know :)

    Happy writing.

    Posted by Pete Denton | February 9, 2013, 9:31 PM
  12. Wondering whether you suffer from Ikea effect is like wondering whether you are crazy. As long as you are asking the question, you probably are OK.

    Posted by Cleveland Wall | February 10, 2013, 12:22 AM
  13. Joe, time for another “retreat.” Those of us locally with things to promote need to get together and brainstorm.

    Posted by Jon Zech | February 10, 2013, 4:32 AM
  14. I think that one thing worth considering is that while there’s an “ideal” version of the Ikea table, there’s no ideal version of a novel, so writers are always going to be on unsure footing in terms of their work. Maybe this means that the only solution to the problem (if it is one) is for writers to conceptualize the ideal forms of their projects on their own terms and then to use those terms to measure the success of their efforts.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | February 10, 2013, 10:21 PM
    • A good point, but it does bring up the issues of commercial and critical success. If a writer is satisfied with his/her effort, but the book is never published, or never achieves acceptance, is the table crooked? I guess it’s up to the individual writer as to what the ultimate goal of the project should be. Might be material for a future blog.

      Posted by jpon | February 11, 2013, 1:45 AM
      • It probably depends on the size of one’s ego… Sometimes I can convince myself that the table isn’t crooked, but the room is. Sometimes.

        Posted by Marc Schuster | February 11, 2013, 2:21 AM
      • You mean the room hasn’t always been crooked?

        Posted by jpon | February 11, 2013, 10:46 AM
  15. You raise some truly fascinating (and potentially exasperating) issues in this post.

    I imagine that the nature of literary pursuit – the solitude, the subjectivity of writing quality, and so on – make it all the more difficult for a writer to judge whether she suffers the Ikea-Dunning-Kruger Effect.

    While taste in, say, music is also awfully subjective, it’s also much easier to identify competence in the art. Even an untrained ear can pick out flubbed notes, dull and repetitive patterns, shaky tempos, and the like. True, stories need to be written with structure and tone in mind, but the matter of whether a particular tone works for a particular story seems to be a matter of debate, in many cases.

    So I’m unsure why writers so often look down on self-publishing. I realize that many self-published works are also, unfortunately, self-edited and -revised. On the other hand, it seems to me that, as a properly vetted work of literature by a competent artist may not necessarily *be published*, said artist might as well go ahead and publish said work, given that it does communicate, engage, and have a moral center.

    Posted by Maria G | February 11, 2013, 10:06 PM
    • Thanks Maria. As tough as it is to be published in the modern media age, I personally still am not a fan of self-publishing, at least not for a first book. To me, the entire idea of finding a publisher says that an unbiased third party (and a supposed expert on books as well) believes in the artistic and commercial value of what you’ve written, and is willing to take the financial risk to see the project through. Self publishing only says that the person who wrote the book wants to see it in print. Maybe the self published book has merit, maybe it doesn’t. But self publishing as an industry does not make that distinction for the reader.

      The only exception to what I’ve said is for authors who have a successful publishing record and wish to escape the sometimes restrictive contract arrangements imposed by traditional publishers. Were I an author with a few books under my belt and a dedicated audience, I would seriously consider the self publishing route, but not before.

      Posted by jpon | February 12, 2013, 1:24 AM
      • It’s hard not to feel sympathetic to this line of reasoning — I tend to hold to the same values. However. . . . I tend to wonder if the majority of the readers feel the same way. Concept over Content is a default mode that is proving itself over and again, in my humble opinion. In which case we would then talk about the McDonald’s model of self publishing, or publishing in general.

        Posted by whidbeystudents | February 19, 2013, 8:39 PM
  16. I know you’ve written other short stories in the meantime, Joe, but have you written a second novel? That might do more to give you perspective on the first one than anything else you do. Added bonus, you’ll have another novel to shop.

    Posted by Stefon Mears | February 12, 2013, 8:31 PM
    • I’m about 2/3 through a new novel, but I’ve put it on the back burner while I go back through yet another one–my thesis novel, which took place at the start of WWI. I recently realized 2014-2018 will be the 100th anniversary of the Great War. With some work, maybe a publisher of historical fiction will be interested in that book. At least I’m enjoying revisiting the characters from that effort.

      Posted by jpon | February 13, 2013, 1:44 AM
  17. The Ikea Effect is an interesting concept. Personally, if it’s crooked, it’s still crooked. I’m no carpenter by a long shot, but I put together a little stool a long time ago that will never win a wood working prize, but I made it! I also know it’s only good for holding up my cigar tray on the balcony. Being able to look beyond the investment in time labor and love — getting beyond the Ikea — is one of my primary goals as a writer. It’s a fine balancing act, of course, to know when is when. It does bring me to the brink of the perfection precipice but that’s the gamble, I think. I also believe the pay-off will be right. That’s my thinking on the Ikea Effect: To never be satisfied with Writekea and if you find yourself in that situation (I suspect you don’t) it’s probably time to hit the books or keep writing until you’re satisfied.

    Posted by whidbeystudents | February 19, 2013, 8:34 PM
    • This brings to mind an aspect of writing that some commenters alluded to, but not by name: the idea of professionalism. Writing is not like many other disciplines in which you need an advanced degree just to practice. Anyone with a pencil and paper, or a computer can be a writer. But being a professional writer (in attitude as well as practice) should eliminate or even reduce the Ikea factor from one’s work.

      Posted by jpon | February 20, 2013, 3:17 PM

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