In one corner of a computer room at a certain prestigious business school stands a lone laser printer, a laser printer apart from the rest. Although it is maintained in immaculate working order, local custom dictates that it be used only on extraordinary occasions. A plaque affixed to its clean gray surface gives the reason: this laser printer, a gift of the class of 1986, is exclusively for printing resumes. It is a sacred device, a machine for communicating with the gods, and it is treated with a reverence appropriate to its exalted status.

At photocopy shops and graduate seminars around the country related rituals take place every day, rituals in which students and job-seekers are taught how to approach the inscrutable corporate beings who will admit–or deny–them entry into the ranks of the middle class. They are being instructed in the fine points of a strangely American, strangely religious literary form, in how to best compose what is probably the most intensely wrought piece of writing they will ever do in their lives. They are writing resumes.

The resume is never studied as a literary artifact. And yet in the various seminars, advice books, and how-to manuals that surround the form, resumes are as closely contrived as sonnets, as meaningful as epic poems. Yana Parker, author of The Damn Good Resume Guide, which enjoyed considerable popularity in the 1980s, insists that “Writing a resumé is like creating a work of art. Like writing a poem, a haiku.” Such sentiments are not uncommon among resume professionals. Martin Yate, the author of the hugely successful recent advice book Resumes That Knock ‘Em Dead, even compares resume writing to sculpting: your life’s accomplishments are “like a block of stone, at which you chip away to reveal the masterwork that has been hiding there all along.” The production of resumes may be our society’s most valued literary skill.

In the rationalist version of the job-finding story, we inhabit a perfect meritocracy, a Horatio Alger never-never land in which the most qualified individual will always, given a modicum of ingenuity and effort, win the appropriate position. But as nearly everyone over the age of six knows, this is hogwash. The gods of capitalism are inscrutable gods indeed, with all manner of strange whims and tastes that are largely incomprehensible to the lowly job-seeker. Who knows why one person is hired and another ignored? Enter the vast and ever-growing resumé industry, which exists to explain, as did Milton, the strange ways of the gods to man.

A typical university bookstore offers about 40 titles on resume writing, job hunting, interviewing, and the composition of cover letters. Their bright paper covers are emblazoned with boasts about the millions of copies sold, the deadly effectiveness of the advice found within, and assurances that this is the very latest, most updated edition. Nobody really knows the exact size of what is called the “outplacement consulting industry,” but we know it’s vast: somewhere over $400 million per year. Its potential is perhaps best suggested by a book that not only offers instruction in resumé writing, but encourages us to Start Your Own Resume Writing Business.

In our business-based civilization, resume texts occupy a quasi-religious position. In the library they are shelved with the basic tracts of capitalist faith, books with titles like Money and How to Make It, Making the Most of Your Life, Pick Your Job–And Land It!, and Successful Folks: How They Win. And as the initial intermediary between individuals and their future employers, teaching the correct attitudes of deference and respect, they sometimes delve into explicitly religious language. Even What Color Is Your Parachute?, the pseudo-cynical job-hunting guide that boasts of sales in the multimillions, includes an appendix on “Religion and Job-Hunting” and informs the reader that “Your life is like a tapestry, being woven by God and history on an enchanted loom.”

As with many religious works, resume guides begin with an acknowledgement that the reader is a fairly unhappy person. You’ve fallen from grace somehow: you’ve lost your job or you’re miserable enough to be looking for a new one. Parachute is far and away the most elaborate in this regard, with an entire chapter explaining “How to Avoid Getting Depressed” and convenient checklists on “sleep problems,” “dealing with anger,” and “dealing with meaninglessness.” But whatever your current state of dejection, finding a job is the answer, and the resumé can therefore be described as a device of hope and salvation. Lawrence E. Lensmith, the self-styled “Creator of the Executive Class personal marketing product line,” describes the resume as “your ONE CHANCE to sell you to the prospective employer.” It is a “magic carpet,” in the words of resume adviser Burdette Bostwick, a passage out of your present misery. The “prizes for writing a good resume,” Bostwick continues, are the basic prizes of life: “higher income, greater achievement, increased happiness.”

But while it offers hope to the forlorn, the resume-writing process is also fraught with mystery and fear. At its dark center stands a terrifying but invisible demiurge, the corporate personnel manager who, we are warned, needs but a few seconds to cast us into the oblivion of his trusty trash can if our life’s work fails to meet up to his exact criteria. To propagate the myth of this terrible being, whose activities Knock ‘Em Dead describes repeatedly in terms of slamming doors and with words like “catastrophic,” is the first order of business in the resume advice trade: how to attract his attention, offer what he’s looking for, and avoid his wrath. Bostwick even describes this figure’s activities in pseudo-scientific terms, claiming to have measured the “20 to 30 seconds” in which an “impression” must be made, or the resume “discarded.” Like capitalism itself, the Zeus-like corporatron on the other end of the resume process may be a poor judge of men, a tyrant even, but from his decisions there is simply no appeal. You must learn to appease his strange whims–or else.

To mollify this deity, the literature asserts, a resume must be exactly right. Certain styles work, and others do not. Make one error, and he will banish you without a second thought. As Yate puts it, “trying to do something out of the ordinary with any aspect of your resume is risky business indeed. For every interview door it opens, at least two more may be slammed shut” (emphasis added). But what is the correct path to heaven? Alas, the holy texts do not agree. Some say photocopying is OK; others counsel against it. Some insist that personal data like salary, health, and place of birth are essential; others strongly advise that they be omitted. Some maintain that a nicely typed resumé is adequate; others claim that nothing less than professional typesetting will suffice. Even the spelling of “resume” is the object of considerable dispute. Does it have one accent mark? Two? None? Nor is there much tradition upon which the quester might fall back: “resume” seems only to have appeared in American English in the 1960s.

Since virtually any aspect of the resume can be the part that gets you the job or leaves you abandoned in the outer darkness, resume authorities offer advice on the most minuscule details. Their books pander endlessly to the superstitions of the desperate, including elaborate tables of dos and don’ts, model resumes for every imaginable field, and harrowing, paradoxical lists of pitfalls to avoid: “1. Too long… 2. Too short… 3. Too condensed… 4. Too wordy… 5. Too slick… 6. Too amateurish.” One text offers a list of magic words to make your invocation to the gods of capitalism more effective–a collection of 180 “action verbs” that are sure to mark you as a self-starting ass-kicker. A resume product line even dispenses advice on selecting and affixing a postage stamp to the envelope that will bear your precious text to its destiny. “Avoid using stamps that convey a personal message (love, political or personal preferences, etc.),” it confides, “unless a stamp can be found that aligns with the philosophy or pursuits of the organization applied to.”

You can go into any Kinko’s on any night of the week and observe the rites in action: the desperation of the jobless, their introduction to the mysterious and treacherous world of resume preparation, and their panicked resignation as they are sold on the various “professional-quality” papers, typesetting techniques, and advice manuals. Even the packaging of the products is designed to heighten the fears of the jobless. “Stratos” brand resume paper, for example, comes in a wrapper emblazoned with the saying, “Since 1986 these resume presentation tools have proven that an impressive and highly professional, yet conservative, presentation makes the difference between being lost in the multitudes or rising to the top.” It’s desktop publish or perish.

As a self-policing enforcer of capitalist discipline, the resume has a number of highly moralistic aspects. All authorities agree, for example, that in resume-writing you must tell the truth. If you lie about anything, as the occasional news stories concerning youngsters who get Ivy League educations on false pretenses serve to remind, you will be found out and severely punished. Furthermore, you must have always been employed. If your resume has “holes,” all texts concur, you can forget it. It doesn’t matter whether you were taking care of your ailing aunt or living with the Zapatistas during those six months between IBM and AT&T, you’d better have some proper corporate reference for that period or they’ll naturally assume the worst.

Finally, in what is perhaps the oddest feature of this utterly self-interested literary style, your motives must not derive from personal ambition. You must be a philanthropist, a dedicated servant of the greater corporate good. This is most painfully obvious in the “objective” section of the resume, where the writer sets forth his or her career plans. However desperate you may be, the standard form is not to declare your desire to have a job or earn a lot of money, but to speak selflessly about how much you want to “contribute to the advancement of my field,” “to be a key individual on the management team,” or to find a position “where my experience and training can be fully utilized.”

Resumes may get us jobs, if we send out enough of them, but, as What Color Is Your Parachute? maintains, they’re hardly as effective as all the energy devoted to them would indicate. Their true function is as a sort of prayer, a capitalist loyalty oath, a miraculous device through which the gods who rule our society exact our groveling fealty. Even when we’re angriest at and most disillusioned with the world they’ve created, we sit down and, sometimes at great expense, write homages to them, declaring ourselves selflessly for whatever management team will take us on. At our time of greatest doubt about capitalism, through the resume we proclaim our unquestioning faith in the justice of the marketplace, in the inevitability of every product finding its special niche, in the capitalist myths of opportunity and benevolence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Peter Hannan.