How do you go from blogs to riches in just two years? Christian Lander did it, but even he can’t tell you quite how it happened. All he knows is that in 2008, his humorous blog, Stuff White People Like, went from 200 hits a day in its first week of inception, to 4,000 two weeks later. Now, it has over 300,000 hits daily, and has spawned a New York Times bestseller by the same name.
Lander will appear on Sunday, June 27, for a reading and book-signing at Triumph Brewery. The event is a benefit for Ewing-based One Simple Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants basic wishes to foster children and underprivileged families in New Jersey.
“Stuff White People Like” is a satirical send-up of demographics and society’s ongoing obsession with categorizing people by massive generalizations about what ethnic groups desire and find compelling. According to Lander, among the things that white, somewhat privileged people prize are yoga (“Deep down, white people feel that their participation makes up for years of colonial rule In India”), gifted children (“An astounding 100 percent of their children are gifted!”), reusable shopping bags, threatening to move to Canada, and standing still at concerts.
In the book, there are 150 separate items that white people go for, and even more on the website. That allows plenty of room to chuckle in recognition, and lots of wincing when things hit a little too close to home. (The Red Sox? Having children in your 30s? Ouch!) And all this from the fertile mind of a then-29-year-old wannabe comedy writer with too much time on his hands and a desire to amuse his friends.
“In 2008,” Lander says, “I was working as a copywriter. I’d always written sort of humorous little blogs and newsletters. I was just goofing around with a friend one day, and the whole thing just caught on by accident, or by magic, or just mostly by luck. It was started in January and by March I had a book deal in place. In July the book was published and a New York Times bestseller.”
Landers proclaims that he would be happy to share his secret of success — if only he had one. “It would be great to say that there is a quantifiable way to make it happen; then I could just solve that formula forever and ever. There isn’t. I didn’t go in with an expectation that this was ever going to happen; I just was trying to entertain my friends. If you can do something that just captures — something — it’s funny, offensive, or weird, or whatever it is, it just makes a connection with people, just that quickly.
“And the amazing thing is that you don’t need to go through the gatekeepers like before. You don’t need a publisher, magazine, or newspaper. It’s just out there, raw and ready to go. And it can literally happen to anyone. I’m proof of that.”
Lander certainly never thought that blogging was a shrewd career move. He had started out on a much more conventional track. He grew up very white in Toronto and went to McGill University in Montreal. He studied in Copenhagen, and then went on to graduate school for a masters and Ph.D. (Going to school forever, he concedes, is something white people like, “but the joke is that you have to get a degree that can’t possibly lead to a job. And it can’t be a degree that involves math.”)
“I wanted to be a journalist,” he says. “I did the interning, and I freelanced — that’s a white word for unemployed. I wanted to be a sportswriter or entertainment writer.”
Teaching also was a possibility. “I was on the teaching track, but I kind of hit the wall with that. I met my wife, and we dropped out together. And we thought, should me move to New York or LA? LA scared the hell out of me, but it would give me the definitive answer as to whether I could make it as a comedy writer. We decided to take the chance and see what happened. And it sort of worked out, which is kind of nice.”
In fact it definitely worked out, and the opportunities aren’t over yet. “There’s a second book coming out this year; I’m about half way finished writing it,” says Lander. “I ended up doing a TV pilot for Fox based on the book, but it didn’t go anywhere. It was a single camera narrative about the wrong kind of white guy — a frat boy — learning how to be the right kind of white guy from a black guy. But it didn’t sell. That’s totally normal in the industry; I have no bitterness about it.
“I still hope to find a job writing comedy in television — that would be fantastic. It’s an interesting career path, and it makes it a lot easier to get people to meet with you if they’ve heard of you.”
Meanwhile, for the last year, Lander has kept busy on the college lecture circuit. “I did a talk at Google and apparently it went over pretty well. I had an agency that booked speakers but they were never able to find me gigs, because they were an entertainment agency used to finding gigs for comics and musicians. But a speaker’s bureau in Washington saw my Google talk and thought, ‘This is great because it’s a sort of mix of stand-up and you actually do some commentary on race,’ and they ended up getting me a couple of gigs. They booked me all through the fall and spring, and I loved it. It’s what I’ll be doing in Princeton — you sort of get up there and tell the story — how it went from sort of goofing around with my friends and all the little funny things that happened in between.
“It’s really fun to get to go to all these colleges and meet all these students,” continues Lauder. “And if the committee members are over 21, I always go out for drinks with them after and have a really good time.”
Even though we live in a society that has become inundated with irony, there has still been a bit of a backlash to Lander’s work. Not everyone gets the joke, and some people commenting on the website seize the opportunity to air their less than enlightened views on race. “Some people do get upset,” Lander acknowledges. “They feel like, ‘I’m white, but this it doesn’t apply to me.’ It’s meant to be making fun of my own experience. I grew up in Toronto, and it’s a bit like growing up in New York City or San Francisco or Portland where this kind of white person was the only white people I knew. The race aspect is that all this stuff on this list that I’m talking about ultimately speaks to upper middle class lifestyle. It ultimately does get adopted by other races as they move up, get better jobs, but at the same time, this class is so overwhelmingly dominated by white people, that if you were to like anything on this list, you get accused of acting white. And that in and of itself is sort of the commentary on the progress of class and immigration and race.
“As much progress as we’ve made, you can make a book of 150 things that theoretically are completely neutral, and all of them speak to a lifestyle that is definitely self-centered, egotistical, and concerned with money. So to say that you’ve reached this level of prosperity is to say that you’re white. And that’s still a commentary.”
For his part, Lander flatly refuses to censor the respondents to the site. “A lot of people don’t believe that white privilege still exists. I let people write what they want. People get upset at me because I leave comments up that are horribly racist. And I always say you can delete the comment but you can’t delete the person. I don’t want the site to just be a liberal pat on the back. Racism and anger still exists and to pretend they don’t is actually setting us further back.”
One respondent to the website got quite a positive answer to a query. Danielle Gletow of One Simple Wish wrote to ask Lander to do a charity event, and he was happy to do so.
One Simple Wish is the brainchild of Gletow, who serves as its executive director. “We launched our website, www.onesimplewish.org, in 2008. I’m a foster parent, actually, and now we are adoptive parents as of October, 2009.” Her husband, Joseph Gletow, works in business development for Tandem Labs in West Trenton. I had had this idea of connecting donors and recipients for a very long time. I saw there was a great need among foster children. I had worked for about 12 years in interactive marketing and served on the board of a few non-profit organizations, and I realized there was a big disconnect between the donors’ desire to see where the money is going and the non-profits’ ability to really show them what they were doing with the money. I always wanted to create a way to kind of have matchmaking, showing donors exactly how their contributions were making a difference.”
The idea is simple but ingenious: Potential donors can search the website and choose a specific request from a child or family. Many of the requests are for things that most children are able to take for granted. It could be something as basic as toys, a school outfit and supplies, or a trip to a museum, or a little more complex, such as a household appliance or paying for a tutor. Confidentiality of both giver and recipient is respected.
“Most of our wishes cost under $100,” says Gletow. “We launched the site in December, 2008, with just a few community partners — we accept our wishes through a network of non-profit organizations, including DYFS, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Anchor House, WomanSpace — based on the wishes of their clients. We now have 54 partners. In our first year we granted just under 400 wishes. And now we’re almost at 800.
“Our new Wish Shop at 183 Scotch Road in Ewing opens the first week in July. Now, you’ll be able to come into our shop, and you can pick a wish off of our ‘garden’ on the wall. We’ll be holding lots of events, and it will give donors and recipients a chance to come together. We’ll have a grand opening in the fall.”
One Simple Wish is just the sort of thing that would appeal to Christian Lander, who is very aware of how lucky he has been, and has no illusions about the transitory nature of success. “I don’t expect it to last forever,” he says. “It’s the Internet — I’m amazed that (interest in the website) has lasted this long. I knew when the site took off that opportunities would come up, and I was going to take every one of them. I never turn anything down. I’m going to ride it as long as it lasts, and when it’s over, it’s over.”
One Simple Wish, Triumph Brewery, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. Sunday, June 27, 3 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Christian Lander, author of “Stuff White People Like,” has book signing and talk. Benefit for non-profit organization that grants simple wishes to foster children and impoverished families in New Jersey. Register. $20, or $35 includes an autographed book. 609-883-8484 or www.onesimplewish.org.