Habib William Kherbek is a journalist and the author of several novels and poetry collections. Described as ‘one of Britain’s most energetic writing talents’, he was actually born in Kansas City, and came to London in 2002 on tour with his band. After they split, he completed a PhD in Philosophy and began working as an art critic, whilst also producing numerous works of experimental fiction, including Ecology of Secrets (2013) and ULTRALIFE (2016). I recently spoke to him about his latest novel, Best Practices.
Part self-help book, part corporate manual and part Heart of Darkness trip into the recesses of a man’s soul, the novel tells the story of Graham Price, ‘ethical entrepreneur’ and monomaniacal narcissist. From his work as a university fundraiser, through a self-promotional dalliance with a rare spinal condition, to working with a doomed NGO in the African country of Z, the novel explores how good causes can attract the absolute worst people, and the dangers of compromises between charity and the world of business. Mixing a broad, scabrous humour with sharp psychological insight, Kherbek’s satire strips away any lingering illusions about corporate social responsibility.
What was it that drew you to the genre of the corporate self-help book? Where do you think it fits within today’s wider literary landscape?
I was working in a job where a significant portion of it consisted of reading corporate self-help and watching TED talks and then summarising them. It was a hellish job in many ways, but gave me a sense of how people in the upper echelons of the industries that define major economies think and work. When I read those books, I was always struck by the vatic tone of the narrators and how the book more or less always billed itself as a kind of version of The Secret for business. Some are quite straightforward and are essentially saying ‘become a ruthless psychopath and you’ll succeed’ and others are more philosophical in tone, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People is a good example of the latter. This kind of ‘corporate psychology’ – summed up perfectly in the industry journal Business Psychology, which is probably the most important publication people who want to understand our world can read – seemed like rich territory for a novel, the archetypal literary form concerned with interiority and psychology.
In terms of the wider literary landscape, you could think of corporate psychology books as pioneering the field of auto-fiction, but doing so in an unselfconscious way and therefore being more true to psychic experience than literary analogues. I think the last twenty years of precariatisation and of rise-and-grind culture is, in part, a response to the predominance of corporate psychology (and personality/psychometric testing) and the consumers it seeks to create. Even literature that doesn’t directly touch on economic topics is so underwritten with the kind of corporate subjecthood that’s been fostered it comes to reproduce the kinds of subjectivity corporate psychology demands even when it purports to ignore or reject it.
I read your book in September, as office-workers were being encouraged to return to the work-place, and the novel’s appropriation of discourse around motivation and resilience really chimed with a lot of corporate messaging I saw at the time. How much do you think the manner of thinking parodied in your book has crossed over into everyday life, and what effect does that have?
As I noted in the previous question, I think it’s everywhere. I remember in the first wave of the pandemic as offices were opening up seeing adverts for Dettol – I think it was on the tube that listed horrible things about office work that we were supposed to be ‘missing’ (e.g. the boss’ jokes!), and that Dettol would help us get back to. It was deeply chilling to think that advertising campaign almost certainly had gone through several internal approval processes, and no one thought it would be stupid, let alone counterproductive. The idea these entities have of people is only marginally less frightening than contemplating the fact that they often have the scope to impose that idea on the culture at large. As I mentioned, this kind of corporate subject creation is a fundamental part of our media culture, from the endless flow of think-pieces to influencers on YouTube and Twitch. You perform subjectivity as a commodity. The imperative to be a ‘content’ (an ironic word if one puts the emphasis on the first syllable) creator is now pervasive and it relies on the kind of optimisation rhetoric that underpins Graham’s outlook. I think it gives rise to new forms of anxiety and social exploitation, and of course has profound economic impacts as it changes how expectations about when one is ‘at work’ or ‘off’ change and the kinds of recompense one can expect in exchange for labour.
What was it like to spend that much time in the headspace of a borderline psychopathic character like Graham Price?
It was an interesting process. Finding Graham’s voice was a challenge, but once I got a sense of it, I could increasingly tune into it as though it was a kind of Twitch stream in my mind, and he was always broadcasting on it. It really did feel like a kind of call-in show at times where I’d have the outline of the narrative and think how Graham would approach thinking about something then I’d just kind of hear him expatiating somewhere in my cerebrum. Perhaps the hardest part was channelling the kind of total ruthlessness that he expresses in pursuit of his grand vision. He’s a kind of megalomaniac, but one with the ‘you can’t get mad at me’ petulance that makes him even more infuriating. I would say, I’m glad you notice this aspect of his personality. Some readers have told me they find him sympathetic which is kind of weird to me, but perhaps it speaks to their advanced levels of compassion to see how broken someone like him must be to do the things he does.
Graham and his erstwhile protégé John appear to be polar opposites, but is there an argument that they represent two kinds of ‘white saviour’?
The white saviour archetype was very much in my head during the writing of this book. I wanted Graham to take the reader into the mind of someone who truly thinks they’re saving the world’s benighted and that the saved should be grateful. A book I had in mind when thinking of Graham in Z. was Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools which you could think of as something like the White Saviour Bible. I remember listening to someone who he’d worked with in Afghanistan talking about meeting him and reading the books and saying something like ‘I just felt so sorry for him’. The character of John, and I think Richard as well, I think of as positions on a spectrum of exploring the white colonial gaze. As you say, John is also a wannabe white saviour to an extent, but I think he comes from a pure motive, but he is naive about the world, media, and history and the dangers of combining ostensibly ‘good’ works with the profit motive. Richard is much more cynical and is aware of that cynicism in ways even Graham can’t allow himself to be.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away of the plot to say that the white saviour is often the white destroyer, and I felt that using the voice of someone like Graham rather than the other more typical ‘naif’ or ‘cynic’ characters could provide a window into the ways in which white saviour thinking is self-justified and resolves all the contradictions of going to a supposedly less-developed place (whose own country has often ‘de-developed’ to paraphrase the Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef) and thinking, like Ralph Wiggum, ‘I’m helping!’. Sadly, the aid industrial complex involving banks, governments, offshore entities and media selling white saviour narratives remains quite robust. I hope BP is a bit of a corrective or at least an interrogation of that mentality and characters like John show that even when it proceeds from a more honest intention, unless structural considerations and historical considerations are at the forefront, at best it’s a kind of exercise in wheel-spinning, at worst it costs lives.
What are your favourite workplace novels? Were there any that particularly inspired you whilst writing Best Practices?
I think the workplace is really neglected in literature to be honest. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is sadly pretty evergreen regarding the media industry. The Great Gatsby has some very amusing and prescient passages about finance. Wallace’s The Pale King was very hard going but it is a major achievement in many ways of depicting the soul crushing quality of many workplaces. Percival Everett is a great writer about academia – without succumbing to the pitfalls and cliches to which the subject lends itself I’m glad to see younger writers are tackling this topic though. Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl is a great dissection of the state of the modern workplace, of course with a particular eye to racism and gendered exploitation, and she’s a great prose stylist. I would also cite Olga Ravn’s The Employees which I suppose would be classified as sci-fi but really is a very funny treatment of workplace dynamics and the persistence of management-speak beyond the surly bonds of earth. Lastly, not a novel, but works by the German artist Anna Witt are also very good at satirising the role of affective labour in contemporary office culture.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh, and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
As someone who is half-Syrian, I would say a valid diplomatic passport would be helpful. Drake’s Moncler jacket from the ‘Hotline Bling’ video would probably be helpful in the cold wastes of eternity, and I would probably want a modern translation of the Ani Papyrus just in case the old prayers still come in handy. Beyond that, I would just want someone to pour out a bottle of ale now and again next to my pyramid and play some Jay Z classics.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
Caveat emptor. It functions as all three.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
I think Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Desperate Man’ (1845) is a very powerful record of the kind of self-dramatization artists assign themselves (and may require). More recently, I would say Tacita Dean’s filmic portraits, particularly the one of the Jewish-German poet and translator Michael Hamburger – whose translation first introduced me to the work of Baudelaire, Hölderlin, and Celan – are very affecting.
Best Practices is available now from Moist Books.
Habib William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (2013), Ultralife (2016), New Adventures (2020), and Best Practices (2021). His poetry collections include the following titles Ephemera (2014), Retrodiction (2016), Pull Factor (2016), 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists (2018), and Everyday Luxuries (2018). His short story collection Twenty Terrifying Tales from our Technofeudal Tomorrow was published in 2021.
Kherbek’s journalism has appeared in numerous publications including Flash Art, Berlin Artlink, AQNB, and Map magazine. His collected art writings are available under the title Entropia: The Childhood of a Critic (2021).