Chuck Palahniuk on accidentally inspiring the 'snowflake' insult
In his 20-plus-year career as a writer, Chuck Palahniuk has created a lot of things. He wrote Fight Club, a story and aesthetic that still seems embedded in the cultural zeitgeist, and he’s even put together adult coloring books with stories — most recently Legacy: An Off-Color Novella For You To Color. But like any creator, he’s also made things he didn’t intend. In an exclusive new essay from EW, the author reflects on how Fight Club may have produced the first instance of using “snowflake” as an insult — one that has become extremely common in the age of Donald Trump, as anyone who’s been on Twitter recently should know.
Check it out below. Legacy is now available in comic stores and bookstores from Dark Horse.
On the origins of ‘snowflake’
Just for the record, when the phone rings at four a.m. it’s never good news.
In January it was Rolling Stone, a reporter telling me David Bowie had died the night before and asking if I’d write a Bowie-related anecdote. I wrote one.
Here my sincere apologies go out to the writer Doug Coupland. In 1994 when Kurt Cobain died, Coupland wrote an internationally published tribute to the singer. The two hadn’t known one another, and my snide assumption was that Coupland was just grabbing some of the spotlight and insinuating himself in a sad, historical event.
Truth was, I’d never known more of Bowie than his music, but now I was writing a similar piece. The truth is you want to help. It’s the writerly equivalent of taking food to the bereaved.
More recently when the phone rang at four a.m. it was the Times in London.
A reporter told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had noted a resurgence of people using the word “snowflake.” Snowflake had become a synonym for being overly sensitive, and it was being lobbed like a hand grenade between political opponents. The reporter told me that Wikipedia attributed the source of the insult to me, to my novel Fight Club. Specifically to the speech which begins: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake…” The reporter asked if that was true. Had I coined the latest put-down?
I didn’t know. It was four in the morning for f—‘s sake. I said, maybe. I said my guess was that the book and film might’ve started it.
Unable to fall asleep, I checked Wikipedia. At the moment it said the term was tenuously attributed to Fight Club.
Two hours after I’d spoken with the reporter, Wikipedia had been revised. Around six a.m. it now said that I claimed full responsibility for the term snowflake in its current usage.
To set the record straight, I got blindsided.
From Ikea furniture to snowflake, back in 1994 when I was writing my book I wasn’t insulting anyone but myself.
Buying Swedish furniture and trying to replicate pretty pictures in a catalog wasn’t going to make me a grown-up. Worse, after twenty-plus years in school, I wasn’t smart. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about anything.
Instead of learning how to think I’d only learned how to game the system. But the truth was that the system had gamed me. My resume included my high school and college grade point averages, as if that fooled anyone. It included my membership in various national honor societies. My teachers had told me I was smart so now I repeated that mantra. I’m smart!
To set the record straight, I was an idiot. Worse, I was an idiot who thought he was smart.
All of the praise had been a racket to move me through school on a layer of intoxicating grease.
Everyone saying, “You’re wonderful just the way you are. You’re perfect.” It keeps students from demanding too much from teachers. And it feels good. Art colleges and writing programs couldn’t exist without it. Students are out the door with their diplomas before they have any inkling they’ve been shortchanged.
My generation had been given the snow job for as long as we’d been paying for education. But when it came time for someone else to pay us… the world was no longer cheering. A lifetime of disingenuous, one-size-fits-all praise had kept most of my peers from pushing hard to achieve any actual triumphs, and therefore we had no internal sense of ability or potential. My friends and I, we were just waking up to that cold fact.
In college, for example, I took a 400-level literature survey course. For the final exam I bought a fountain pen and a bottle of ink and sketched out exterior views of all the key buildings mentioned in Jane Eyre. The recollection makes me shudder. The professor, who’d boasted about being among the world’s foremost Milton scholars, gave me an A.
Thrilled as I was, I’d no idea that doodling Thornfield Hall on a sheet of 20# bond typing paper counts for squat in the job market. Even something more thoughtful, say, exploring the idea that post-war American housewives seized upon the Gothic thriller — as typified by The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Haunting of Hill House — because so many found themselves still young, trapped in largish, isolated houses, caring for children who seemed to be strangers, and slowly going insane (that was my second choice for a final project, except I was too baked on Thai stick to keyboard) … sadly, even that thesis wouldn’t have translated to most jobs. But doing it would’ve forced me to think and to practice expressing my ideas in a clear, convincing manner.
No, but no, the little pen-and-ink pictures had been sufficient. Another pat on the head and affirmation of my snowflake specialness. By the age of 30 I was finding that my generation had all skated through higher education making collages and writing free verse poetry, and none of that added any real-world heft to a resume.
A friend, the aforementioned writer Doug Coupland, the author of Generation X, tells me of studies that suggest the final major changes in the human brain occur around the age of 31. At that point people are able to combine their experience and education and create something greater than the sum of the two. 31 is the age for creating a masterpiece. The self becomes integrated, so much so that for the rest of a person’s life, even if he or she lives to be 100, if asked how old they feel they will say they feel 31.
“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake” became my mantra for deprogramming myself. For shedding those years of false praise. That evil grease meant to skid me along toward my grave with the least amount of effort.
By then I had the job I had. Not the epic writing career of which I’d dreamed.
Among my peers, some saw the truth and retreated back into the fantasy of their glowing academic records. Others embraced our newly recognized stupidity and found a real teacher. Myself, I enrolled in a writing class led by the novelist Tom Spanbauer, where I wrote two unpublished novels before writing Fight Club around the age of thirty-one.
My use of the term “snowflake” never had anything to do with fragility or sensitivity. It just meant that I wasn’t going to be dismissed as just another mass-produced “genius.”
Most of the time I haven’t a clue.
I’m still an idiot, but at least I know that much.
And just to set the record straight, when the phone rings at four a.m. you don’t always need to answer it.