Suck Up to Sweet Success: Try the ‘Heroism of Flattery’

You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery , by Richard Stengel. Simon & Schuster, 315 pages, $25.

“TK,” to a journalist, means “to come.” It’s a placeholder in draft copy for something to be added later.

The first page of my review copy of Richard Stengel’s history of flattery says “Acknowledgments TK,” the second says “Dedication TK.” In other words, Mr. Stengel has prepared an entertaining and at times surprisingly serious and disturbing meditation on flattery, but he declines to show reviewers how he himself does the deed.

I’m guessing the acknowledgments will include people at The New Yorker , to which he contributes; people at Time , where he’s now managing editor of the magazine’s Web site; Bill Bradley, for whom he was a campaign speech writer; and Nelson Mandela, whose 1994 autobiography Mr. Stengel worked on.

Perhaps he will acknowledge that Mr. Mandela, of all people, may have been the inspiration for the book. That’s a name you have to drop lightly, but Mr. Stengel knows how to strike the right affectionate but dispassionate note. Last year, he told Frontline that Mr. Mandela is “incredibly susceptible to flattery and compliments … It’s a kind of unerring missile into him, to flatter him, because it confirms in a way his sense of self-esteem. So he’s a master of using it and he is also disarmed by it at the same time.” That comment nicely captures Mr. Stengel’s subtle understanding of the flattery power dynamic.

The absence of acknowledgments may be just as well, as any discussion of flattery, much less a review of a discussion of flattery, inexorably tends toward the meta, and You’re Too Kind is more straightforward than that. Though it’s not in any important sense a manual, Mr. Stengel does end his book with an epilogue called “How to Flatter Without Getting Caught,” which consists of a series of tips and examples. Let’s give them a test drive.

Be specific . Mr. Stengel starts his book by sketching out two fascinating and fundamental propositions about flattery, and they allow him to build a work that, while lively to the point of occasional glibness, is analytically penetrating and theoretically sound. He offers a deft definition. Flattery is, he says, not just any praise and not generally empty or false praise. It is “strategic praise, praise with a purpose.” Flattery is not about lying but about currying favor, which is often best accomplished by giving the object of the flattery a carefully marshaled, casually presented and unexpected but truthful compliment. (This definition is a kind of flipside to Alan Bennett’s remark about false modesty: “All modesty is false,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not modesty.”)

Mr. Stengel’s second insight, echoing what he said elsewhere about Mr. Mandela, is that flattery is about status, not substance. He quotes, in succession, George Bernard Shaw and Ralph Waldo Emerson on this point. Shaw: “What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering.” Emerson: “We love flattery, even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted.” (The book brims with quotations. They are good quotations, too, but their quantity is such that you sometimes think you’ve stumbled into the schmooze section of Bartlett’s .)

Be a little esoteric . This second point provides the book’s backbone. It allows Mr. Stengel to march through recorded history making broad comments about social hierarchy that are not always grounded in a discussion of flattery as such. Or, put another way, the explanatory force of Mr. Stengel’s argument builds so furiously–from flattery as strategic praise, to all praise as purposeful, to all linguistic interaction as reflective of social hierarchy–that, finally, he seems to explain all of human social history by reference to self-promotion. He may have spent too much time in Manhattan.

You’re Too Kind shares its unified-theory-of-everything quality with The Moral Animal , Robert Wright’s explanation of all human activity as the struggle for genetic immortality, which Mr. Stengel discusses at length. In both books, the reader swims against powerful currents of theory, striving all the while to identify counterexamples and alternative explanations–which actually makes for an engaging reading experience.

Mix a little bitter in with the sweet . The earliest and brainiest parts of You’re Too Kind are quite powerful. The concluding chapters, too–starting with a very good discussion of the central role Dale Carnegie continues to play in the American conception of success–have great force.

But the middle of the book is a long historical slog. My heart sank as it became clear that Mr. Stengel intended to work his way through the Great Books to illuminate his theme. This part has many of the qualities of a pretty good undergraduate essay in a required class at Columbia University or the University of Chicago. The student has picked an original and entertaining theme, but as he runs through the texts at hand it turns out that there is neither quite enough to say nor a sufficiently interesting or coherent thesis. To make up the required number of pages, the student quotes abundantly, digressing, doubling back, padding. There’s a lot of that in You’re Too Kind . It’s not that the writing or thinking is anything like bad; it’s just that there is a serious and powerful essay lurking just underneath this somewhat flabby book.

That’s still something. Tell someone you’re writing a book on flattery at a cocktail party, and the reaction will inevitably be, “What a great idea!” But then try to say something worthwhile about flattery and keep it going for nearly 300 pages–a different affair entirely. (We can be thankful that Mr. Stengel never made good on his proposal, reported in The New York Times in 1992, to write “a social history of sneakers in America.” It followed a Styles of The Times piece on the significance of the Birkenstock sandal. “Call it déjà shoe,” he wrote.)

Find something you really do like . The book concludes with an excellent discussion of “the capitals of modern flattery,” which Mr. Stengel identifies as Washington and Hollywood. Mr. Stengel talks about the relationships between journalists and their subjects in both places, and he knows what he’s talking about. In Washington, there is “a mutual saving of face” between reporters and politicians. “It works like this: the journalist never writes or says what he really knows about the subject, perhaps how dumb, assholic or scary the politician is; and the politician never lets on how little the journalist knows about what he or she is writing about.”

In Hollywood, it’s even worse. “The celebrity profile,” he observes, “is a debased form; it is flattering by its very nature, even when the writer thinks he’s being objective or even harsh.” He goes on to discuss what he calls “celebrityophilia” with really bracing disdain. This section of the book is a nice complement to the classic Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity by Mr. Stengel’s Time colleague Richard Schickel.

The fetishization of celebrity and power, and the “rampant insincere flattery” it breeds are no good, of course. But the opposite’s no better: “Transparency is not the thing that will make society more decent and livable,” Mr. Stengel writes. There is, he tells us–citing (afraid so) Hegel–a “heroism of flattery” that we achieve only once we’ve recognized “the essential falseness of society.” Mr. Stengel advocates a middle ground; he believes in dispensing controlled doses of flattery, for “compassion and convenience,” for “social amelioration.” But Hegel was onto something too. We live in an age of superheroes.

Adam Liptak is a lawyer at The New York Times .