Blame it on Bklyn.
September 26, 2007 2:22 AM   Subscribe

'These are a few of my least favorite things.' Melvin Jules Bukiet shares his thoughts on some contemporary writers, some of whom call the borough of Brooklyn home. Writers with names like Foer, Sebold and Eggers, among others. His thoughts are mostly negative. [via]
posted by From Bklyn (123 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.

That's certainly a valid viewpoint. The author's mistake is to believe it's the only valid viewpoint, and the whole festering, putrid mess of his hate oozes from that abscess.

Serious, monolithic fiction with serious monolithic themes cast in architectural concrete and lit harshly with industrial floodlights for effect is out. Kitsch as calls it with a sneer, is in.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:15 AM on September 26, 2007



What on earth is wrong with Wonder?

It seems particularly odd to criticize A Heartbreaking Work and The Catcher In The Rye for portraying the hopes, dreams, fears and thoughts of just-post-adolescence and adolescence as accurately as they do, or at least that seems to be the article's stance. On second thoughts, he seems not to be criticizing the books themselves so much as the reader who might enjoy them - he seems to find their sentiments cheap and unworthy. Perhaps to someone sufficiently old and life experienced, they are, but both those books spoke powerfully and clearly to me when I was the age of their protagonists. You might as well complain generally about kids and young teenagers books for aiming at kids and young teenagers. As, oddly, he almost does.

Almost every one of the complaints about AHWoSG are answered either in the book itself, or in its copious and self-admittedly "pedantic and annoying" addenda, and yet Bukiet complains about that, too. He also lifts a quote about Eggers providing a style guide describes as "melding two or more cultural elements, ideally one high and one low", without noting that Eggers instantly dismisses his own use of this technique as "smugly meaningless", a more cutting and incisive criticism than Bukiet manages.

He seems to miss the point again when complaining McSweeney's admittedly apparently self-satisfied tone. It's a tone borne firstly and foremostly of insecurity, and is often faux-bravado, a simple love of wordplay and deadpan absurdity rather than arrogance or genuine smugness, though I can see how it would rub many the wrong way, especially now its humor is as formulaic as it is.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:19 AM on September 26, 2007


Hmmmmmm.
I've never read, nor heard of this author, and while I am happy to let him criticise Foer's later works (as I haven't read anything else by him yet) I thought Everything Is Illuminated was a stunning piece of writing.
It actually had originality, and the deus ex machina ending doesn't come across at all as such, more as a continuation, nay meeting of the magical aspects of the book (as Bukiet mentions the 'quasi-magic realist saga of the annihilated Jewish towns') and the protagonist's real world.

Bukiet's last sentence in this piece, also, rings with a real sense of assuredness, and pomp, but I feel is horrendously small minded. Indeed, let us not gloss over the real, for it may indeed need taking into account, but, to close off imagination, dreams, the ethereal recreation of a past? Seems rather conservative to me.

I'm not sure I have a great desire to read Foer's later book, the only novel with any real idea of tackling the WTC attacks I have had any real calling to, and adored was Pattern Recognition, which isn't its main focus. But, I'm also not sure I have much desire to seak out any books by Bukiet now...
posted by opsin at 3:19 AM on September 26, 2007


You beat me to it, Jon!
Glad I'm not the only one who jumped to this view of the article, and nice to see you can do so with experience of some of the other novels mentioned.
posted by opsin at 3:20 AM on September 26, 2007


I came across this via A&LD this morning and was amazed by the flatulent writing in the opening paragraph. I though Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was terrible and would probably agree with some of his other points. But the grindingly awful writing, and the feeling that I was wasting my time on the lamest kind of American literary politics, stopped from reading much further and finding out.
posted by Mocata at 3:34 AM on September 26, 2007


Hey Melvin, pass me some o' them grapes.

Damn, these grapes are sour!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 4:03 AM on September 26, 2007


"What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience."
I wish this had been the first sentence instead of the last, then I wouldn't have had to wade through the whole vitriolic diatribe
posted by tellurian at 4:14 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


As a misanthropic, broke, weary, and generally undermined resident of Brooklyn, who feels a sense of wonder no more rich and heartening than a handful of cold french fries, I would like Mr. Bukiet to know, it's not the borough.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 4:33 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


"I think the distinction I'd make is this: We're free to dislike movies, TV shows, art, books. But the thing we need to look at is the impulse to publicly and passionately rip these things up. I know that on a personal level, one's need to be the person to stand on a high hill and tell everyone else that something is garbage is just not, let's be honest, a healthy one. I might feel good about warning the populace about, say, unsafe cars, or marauding hordes, or killer wasps, or a hurricane named Sandy. But to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. There are just so many other uses of one's energy."
-- Dave Eggers, from a few years ago


Sometimes I long for the glory days of Hemingway and Mailer. I want some more writers who throw punches and butt heads.
posted by dogwalker at 4:37 AM on September 26, 2007 [9 favorites]


Huh. So, like, snide literary critics denigrate Fort Greene and Park Slope in the same way that snide fashion and music critics denigrate Williamsburgh? Weird. I'm now wondering if there are other parts of Brooklyn that act as whipping boys for other professions; like I'm soon going to see an article decrying the self-satisfied plumbers from that irritating center of plumbing that is Red Hook.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:45 AM on September 26, 2007 [12 favorites]


I like reading negative literary criticism. There's not enough of it and there's far too much of the positive kind kicking around.

If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.
posted by pracowity at 5:13 AM on September 26, 2007 [9 favorites]


From the article: "The only thing that’s more wondrous than the BBoW narratives themselves is the vanity of the authors who deliver their epistles from Fort Greene with mock-naïve astonishment..."

Wow. All the years I lived in Ft. Greene, wasn't a whole lot of epistles delivered outta there. Now, there was Virginia, a certain matronly denizen of Fulton Street, who was mostly always up for a friendly chat (we lived next door and all), and who used to supply plenty of local dealers with the wares that they hawked on the corners. But epistles? Naw, never saw any of those. My, how Ft. Greene has changed in 15 years!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2007


He should talk, er, write.
posted by chillmost at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2007


A lot of these books do sound terrible. It's not really about Brooklyn, that's a red herring.

I enjoy fantasy quite a bit, so I don't need my books to be "real" in that sense. But emotionally, yes I do. And I don't want to follow the emotional journey of someone like Dave Eggers. Extremely full of himself, and no it's not enough that he criticizes himself at the same time. "I'm really wise and enlightened oh aren't I awful for saying that!"

Too many wonderful children, brilliant old people and dead parents. What is that about anyway? Where are the brats and dullards, the crockety and the average, and parents who live and actually love their children in spite of troubles?

It's not that there can be no hope through tragedy. It's not even that there can be no happy endings. I like happy endings. But there is no real conflict resolution when everything is so pat and fantastic. It's all so melodramatic and schmaltzy and ugh.
posted by Danila at 5:36 AM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


Calling it escapist is being too polite. Real escapist artist are actually running from something and I don't think any of these writers have any kind of serious emotional understanding of the horrors they so casually invoke. Kitsch is also a bit of a misnomer as kitsch lacks all pretense and never tries to be anything more than kitsch. There's a name for what people like Foer and Eggers are selling but I don't suppose it'd do any good to call it like it is.
posted by nixerman at 5:40 AM on September 26, 2007


No, it's kitsch pretending to be something else that makes it kitsch.
posted by cytherea at 5:45 AM on September 26, 2007


I'd just like to take a moment to say that I hated the entirety of The Catcher In The Rye.

Also I had a breakfast sandwich this morning, and it was quite good.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:48 AM on September 26, 2007


For example, porn pretending to be art, or schlock pretending to be literature.
posted by cytherea at 5:48 AM on September 26, 2007


This essay articulated the sentiment so many of these BBoW have aroused in me. The cartoonish self-indulgence, the self-importance, the self-consciousness, the quasi-academic ironist pop-culture mining, the implicit condescension of the prose...so many of these books reek of the words 'creative writing workshop'. It's no coincidence that Safran Foer was the literary star of Princeton (or that Richard Yates and Hubert Selby Jr. never went to college). I made it through maybe fifteen pages of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close before realizing it might be one of the worst books written by a "serious Writer of Literary Fiction" in the past twenty years.

I also agree with Bukiet that Lethem is not in this class of BBoW writers.

"Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan, where bad things never happen."

Brilliant.
posted by inoculatedcities at 5:51 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Bukiet seemed most displeased by the way these books end, the manner in which they are resolved. It's not the writing style or the prose that bothers him, and in fact he calls Eggers a "stunning prose stylist". Rather, he detects something toxic in the world view that everything will turn out in the end, no matter the particular trauma or personal deficiency of the protagonist. I wonder if Bukiet would admit that the problem for him is that contemporary authors are all of the same class, or at least aspire to be of the same class. Where are the stories of young men and women in poverty, or the lessons in morality proffered by O'Connor and Tolstoy? Well of course there are still writers who write of these things but they've just fallen out fashion. So Bukiet is mad, perhaps, at the denizens of Brooklyn for not reading the correct books, and not taking up the real authors of today, and, perhaps most damningly, not giving a shit about good writing and beautiful novels and perfectly constructed short stories - he's pissy because ultimately, whenever the young men and women sitting in the cafes and diners and funky apartments of Brooklyn can or must be bothered to read a book, they prefer to reach for one that they know will make them laugh, reminisce, and feel good about themselves. He's probably not saying it as well as he intends to, but what Bukiet seems to be attempting is a scolding of the next generation for excessive frivolity and the delusion that everything has been arranged for our eventual personal success.

Kunkel's book is a good example. The first 3/4 of the book is fantastic, he just absolutely nails the character, his voice, his reasoning. The book trots along nicely (though the whole drug thing is a bit of a Maguffin), but where it really goes off the rails is in the character's conversion to some sort of ineffective, aggrandizing freedom fighter or activist in the jungles of Bolivia. What a letdown! The character was so intelligent and seemingly one step ahead of everyone else in the story save himself, that the ending seems like a joke. Did Kunkel really believe that that was the way to end the story? Was he given bad advice? I can only imagine Dwight's fate in the far less forgiving hands of Flannery O'Connor or J. M. Coetzee or even Faulkner or Hemingway. But of course, the lesson is always the most important thing in any book, and the lesson of Indecision is that if you are rich and well-educated, it is impossible to fuck your life up. There is no comeuppance.

The Magnificent Ambersons stay magnificent.
posted by billysumday at 5:56 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hold magical realism responsible for this. Twee literature is just a mutation of patently unrealistic realistic narrative in emotional form.
posted by clockzero at 5:58 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oddly, I knew this might hapen when the Brooklyn Dodgers announced that they were leaving. It was all downhill after that. All we have left is poor Norman Mailer, when he is not up at the Cape for his summers.
posted by Postroad at 5:59 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ahhh ... "Brooklyn Books of Wonder" ... sneaky reference to the famous Manhattan children's book store Books of Wonder.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:10 AM on September 26, 2007


you follow a young couple (he’s got a goatee and she has a ponytail) onto the F train.

Good lord. We certainly are drowning in our own smugness, are we not? Please come a bit closer, sir, so that I may garrotte you with my scrunchie.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 6:15 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Where is this place "Brooklyn"? I've heard of "Manhattan," but not this other one.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:18 AM on September 26, 2007


"...if you are rich and well-educated, it is impossible to fuck your life up. "

It's exactly what I hated about Indescision, and AHBWoSG. There is a certain willfull ignorance of how things happen for the 99.9 percent of the rest of us that made the books inaccessible. I recently read Saturday and could not shut up about how tediously perfect the main character's life was. There was something pornographic about it: like McEwan was writing wealth porn for his desired target market.

In Bukiet's piece I thougt there was a certain amount of this same sentiment, a dislike for the market that these books serve, and a dismay bleeding into hatred for the fact that he isn't among them the fact that these often very good, skilled writers are lowering themselves to it. I was curious to see what he would say about What is the What which I haven't read but have heard is better than Eggers' other books. He says this: "Perhaps needless to say, neither particularly appealed to the authors’ original readership." Along with his comments about Ms. Krauss and the differences between her first and second novels ("Yet Krauss apparently took this idiotic criticism to heart and said, “Oh, you want soft. Here’s soft.” It’s astounding that she can hit any note that she wants and sad that she wants to hit this note...") and I was like, dude, you had me at "Something nice this way comes."
posted by From Bklyn at 6:20 AM on September 26, 2007


I dare him to read Eggers' "What is the What" and tell me that it it's not "real" enough for him.
posted by fungible at 6:24 AM on September 26, 2007


That was my point, fungible, "Furthermore, some of the writers of BBoWs also show a capacity for tough-minded, Barton-like development. A second novel by Myla Goldberg and a third book by Dave Eggers travel geographically and emotionally far beyond their initial efforts."

Which I took to mean he liked them and his scorn/hatred was for the genre of BBoWs and not specifically the writers themselves.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:27 AM on September 26, 2007


This is an enjoyable piece, but he seriously undermines the whole thing by exempting Lethem because his stories fearlessly portray smoking and dead kittens. Motherless Brooklyn may have involved more "muscular" themes than most of the "BBoW" narratives Bukiet disdains, but come on -- what could be more whimsical and wonder-inspiring than a crime lord who falls in with a Buddhist school being trailed by a narrator with Tourette's? It would have been a much stronger argument if "BBoWs" couldn't just be dismissed as "books that aren't macho enough for me."
posted by transona5 at 6:43 AM on September 26, 2007


The cartoonish self-indulgence, the self-importance, the self-consciousness, the quasi-academic ironist pop-culture mining, the implicit condescension [...]

Too long to be a tagline.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 6:44 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Am I the only person who is reminded of this?

On preview, transona5 pretty much nails what I was thinking -- "In this book, a kitten DIES! On page TWO! {i told u i was h@rdk0re}" Like Bukiet, I am no great fan of all things cutesy and twee (my attempt to read the Eggers book didn't get far), but he seems to be mixing up grim grittiness with reality -- the more cynical and ugly it is, the more true, or whatever -- which is itself a pretty way stunted and adolescent way of looking at art.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:54 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Eponysterical!
posted by transona5 at 6:59 AM on September 26, 2007


This was emailed to me yesterday, so I've already blown my critical load about it and, since it's such an awful piece, I really shouldn't do it again. As I found out, you can spend a good hour enumerating why this is such a blah essay and still feel like you haven't kicked it around enough. Silly misreadings, bad analysis, dreadful tone, obvious/boring/harmless figurative language, etc. etc. Must. Resist. Urge. To. Critique. Again.

What's worse is that there are plenty of reasons to hate these writers (although a few of them are such easy targets that I can't understand Melvin taking the time to take down), but instead he serves up some anti-Brooklyn screed five years too late.

His thoughts are mostly negative pointless, and it's a sad state in lit crit land when something this mehworthy gets attention.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 7:02 AM on September 26, 2007


It makes me sad to see the American short story die such an ignominious death. These days, it seems like every goddamn story has to be about cancer or somebody's shitty divorce. My biggest complaint is the laziness that it betrays on the part of the author. It's like they're saying, "You have to take this seriously. For chrissakes, it's about cancer!" Like we can't take a story seriously if it's about something that isn't totally depressing.

I blame Eggers and Carver. Even though I actually like Carver.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:08 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Foer is allowed five or six flops before I start to worry about him, because I loved Everything Is Illuminated that damn much.

Your words cannot spleen me, grouchy internet reviewer.
posted by cmyk at 7:11 AM on September 26, 2007


Wait wait wait. Hold it. HOLD IT. I admit I hadn't read the essay when I first commented. But now I've read it, and he actually writes this sentence:

"Serious fiction, literature, even if it’s fabulist, sharpens reality."

Really. It's 14 paragraphs down. Check it out. "Serious fiction." I didn't know people talked like that anymore.
posted by MarshallPoe at 7:13 AM on September 26, 2007


I agree with the majority assessment here that the article is lame sour grapes, although I'm not crazy about any of those writers.

My biggest gripe is yet another piece about Brooklyn writers that does not include my favorite Fort Greene resident, Colson Whitehead
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:14 AM on September 26, 2007


It makes me sad to see the American short story die such an ignominious death.

It may be dying but it's not dead. Saunders, Millhauser, and Wolff are masters. Munro (though Canadian) is often amazing. But I definitely know what you're saying.

These days, it seems like every goddamn story has to be about cancer or somebody's shitty divorce.

Well, that, or a failed screenwriter living in London who just had sex with a beautiful model and wakes wondering whether it is immoral to eat organic fruit imported from Central America.
posted by billysumday at 7:17 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Well, that, or a failed screenwriter living in London who just had sex with a beautiful model and wakes wondering whether it is immoral to eat organic fruit imported from Central America.

And it doesn't get a whole more real than that!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:21 AM on September 26, 2007


Thanks, billysumday, for the recommendations. Despite the present malaise that's fallen over the genre, I do like me some short fiction.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:22 AM on September 26, 2007


It's funny, because all that twee, self-referential stuff that Eggers et al are so fond of is, at the very least, a sign of a certain level of self-examination. A hint that the author has looked at their own words, and wondered neurotically: "Is what I've written baseless? Does it reveal more about my own assumptions, prejudices and irrationalities than it does about my subject? Are my mechanisms obvious, and my conclusions trite? Do I, to put it bluntly, come across as a dick?"

This dude should try doing that now and then.
posted by flashboy at 7:27 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Okay, so -- after having fully read this bitchy blog post (except the guy's all literary 'n stuff, so I guess it is something more betterer than a Bitchy Blog Post) all I'm seeing is that he's annoyed these New-Fangled Hipsters are trying to find meaning in tragedy.

Has he looked outside lately? There's a whole hell of a lot of bad shit going down everywhere. It's kind of hard to find news about good things, and those usually involve baby animals, and we all know how tired a cliche that is.

People like to think, or read, or be told, when they're going through horrible bad shit that hurts, that there's a reason for it. That it'll make them better in some way - religious other-world rewards, or personal growth to embiggen the smallest man. Something. Anything. It makes it easier to survive aforementioned horrible shit. Maybe all of these stories are coming out fast and furious these days because the world is in deep shit, and these writers *know* tragedy doesn't fix anything but they wish it did, and in the worlds of their stories, maybe it can.

And, hey, if he wants to make a name for himself by knocking everyone else down -- I hear politics is a good arena for that.
posted by cmyk at 7:34 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


CitrusFreak12: "I'd just like to take a moment to say that I hated the entirety ofThe Catcher In The Rye."

I hated CitR as only a poor kid from Jersey could.
posted by octothorpe at 7:46 AM on September 26, 2007


You know who else disliked decadent art by Jews?
posted by escabeche at 7:55 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I hated CitR as only a poor kid from Jersey could.

I don't mean to derail, but am I alone in my belief that Catcher in the Rye was completely pointless?

Maybe it's a book that I'll pick up years from now and really enjoy, but at the time I just could not stop loathing it.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 7:57 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


pracowity, if you like negative criticism, try the Private Eye book review section. They only appear happy to hand out negative criticism, recently deciding that Murakami is a pervert.
posted by opsin at 7:57 AM on September 26, 2007


Almost every one of the complaints about AHWoSG are answered either in the book itself, or in its copious and self-admittedly "pedantic and annoying" addenda

Yeah, well, admission is not justification. Eggers's constant fourth-wall-breaking in AHWoSG comes off as a sort of literary self defence, as if the author is afraid or even aware that his book - despite being quite moving and entertaining (I literally cried and laughed while reading it - on the bus) - is maybe a bit too indulgently self-important, too many words desperately looking for meaning, so now he's discovered that marking all these instances using some sort of metanarrative ("You will now read a sentence. You will find that it consists of words.") works to his advantage he's kind of decided to do it all the time, and his work is not only suddenly Saved but also Quirky, Ironic, and Self-Referential and therefore Good. I find it fucking annoying.

But then Extremely Loud... is one of my favourite contemporary works ever, so YMMV.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:04 AM on September 26, 2007


I would recommend Roddy Doyle's 'Paula Spencer' as an antidote to this kind of literature.
posted by Summer at 8:05 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, and just to clarify, I would recommend it because it has honesty and humility at its heart, rather than ego.
posted by Summer at 8:07 AM on September 26, 2007


Got any books written from the vampire's point of view?
posted by fleetmouse at 8:15 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


It makes me sad to see the American short story die such an ignominious death. These days, it seems like every goddamn story has to be about cancer or somebody's shitty divorce.

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem. Pure fun.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. Pure OCD insanity.

It's funny that you mention "cancer or somebody's shitty divorce," cuz that reminds me of Grace Paley, perhaps the greatest short-story writer I've ever read. (Carver would be the other.)
posted by mrgrimm at 8:18 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe all of these stories are coming out fast and furious these days because the world is in deep shit, and these writers *know* tragedy doesn't fix anything but they wish it did, and in the worlds of their stories, maybe it can.

And, hey, if he wants to make a name for himself by knocking everyone else down -- I hear politics is a good arena for that
.

Now it's sharing time. Let's share about our lives! Yay! Don't be a mean boo-boo and criticize--that's mean! Let's all be happy and share!

Seriously, I agree with Bukiet completely. All this literary garbage makes me want to read Beckett's Molloy while rocking back and forth.

(I literally cried and laughed while reading it - on the bus)
This sentence says more about the fallen state of contemporary literature and its audience than it does about Eggers.
posted by nasreddin at 8:24 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, yeah -- Afroblanco, I just want to second the recommendation for George Saunders. I recently read a couple of his short story collections, and his writing is frequently hilarious. I recommend that you go into a bookstore, read the first story in In Persuasion Nation (it's only about eight pages long, and it's about babies wearing electronic masks), and see what you think of him.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:26 AM on September 26, 2007


I don't think it's just short stories that suffer from the "cancer or divorce" test, it seems for a novel to be considered "literature" it needs to be about middle or upper class person dealing with cancer or death.
posted by drezdn at 8:27 AM on September 26, 2007


I don't mean to derail, but am I alone in my belief that Catcher in the Rye was completely pointless?

Probably not, but I think it's worth pointing out that Melvin's take on CitR is pretty basic and is basically a swing-and-miss assessment.

if you like negative criticism ...

It's essays like this one that make me wish William Logan would devote some time to a Prose Chronicle.

And don't believe everything you've heard about Logan's criticism-- he can be as kind as he is cruel, often in the same sentence.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 8:29 AM on September 26, 2007


From the blog: "Brooklyn’s always been the overlooked sibling among the boroughs." umm...what does that make Staten Island? An abortion kept in a jar of formaldehyde in the basement?

Thirding In Persuasion Nation. It's really excellent.
posted by taliaferro at 8:39 AM on September 26, 2007


Now it's sharing time. Let's share about our lives! Yay! Don't be a mean boo-boo and criticize--that's mean! Let's all be happy and share!

Yes. Share all you want about how there's no upside to tragedy. Write that cynicism or that pain into the fucken ground. Make it so powerful that your readers want to slit their wrists when they're done reading, to lighten the mood, because it affected them that strongly.

Please do that instead of a big whinge about "these guys are more popular than I am, but I'm right about the world and therefore they and their chic neighborhoods on the wrong side of the river all suck." That's just being a prat.
posted by cmyk at 8:44 AM on September 26, 2007


I can't believe Gawker hasn't posted this yet.
They're usually the ones waving the biggest palm-frond when there's any opportunity to fan the flames of inter-borough rivalry.
posted by Flashman at 8:47 AM on September 26, 2007



Please do that instead of a big whinge about "these guys are more popular than I am, but I'm right about the world and therefore they and their chic neighborhoods on the wrong side of the river all suck." That's just being a prat.


Nah, they and their neighborhoods and their little dog suck regardless of the qualifications of the essay's author. This ridiculous canard--"if you can't write something epic, you don't get to criticize!"--is pure idiocy, and people that use it should no longer be allowed to criticize food if they're not Cordon Bleu chefs, or complain about dirty streets if they don't have a damn PhD in streetcleaning.
posted by nasreddin at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2007


I don't mean to derail, but am I alone in my belief that Catcher in the Rye was completely pointless?

No, you are not alone.

The Cult of Caulfield is serious. I found the author of this article a bit of a blowhard, but I found myself agreeing on the Salinger issue. Almost every book that he mentioned owes a considerable debt to Salinger--who I read when I was a teenager on the enthusiastic recommendations of people I admired. I didn't get it then--and I went to prep school, even--and I really don't get it now.

Salinger became a touchstone a whole lot of young writers, and I can't tell you how many short stories (and novels) I've read that are clearly influenced by "Catcher in the Rye" to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The neurotic navel-gazing, the obsession with authenticity, with finding a place where people are real and understand you, the precocious narrator with his charmingly dysfunctional family and his lovable quirks--these notions are so ingrained in a certain kind of American literature that it becomes hard to write about teenagers (or for that matter, infantilized adults) without falling back on these exceedingly well-worn tropes, despite the fact that they're only relevant for a certain class of young people in a certain context.

Holden Caulfield did have predecessors. A young character believing he was meant for more than the status quo has a lot of literary forebears, many of whom came even before, say, Huck Finn threatened to light off for the territory in the 19th century. But Salinger made it safe. He made it suburban. He took out the risk and muddled the responsibility. A bored rich kid that has everything to lose, but probably won't, also has nothing to gain except for more of what he thinks he doesn't want. Nothing is really at stake. The question is not "what do you have to lose?" but "have you the slightest inkling of what it would mean to really lose it?"
posted by thivaia at 9:04 AM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


If the bookstores and the best-seller lists are full of crap, write something that isn't crap. I'm guessing our article's author has the ability to do that, what with being a published writer and all.

It's nothing about "you don't get to criticize," and everything about "if you don't like what's out there, put something different out there." World of difference.
posted by cmyk at 9:07 AM on September 26, 2007


The neurotic navel-gazing, the obsession with authenticity, with finding a place where people are real and understand you, the precocious narrator with his charmingly dysfunctional family and his lovable quirks

It's really, really depressing that this is what people take from CitRye. The fact that the surface-level reading (i.e. "Geez people are phonies why can't they just be real") is what persists in people's minds is real shame. It's like people forget that Holden is telling his story surrounded by padded walls.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 9:17 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


The New York Times review of Indecision referenced in the article is really funny and (I would say) a more even-handed critique. Sorry about the hyphen and the parenthetical...
posted by clockwork at 9:20 AM on September 26, 2007


It's like people forget that Holden is telling his story surrounded by padded walls.

Hmmm. I think I'm going to have to read that again.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:39 AM on September 26, 2007


If the bookstores and the best-seller lists are full of crap, write something that isn't crap.

Critics of a given art do not, of course, have to be practitioners of that art -- you don't tell a dance critic to get up on the stage and do better than the hoofers he's just panned -- but he does write (as you note) and edit books, mainly Jewish-themed stuff, and they get positive reviews at Amazon.
posted by pracowity at 9:40 AM on September 26, 2007


I've read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and History of Love, and I really enjoyed the experience of reading all of them. I loved ELIC and didn't think History of Love was that great. Yes, I have a taste for magical realism and yes, they are self-referential and over-the-top, but wasn't that the point?

These books are a genre, and a successful one at that, so they are speaking to some of us. And I'm smart enough to understand that they aren't describing the world as it is to me, but nor do I need them to. His dislike of that genre is worth discussing, but I'm disappointed that he doesn't give us more to work with besides sour grapes.

Since when can't fiction be escapist? Is there no room for that anymore? He says "Would that it were, but it ain't" to show us that these writers are wasting our time.

I, on the other hand, think "Would that it were." is a fine place to start writing fiction.
posted by juliplease at 9:43 AM on September 26, 2007


I like reading negative literary criticism. There's not enough of it and there's far too much of the positive kind kicking around.

I took a creative writing class in college, and since we all had to comment on each others' work, everyone would only say nice things about everyone else's stories. This struck me as being especially useless in a class where we were supposedly trying to learn how to write, so I have an impassioned but constructive criticism of a classmate's story. He and I didn't get along all too well to being with, so I was surprised to see him attentively taking notes. When I mentioned this to another classmate afterwards, he told me the other guy was writing, "Fuck Kirkaracha" over and over again.

posted by kirkaracha at 10:05 AM on September 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


have gave. p.s. my story sucked, too.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:06 AM on September 26, 2007


Anybody who talks about how pretentious others are and in the same paragraph spells façade as if it's actually French rather than a long-borrowed word is, well, direly lacking in introspective skills.
posted by atbash at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2007


I'm with tellurian: That last bit ("What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.") pretty much negates the entire essay by virtue of its mind-boggling absurdity.

And I really don't mind negative criticism if it's done well. I know few reading-pleasures greater than a good Roger Ebert or Elvis Mitchell review of a bad movie. Twain on James Fenimore Cooper and Orwell' on Kipling are among my favorite examples of the snark-essay. But this is just really not well done. He lets the vitriol get the better of him, and becomes far, far too much like what he beholds.

It would also make him seem a lot more credible if he didn't (like so many previous generations) completely fail to understand what Catcher in the Rye was actually about:
To refresh any readers who may have blotted their own adolescent reading of The Catcher in the Rye from memory, you’ve got the snotty young Caulfield on his way home to his parents on Fifth Avenue to give them the bad news that he’s been bounced from Pencey, not his first prep school. In the meantime, he reflects meanly upon some of the other students, calls up an old teacher, and buys a record for his too cute younger sister. Holden’s famous denunciation of the “phonies” of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.
Ah. Holden's a phony. Crap. Somebody better go tell Salinger. Maybe he can fix it in a future edition.

What's especially interesting about that bit of omission is that it seems to me that CitR could qualify as a BBoW if he understood that Holden's salvation comes from realizing not jut that he's a phony, but that it's actually not such a terrible thing to be if at the end of the [literal] day you still actually give a shit about someone else.
posted by lodurr at 10:12 AM on September 26, 2007


My biggest gripe is yet another piece about Brooklyn writers that does not include my favorite Fort Greene resident, Colson Whitehead

Don't gripe...If he had included Colson Whitehead in his rant, I would have been forced to find him and kick him soundly in the shins.
posted by billyfleetwood at 10:17 AM on September 26, 2007


It makes me sad to see the American short story die such an ignominious death.

Seriously? We're in an absolute Golden Age of the short story right now, a second pulp age thanks to the online magazine boom.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:27 AM on September 26, 2007


But Bookhouse, don't you know that if it wasn't published in a traditional medium, it doesn't count?
posted by lodurr at 10:29 AM on September 26, 2007


The quantity of short stories may be increasing, but the status of the short story and of short story writers in contemporary culture continues to plummet.
posted by billysumday at 10:34 AM on September 26, 2007


All together now!
CHRIST, WHAT AN ASSHOLE.
posted by 235w103 at 10:42 AM on September 26, 2007


grind grind grind
posted by jokeefe at 10:44 AM on September 26, 2007


The only things that suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.


I like that tautology. It's like I always feel that going to the ocean should (in an admittedly corny literary manner) impart some deep wisdom into the meaning of life, but all I ever really get from it, other then the fresh air and the comfort of being able to look out to the horizon is that it's way too fucking big.

This guys piece seems to be part of a much needed re-evaluation (kick in the head) of the hipster nation whose tropes have become as rote and meaningless and dumb as the beatniks or hippies, yet they keep on a coming over to Brooklyn with their ironic pants and pointy boots and Vote for Pedro t-shirts (love that movie though).

Here's the thing about these works. Yes, these books shy away from the too harsh light of reality and are the creations of privileged over educated sorst searching desperately for what's "real" (maaan..) but more importantly (and their readers) their searching for a personal mythology. Because real just isn't real enough anymore without the loving gaze of the media clusterfuck. There's a reason people, kids whatever buy these books, and it can only be because there is a need to find a myth to pin ones star too because ones own myth doesn't cut it anymore. And that is a sad sad sad thing. The beauty of the kid (and kids) in Napolean Dynamite is that he (they) create (s) his (their) very own myth (s), with whatever ersatz shit he (the) find (s) around him/theirsleves. That's why you're rooting for them. It takes real courage and real imagination and like I said real courage and real imagination isn't real enough anymore until the loving gaze of the media declares it so. And how can any kids mythology get created over the screaming glare and din of endless marketing (kill yourselves please..) and oh about a thousand over produced unreal entertainment options, from TV, to movies to video games and the bad fucking they inspire books.

So...what we have is people (kids, young adults) desperately searching for individuality witihin mass produced entertainment ABOUT people desperately searching for individuality (meta-individuality? Meta-myth?).

In the end the whole genre of BBoW/hipster movement isn't about the why or the what, but about the how motherfucker. Don't get me wrong I like this guys article a lot and I'm all for lambasting entitled phony complacent rich kids, but he's mistaking the journey for the destination.

Either it's that or he's tired of the complacency and waiting for all these wunderkinds to fucking get on with it already and realize the promise they've alluded too. Imagine us the fuck out of this dreary time and place already...

Dickens would've had a hell of a time with this type of critic around. Can you imagine someone writing "I am sick of Charles Dickens Magic realism and inability to be real. Al lhis characters end up with such warm and fuzzy happy endings...etc..."
posted by Skygazer at 10:46 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


billysunday: Seriously, you're right, of course. There are more markets than ever (as long as you don't need to be paid), but the status associated with selling into (most of) them is (as one would expect) not very great.

Notable exceptions include Harpers, The New Yorker, Playboy, McSweeneys and -- wait a sec, what did I just say?

A friend was complaining some time back about not being able to find a market for a story. I suggested he try McSweeney's. He responded that 'they only publish their friends.' I wonder if that's not some of what's going on here, that the author of this essay perceives a "McSweeney Pack" that will any day now meld into a single being to re-write St Elmo's Fire as Glowing in the Rigging and Steering For Redemption. Either that, or he just really wants all Literature to be realist. (As though any ever really could be.) So maybe the real problem is that Eggers & co. have been successful in creating a self-promotion organ, whether others have had a harder time of it.

As for realism, I likes me some realism better than escapism, sure. But escapism is different from positivity: Trying to create a narrative that helps you interpret the world and make sense of it such that you can fucking keep on going, rather than chucking it in and being done with it. I see most of this stuff as positivity rather than escapism. It's constructive -- it builds a framework for interpretation, it doesn't give you a place to run to. Well, maybe it does, a little, but that's not it's primary goal, it's not Maid in Manhattan or Pretty Woman.

I'm a pretty negative guy, to be frank. I love Paolo Bacigalupi, who writes stories about a near future where people are dying of thirst and starving in the midst of bioengineered plenty. But seriously, what's wrong with trying to build?
posted by lodurr at 10:54 AM on September 26, 2007


It's like people forget that Holden is telling his story surrounded by padded walls

I honestly think that's one of the reasons I didn't like it. Everything was restless, agitated, disjointed... it frustrated me when I read the book, I'd get this feeling of claustrophobia. I guess in that sense Salinger did an excellent job of portraying someone who really wasn't well, but still.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:55 AM on September 26, 2007


One other thought: Being "real", in this time and age is a a luxury for those who don't have to worry about paying the rent or who are so far gone they just don't give a shit anymore. Not everyone can have a sweet gig teaching rich kids at Sarah Lawrence.

There is something to be said for actually selling books and building up a readership. There's always time to be real, but the landlord / expolitive condo developer or banker, he just wants his fuckin' money.
posted by Skygazer at 10:55 AM on September 26, 2007


I'm sorry.

yet they keep on a coming over to Brooklyn with their ironic pants and pointy boots and Vote for Pedro t-shirts (love that movie though).

What does that MEAN? Who DOES this? Does Dave Eggers traditionally wear a Vote for Pedro t-shirt?
Or are you conflating random things that you find distasteful?
I guess I'm just getting sick of the HURF DURF HIPSTERS WEARING VOTE FOR PEDRO T-SHIRTS! joke. It's like a racial stereotype against a completely imaginary group of people. Like, you know, how those MARTIANS are always WEARING TOGAS and EATING SPETZEL and MOVING TO GREAT NECK.
posted by 235w103 at 11:04 AM on September 26, 2007 [7 favorites]


Brooklyn Books of Wonder: MARTIANS WEARING TOGAS and EATING SPETZEL and MOVING TO GREAT NECK
posted by lodurr at 11:10 AM on September 26, 2007


""I think the distinction I'd make is this: We're free to dislike movies, TV shows, art, books. But the thing we need to look at is the impulse to publicly and passionately rip these things up. I know that on a personal level, one's need to be the person to stand on a high hill and tell everyone else that something is garbage is just not, let's be honest, a healthy one. I might feel good about warning the populace about, say, unsafe cars, or marauding hordes, or killer wasps, or a hurricane named Sandy. But to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. There are just so many other uses of one's energy.""

No, I'm sorry, fuck that. Criticism, even vicious, unfair and spiteful criticism, is needed in the public discourse. It makes us better readers, better writers and better thinkers. I mean, Christ, someone can take this little Eggers bon mot seriously when he's got to resort to third-rate and infantile Freudian ad hominems? Fuck you, Eggers, that's why your writing sucks—because you deny the very ability to passionately hate it. Eggers is more than willing to engage the possibility of being disliked, perhaps even being sneered at, and seeks (like Eminem) to pre-empt the criticism by doing it himself. But his neuroses are not a substitute for getting critiqued, getting torn down, by an educated reader. It's another attempt to avoid come-uppance.

"People like to think, or read, or be told, when they're going through horrible bad shit that hurts, that there's a reason for it. That it'll make them better in some way - religious other-world rewards, or personal growth to embiggen the smallest man. Something. Anything. It makes it easier to survive aforementioned horrible shit. Maybe all of these stories are coming out fast and furious these days because the world is in deep shit, and these writers *know* tragedy doesn't fix anything but they wish it did, and in the worlds of their stories, maybe it can."

So? People like to believe that lowering taxes can increase revenue, or that they can get thinner without exercising or that they're special snowflakes who have unique experiences and aren't just living in a dull plod. People like believing that their prayers will get them Cadillacs. There's no reason to exhort this fictional self-help bullshit just because it's arnica for nascent yuppies.

One of my favorite Jim Thompson novels ends with the crippled, wounded "protagonist" huddling in his attic, waiting to club his crippled wife to death as she comes through the trap-door. He's going to die, she's going to die, and every clutch and grab of their shitty lives will have meant nothing aside from a couple bodies someone else will have to clean up. That's a fucking resolution. A realization that they don't have to hurt each other anymore would have been a cop-out, and I don't want cop-out lit.

"The Cult of Caulfield is serious. I found the author of this article a bit of a blowhard, but I found myself agreeing on the Salinger issue. Almost every book that he mentioned owes a considerable debt to Salinger--who I read when I was a teenager on the enthusiastic recommendations of people I admired. I didn't get it then--and I went to prep school, even--and I really don't get it now."

A few years ago, I was dating a girl who was living abroad, and she had fallen in love with Salinger's books. We were drifting apart, and I was kind of hoping that by reading them, since she talked about them all the time, I'd be able to understand her better. As I plowed through Nine Stories and revisited Catcher in the Rye, I was struck by how much those books lionized the self-indulgent and the appearence of intelligence over actual profundity. They were, I can see with hindsight, exactly everything that she saw herself experiencing: dysfunctional families, precocious childhood, chain smoking, and endless "quirky" drama. And it was everything that I didn't want a part of; the endless narcissism shorn of insight, the purported savvy of the alienated. It all seemed not only so goddamned immature, but catering to those who wished to perpetuate their immaturity and venerate it, give it a nobility born through that feeling that everyone has: I'm smarter than everyone around me, and because of that they will never understand me.

But it's just not true.

On the whole, I feel like we just did this in our discussion of "Quirk Culture," of which I feel twee lit is a part. I like magical realism. Give me City of Glass and The Ark Sakura and Julio Cortezar and Bartholme and Barth. Hell, I even enjoyed Notable American Women and a fair amount of that Neal Pollack shit. But I've yet to read anything by Eggers that doesn't make me want to punch him in his fucking face.
posted by klangklangston at 11:10 AM on September 26, 2007 [8 favorites]


Wait a minute - "real" and "wonderous/wonder-full" are not mutually exclusive.

"Wonder" is really just a sit-in for 'shitty, fucking empty-headed writing'.

Obviously, a lot of 'real' books are full of gobsmacking wonder Moby Dick anyone? And 'wonder' books, blah blah blah.

The problem is not the wonderful or the quasi magical realist. It's that these obviously smart writers are writing shit and, motherfucker, people are reading it.

As much as an artist must speak to an audience, they make that audience as well and by writing pablum the artist is debasing not only his audience, but him/herself as well. It's just not - uh - best.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:12 AM on September 26, 2007


Huzzah, klangklangston! Precisely my thoughts re: the Eggers quote. Criticism, even vicious, unfair and spiteful criticism, is needed in the public discourse. It makes us better readers, better writers and better thinkers. (nodding)

For Eggers to say: But to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. There are just so many other uses of one's energy - I mean, it's just such a painful, obvious load of shit, and if you can't see through the hostile, passive-aggressive immaturity of that comment, then you're a lost cause. Put on your Pedro shirt! Give me a hug!

Lastly, as an example of eviscerating criticism, I give you Hitchens discussing Roth's latest.
posted by billysumday at 11:21 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


... and if you can't see through the hostile, passive-aggressive immaturity of that comment, then you're a lost cause.

Wow.
posted by lodurr at 11:37 AM on September 26, 2007


No, on second thought: Sincere criticism? Sure. But this ain't that. This is just bullying with a keyboard. (And worse -- or at least, more pathetically -- it's bullying an effectively imaginary opponent.) And to say that bullying makes us better readers -- that's just the kind of bullshit self-justification that slightly self-aware bullies use to make themselves feel special instead of sleazy -- and that their victims and fellow-travellers buy into because it saves them from the hard work of actually trying to be constructive.

And passive-aggressive: Isn't that the first refuge of the paranoid? "Oh, you're not being REAL, you're being PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE!"

Y'all wanna get real? Go for it. Start with the mirror.
posted by lodurr at 11:42 AM on September 26, 2007


Or are you conflating random things that you find distasteful?

It is an easy stereotype, take it with a grain of salt or put quotes around it if it helps: "ironic pants and pointy boots and Vote for Pedro t-shirts"

But yeah, I reserve the right to make fun of spoiled, over privileged white kids in stupid clothes.
posted by Skygazer at 11:50 AM on September 26, 2007


Y'all wanna get real? Go for it. Start with the mirror.

Breaking out the Michael Jackson? Damn. I'm asking him to chaa-aa-nge his ways.

It's fair and, in my opinion, correct to say that this "critique" or broadside or whatever it is of BBoW is poor, confused, and crotchety. However, that's not to say that criticism of literature is unjustified, which is what a lot of people have been saying in this thread - most notably, a famous author named Dave Eggers, who thinks it's simply a waste of time and effort to evaluate and criticize works of art - why, especially when you could be doing something productive! He is, in essence, preemptively lobbing a grenade at any future critics, i.e., if they take the time and energy to put pen to paper and find fault with any of his writing, then they are boring people, petty people, strange people. It's a clever strategy but ultimately reveals a deep insecurity and a revulsion to criticism. WHY CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG.
posted by billysumday at 11:51 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


-You can even go there if you follow a young couple (he’s got a goatee and she has a ponytail) onto the F train.

He can't think up a quality identifier for Brooklynites (hipsters?) so he said "He has skin and she has teeth."

-Bukiet seems more similar than disimilar to the writers he's writing about: Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan, where bad things never happen.

-I just finished David Markson's Vanishing Point. I've officially read better artists on better artists.

-Why would I have to self-identify to like Salinger? Because I don't, and I do.

-The Lovely Bones is a disgusting piece of crap.

- Serious fiction, literature, even if it’s fabulist, sharpens reality

You Shall Know Our Velocity doesn't do this? The turmoil Will experiences with wanting to just unload the money, but some weird internal system of ethics and justice keeping him from just unloading the money -- I might be dim and naive but that clarified something about reality that I was in need of hearing. And hearing beautifully stated.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:53 AM on September 26, 2007


But Billysunday, unless you're being really disingenuous or not reading very carefully, then you know that's not what Eggers said at all.

It's been quoted twice, so I won't quote it again, but it seems pretty clear to me that the only thing he's uptight about is pissing demonstrations. If you don't think there's a difference between "whipping out your pee" and writing a negative critique, then I think the folks in your critique group are really not getitng their money's worth.
posted by lodurr at 11:55 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


it seems pretty clear to me that the only thing he's uptight about is pissing demonstrations

I appreciate the stab at humor here, but you've got to be consistent. Your earlier posts seemed pretty earnest.
posted by billysumday at 12:05 PM on September 26, 2007


So, maybe you should quote the passage a third time? And drop the passive aggressive humor? Or is passive-aggressiveness OK after all?
posted by lodurr at 12:07 PM on September 26, 2007


It's funny, because all that twee, self-referential stuff that Eggers et al are so fond of is, at the very least, a sign of a certain level of self-examination.

See, I totally disagree with that. I think the PoVs here break down into a couple of large camps and the one I'm in sees that "self-examination" as a shield: I do my own navel gazing and since I am I and thus know me so well, you are incapable of criticizing what I say. As long as we all tacitly agree never to say, "Honestly dude, that kind of sucks and btw, you smell weird", we can all live together in peaceful coexistence until we die realizing we never lived. If these guys were all as in touch as they seem, they'd treat the women in their lives better.

Lastly, as an example of eviscerating criticism, I give you Hitchens discussing Roth's latest.

Yuh, I read that in one sitting on the shitter thinking, "If I do one thing in my life, it will be to never piss off Hitchens."
posted by yerfatma at 12:11 PM on September 26, 2007


... until we die realizing we never lived.

Realizing one has never lived as one is about to die has precisely jack shit to do with pissing on pictures of kittens, for what it's worth.

And this guy could absolutely learn a thing or eighty from Hitchens. Who would never had written a piece of anti-intellectual navel-gazing pap like the linked article if Krusty the Clown personally drove a truckload of money to his house.
posted by lodurr at 12:26 PM on September 26, 2007


Fuck you, Eggers, that's why your writing sucks—because you deny the very ability to passionately hate it.

Not very well, apparently.

Yes, his criticism of criticism is somewhat stupid, but you have to admit that responding to his article about the unhealthiness of vehement, angry criticism with "Fuck you, your writing sucks" is playing into his hands more than just a little.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:48 PM on September 26, 2007


"It's been quoted twice, so I won't quote it again, but it seems pretty clear to me that the only thing he's uptight about is pissing demonstrations. If you don't think there's a difference between "whipping out your pee" and writing a negative critique, then I think the folks in your critique group are really not getitng their money's worth."

HI DERE QUESTION BEGGER.
posted by klangklangston at 12:57 PM on September 26, 2007


[sigh /]
OK, klangklangston, I'll satisfy your sophomoric need to reduce everything to the terms of the pub arguments after philosophy 301:

"I think the distinction I'd make is this: We're free to dislike movies, TV shows, art, books. But the thing we need to look at is the impulse to publicly and passionately rip these things up. I know that on a personal level, one's need to be the person to stand on a high hill and tell everyone else that something is garbage is just not, let's be honest, a healthy one. I might feel good about warning the populace about, say, unsafe cars, or marauding hordes, or killer wasps, or a hurricane named Sandy. But to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. There are just so many other uses of one's energy."

[emphasis added]

So, either klangklangston or billysunday, maybe you'd like to illustrate the parts where Eggers is saying that criticism has no value? Because I'm not seeing them. I'm seeing a guy complain about narcissistic assholes who get off by trashing other people's work. That seems really clear to me. Perhaps you'd like to defend the value of narcissistic assholes trashing other people's work. Go for it.

I did highlight for you, though, the parts where he's talking about some modes of action that he sees as unhealthy. And -- surprise! -- they're all modes of "criticism" that don't typically produce any deeper understanding of the subject of criticism -- but they do, typically, produce a much deeper understanding of the person doing the critique. They let us know, for example, that the person doing the critique feels a passionate need to tear something down. That s/he's a narcissistic asshole.

Now, as I've said previosly, I don't actually mind that -- if it's done well. It's hard to do well. Hitchens can do it well -- see billysunday's previous link. I mentioned two examples, one an old favorite of man and boy for many a year, Twain's "Literary offenses of James Fenimore Cooper". I'm not going to make an elaborate defense of the Hitchens piece -- it's clever, but I wouldn't go to read it again, it is his job though to review the book -- but the Twain piece, as a positive example of the genre, has the benefit of accomplishing something constructive: He challenges people to think about and engage wiht the text. If they do, they realize that Cooper is treating them like idiots. He does this cleverly, and he leaves more than he takes away.

You seem to think Eggers wouldn't allow the value of that. Based on the quote above, I don't see the justification for that.
posted by lodurr at 1:34 PM on September 26, 2007


"Because I'm not seeing them. I'm seeing a guy complain about narcissistic assholes who get off by trashing other people's work."

And I'm seeing a guy who defines people who mock/belittle/rant about his own work as narcissistic assholes, as a way of avoiding dealing with their criticism.

Or, "HI DERE QUESTION BEGGER!"

Unless he's literally decrying those who urinate on kitten paintings, and even then…
posted by klangklangston at 1:37 PM on September 26, 2007


How do you know he was talking about his own work?

What if he was talking about anyone's work? Is he not allowed to do that?

And what if the "question" doesn't merit a response?

It still looks very much to me as though you just want to defend the righteousness of being a narcissistic asshole.
posted by lodurr at 1:46 PM on September 26, 2007


And it looks to me as though you just want to come up with a righteous way to label me and billy narcissistic assholes.
posted by klangklangston at 2:00 PM on September 26, 2007


How do you know he was talking about his own work?

Oh come on, let's not be dense.
posted by billysumday at 2:05 PM on September 26, 2007


Oh, I don't need a righteous way to do that. I think you are. I don't know about billy, but I sure as hell think you are.
posted by lodurr at 2:05 PM on September 26, 2007


let's not be dense.

Yes, let's not. And let's not pretend that we know he was talking about his own work, while we're at it. (Tell me, billysunday, do you ever trot out that "how do you know what I think" defense when someone is arguing with you?)
posted by lodurr at 2:07 PM on September 26, 2007


Is now when I should decry you as a keyboard bully? I mean, since you needed to get your pee-pee out for that, and all.
posted by klangklangston at 2:07 PM on September 26, 2007


Oh, go for it. It's not like I don't know I'm being as bad as you are, right now.

Except you're almost always this bad. And you seem think it's a virtuous thing. I just enjoy doing it to people who seem to me to have that kind of attitude. You know, to make clearer to you (if that's possible) what kind of a world it'd be like if everyone adhered to your standards of debate.
posted by lodurr at 2:11 PM on September 26, 2007


Context of the Eggers quote:
....
But I should go back a few steps, because I never addressed your entry before last, when you had just seen a movie you absolutely hated. (Why do I think it was Dancer in the Dark? Not that I've seen it, but it seems to provoke that reaction in so many people.) But of course you're free to dislike the movie. I think the distinction I'd make is this: We're free to dislike movies, TV shows, art, books. But the thing we need to look at is the impulse to publically and passionately rip these things up. I know that on a personal level, one's need to be the person to stand on a high hill and tell everyone else that something is garbage is just not, let's be honest, a healthy one. I might feel good about warning the populace about, say, unsafe cars, or marauding hordes, or killer wasps, or a hurricane named Sandy, but to get up there, demand everyone's attention, then just whip out your pee-pee and urinate on a painting of a kitten... it's a strange impulse. I look back on my own years of doing just that — I wrote a few nasty art reviews while living in San Francisco — and I'm not proud of those times. There are just so many other uses of one's energy.

Allow me two anecdotes to just pound home this idea: You and I have a mutual friend whose book, a great, funny, nonfiction kind of thing — essays — came out about a year or so ago. It was well-reviewed generally, but there was one review, in a major newspaper, written by a man who usually writes about style trends. In his review, he began, in the first paragraph, by stating that he hated the entire genre from which the author's book sprung. Then he expressed his disdain for first-person sorts of essays, which made up the entirety of the book in question. Then he proceeded to slash the book and its author bloody. It was the most shockingly malicious review I've read in many years.

And the question is: What made this person think he needed to get up on the high hill and declare the book unworthy? Why jump out of the style section to tell the world he doesn't like something? Something others clearly do? The author already had tens of thousands of fans, so why would the reviewer, who again first stated his distaste for the author's oeurvre, feel himself a fair commentator, in a national and (we wish to be) unbiased forum? It was much like me declaring that I hate military subject matters, and male characters, and suspense, and books that are adapted into movies starring Harrison Ford, and then reviewing Tom Clancy's latest. What would compel me to do this? It's not a healthy impulse. It's the province of a troubled person. A person that needs to work some things out before he reviews again. Of course, he has a right to his opinion. For instance, I don't read books about kittens wearing baggy clothing, but I know that many people do, so what kind of sociopath am I if I step up to the microphone and say that this thing that so many people like doesn't appeal, personally, to me?

....
posted by lodurr at 2:13 PM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Look, lodurr, I have no problem with any of your posts in this thread - up to the point you started going ballistic defending Eggers. Since then, I've been greatly confused by your posts. At first, I thought you were implying that Eggers was sincerely mad at people who literally piss on paintings of kittens. Naturally, I thought you were joking. Your later posts led me to believe that you weren't joking. In fact, you seemed genuinely mad that anyone would take Eggers' quote not at face value, when it seemed pretty obvious to me, at least, that Eggers was using hyperbole to make a greater point. Looking back at the thread as a whole, it does seem that you really lost it after klang and I started taking Eggers to task for his quote. So, with that perspective in mind, I have no alternative but to assume that you are actually Dave Eggers. In turn, I would just like to say that you are a fine writer and I really enjoy much of your work, but sometimes you can be a little annoying.
posted by billysumday at 2:25 PM on September 26, 2007


But I haven't gone ballistic defending Eggers. I've criticized your interpretation of the quote. ("Lost it"? Oh dear, he's trying to paint me as hysterical. Like a woman or something.)*

As for "taking Eggers to task for his quote" -- you do realize, now, of course, that you were wrong about that quote, right?

Right?

--
*You and klang and your other buddies are so cute when you do these clumsy-subtle ad hominems by implication. Kind of makes me feel good about thinking you're all narcissistic assholes.

posted by lodurr at 5:04 PM on September 26, 2007


No, don't feel wrong about that quote. He was upset because *gasp* someone from the STYLE section chose to savage his pal. Is the simpler explanation that this guy was a narcissistic asshole or that he just really didn't like the book, and hey, his editor assigned it to him so he wrote about it?

But I like the lodurr=Eggers hypothosis put forward by my putative BFF billy.

(And here I was coming back to wonder if there wasn't a fair strain of undiagnosed Vonnegut worship in a lot of BBoW stuff, but hey, this sputtering "narcissistic assholes" thing you've got is a delicious stew of hilarity all on its own.)
posted by klangklangston at 5:31 PM on September 26, 2007


Brooklyn, Manhattan...New York's best living writer is from the Bronx.
posted by jonmc at 6:58 PM on September 26, 2007


lodurr, perhaps you could explain the distinction between "pissing on" something and criticizing it that you believe Eggers is drawing. Because it's obviously not clear to the rest of us. Reading the lengthier quote you provided above, it sounds like Eggers is saying it's acceptable to dislike something as long as you keep your mouth shut about it. Which is asinine.
posted by enn at 9:35 PM on September 26, 2007


Fuck yeah, jonmc. Price is a far better writer than any of these yahoos. Maybe it's obvious, but look at who buys these books. The people who buy Foer, Eggars, etc, are usually wealthy twenty to thirty somethings who lead privileged existences. Look at who buys Richard Price novels. Anyone and everyone. They publish him in mass market for fuck's sake! The sad state of American fiction currently is that it's a ghetto. It's not a ghetto like you'd see in a Price novel though, it's a ghetto of fuckwit rich kids, who can't produce or understand anything of actual importance.
posted by Football Bat at 9:40 PM on September 26, 2007


"....whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center...."

"....whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center...."

"....whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center...."

"....whether it’s as enormous as the Holocaust or the World Trade Center...."

posted by tehloki at 9:54 PM on September 26, 2007


...it's a ghetto of fuckwit rich kids, who can't produce or understand anything of actual importance....

Great. AUTHENTICITY. This is just going swimmingly.

Some people write books. Within this group of people, who write books, there are many different people writing many different types of books. But at the end of the day, they're ALL. BOOKS. As much as you may dislike Dave Eggers, and I thought And You Shall...etc. was too precious by far, it wasn't printed on human skin or anything.
I'm not saying that criticism is baseless, but I don't even feel like half of this is criticism of the works. It's criticism of the authors. Bucket or whatever is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning- he traces the whole thing to BROOKLYN and GOATEES, for christ's sake. For some reason, a whole segment of those who read have decided that these "Brooklyn" fuckers are essentially the kids from high school who thought they were so cool but really weren't. So, yeah, I don't like those damned authors who sit in coffee shops all day, living on their trust funds and thinking that they're better than us as they pen self-assured novels in the same way I don't like Sasquatch- they're both legends.
In any case, while we're talking about how shitty it is that young authors are writing almost-biographical first novels about fucked up families...uh...what are they supposed to write about? Our social mileu is such that the one thing most people know more than anything else is their own fucked up family, especially if said family is outrageously fucked up. That many new authors go for the easy green and write about crazy families is about as startling as hearing the bong sound in the start of a rap album. And besides, what did that Russian guy say about unhappy families?
Anyway, I actually kind of like that Eggers quote, if only because it describes something I see a lot more in real life than in the NYRB. I think a lot of us have a lot of rage that is motivated by things other than failed charming novels. Bucket certainly does, perhaps because he is probably a fair bit older than the McSweeney's set, and he's wondering why he's not getting invited to all the cool parties now.
posted by 235w103 at 10:28 PM on September 26, 2007



Except you're almost always this bad. And you seem think it's a virtuous thing. I just enjoy doing it to people who seem to me to have that kind of attitude. You know, to make clearer to you (if that's possible) what kind of a world it'd be like if everyone adhered to your standards of debate.


Ah, the asshole who knows he's an asshole but thinks he's justified--he's RIGHTEOUS, see!
posted by nasreddin at 10:39 PM on September 26, 2007


Buckiet's beef is with the genre of the BBoW, not the authors themselves. I was actually struck by how judicious he was in not complaining about the writers themselves, but this particular genre and the attendant attitudes that then spill out into other media. Read the article/essay. He acknowledges that many of them are, firstly, very good writers. He just dislikes the namby-pamby 'oh life is soooo waaaunderful' that many of these writers are defaulting to.

Eggers is, from personal accounts I have heard, a narcissistic asshole. That he has also done far more good than bad (for every gag-inducing, self-satisfied McSweeney's story there is a funny, inventive, well-done one. There are his literacy programs (set in those annoying as all hell 'fake' stores), there are all the other writers he has helped to publish. I gather also What is the What) leads me to be glad he's out there, and glad I'm not working with him.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:13 AM on September 27, 2007


Ah, the asshole who knows he's an asshole but thinks he's justified--he's RIGHTEOUS, see!

Ah, if it isn't my pretentious old pal nasreddin!

I'm glad you think I'm righteous. I don't.
posted by lodurr at 1:37 AM on September 27, 2007


lodurr, perhaps you could explain the distinction between "pissing on" something and criticizing it that you believe Eggers is drawing. Because it's obviously not clear to the rest of us. Reading the lengthier quote you provided above, it sounds like Eggers is saying it's acceptable to dislike something as long as you keep your mouth shut about it. Which is asinine.

I find it strange that anyone would take that meaning away from the short version, to be quite honest. The short version of the quote was clearly describing attention-seeking behaviors, and saying 'that's something strange, that's something we should be look more closely at.' Clearly he's casting aspersions on the motives of someone who's being asinine, to borrow a term.

In the long version, I can see how you get that, but I don't see how it's easy to get that (I just don't get how one could read the linked article and come away with that reading). But the example he cites in that quote is pretty constrained (as are the two others he cites in the linked piece): He's talking about a book review, in the long quote. Someone paid to produce a critical assessment of a work, with the purpose of providing a guide to readers. The reviewer used the opportunity to attack the genre and attack the writer. Eggers is saying that's 'strange', not least because the result is fore-ordained: "It was much like me declaring that I hate military subject matters, and male characters, and suspense, and books that are adapted into movies starring Harrison Ford, and then reviewing Tom Clancy's latest."

The point is not that the review is bad -- the point is that the point of the review was to be bad, rather than to be a review, rather than to be honest. (That's often the problem with "radical honesty", too, btw: The point is often other than what's presented.) The actual piece quoted from makes that quite clear. He's questioning the motives of both the writers and the editors, saying that to him it looks like a stunt. Hence the Frank Gehry example:
I was just talking a few minutes ago with a friend who works at a magazine. This editor, who we will call, for no good reason, Fred T. Roopaloopa, was asking if I knew any writers who knew about architecture. I named a few and asked why. He said that his magazine was looking to do an article about Frank Gehry. Only, he said their article about Frank Genry would not be "the usual thing" — theirs would "trash him." That's how he put it. He said the editor in chief had decreed that if they were to do a piece about Gehry, it would have to be a "trashing." So now Fred was looking for someone willing to a) insinuate himself into Gehry's world; b) gain Gehry's trust; c) interview Gehry; d) then betray and trash him. The whole thing was already planned — an assassination. I asked Fred if he personally had an objection to Gehry's work. He said he did not. So the trashing of Gehry would be a matter of sport, something done only to do something different from the other magazines.

I urged Fred to reconsider. Besides it being morally and intellectually bankrupt and utterly venal, it was a very poor use of his time — if he was tired of Gehry's good press, why not instead find an architect who he loves and celebrate him? That's not to say that if one has genuine objections to Gehry's style, one shouldn't be free to express them in a respectful way. But to have decided on a conclusion without even having an opinion... so disturbing. But very common.
Note that none of these examples describe anything that really resembles a "critical essay"; rather, they all describe hit jobs: cases where the point was to trash the subject, not to provide an honest critique. He's never saying you should't write a bad review. He's saying that going out of your way to savage something is an enterprise that betrays questionable motives.

Let's look at the Hitchens review of Roth is a good illustrative example. Hitchens is doing a wonderful job of expressive writing, and the primary thing that I feel he expresses is frustration. He expects better, and he faults Roth for not giving it to him. He's not starting out to savage roth; he's starting out to review his book. The reivew can be read as a "savaging", but it also constrains itself to the characteristics of the book and (I'd like to presume, because I like to think of Hitchens as someone with a bit of integrity) he is giving us an honest assessment given his own biases.

My opinion of Hitchens' motives matters, by the way, because it's the nature of rhetoric that you can easily and readably trash something without being the slightest bit fair, and leave more or less no trace of the fact that's the case. It's a corrollary of "anyone can be conned": Hitchens, knowing that most of his audience won't read the book, could simply say whatever the hell he wants about it. He could be making shit up to make Roth look bad. I woudln't know. I never would. If we take him at face value, with no previous opinion for good or ill, we really have nothing after we're done, because with a review, one is essentially and always relying on the integrity of the reviewer. That's one reason we stick with reliable "brands" like Ebert or Turan or Elvis Mitchell: We believe either that we know they'll be honest, or that we know their biases. (For an example of the latter, I know that I can't really rely on Ebert reviews of films featuring certain attractive female stars.)

Credibility and motive do matter. That's why when I read comments by some mefites, I discount them, or I question the motive for the comment. We all do that, and we all do it with people other than our personal bete noirs (to anticipate the gleeful hand-wringing of nasreddin or klangklangston, both of whom will be well aware that my bias in reading them is not positive). We simply use our experience (or lack thereof) of a person's past participation -- or lack thereof -- to assess whether we regard them as credible.

Now, if you still don't get the distinction that I see as being quite clear, then I don't know what else to say.
posted by lodurr at 2:25 AM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised at the reaction to this essay, I thought Bukiet was spot on. It's clear from some of the comments that many folks didn't RTFA, but that isn't a surprise. I would guess for the most part people just saw their favorite authors criticized and were unable to handle it. Tellingly, there isn't a lot of defense of those authors offered, just the notion that Bukiet is wrong and bitter.

Bitter he may be, but his points are cogently made, and, for the most part, fair. He goes out of his way to say that several of the writers he's talking about are quite good as writers. His essay is a bit of a rant, but it needed to be written. Eggers quote about avoiding snark (a project he shares with his wife) doesn't apply: this isn't a review essay, it's a call for a reassessment of a mini-genre. That Bukiet feels the reassessment is necessary because of how crappy the mini-genre is is central to the essay.

What I take to be his central point, strangely not addressed by all the incisive readers and vociferous defenders here, is that the times we live in are perhaps a bit too serious for the kind BS that these writers are pedaling. His use of the adjective "escapist" is misunderstood in this regard in the responses here. He isn't criticizing Carl Hiassen, he's criticizing pat and escapist responses to the major horrors of life. A child rape and murder that resolves itself in a fantasy about angels and peach-hued adolescent sex, racism that resolves into Fried Green Tomatoes, the Holocaust resolving into quirkily personified survival. These books are worse than Wes Anderson movies because they claim both profundity and seriousness through their choice of subject matter, their pseudo-engagement with "the Big Questions." Of course one can write books in which good things come out of bad things, in which the world is not an unremittingly horrible place, but I think Bukiet is right to question whether or not there is the seriousness of commitment represented here in order to authorize that kind of treatment. Horror in this genre, whether writ small or large, is almost always just another plot point, and its consequence is not simply a faux profundity, it's the notion that bad things are redemptive in their own right, either as lessons or an opening out of experience that leads to self-satisfaction. Bukiet's criticism is the cousin to Barbara Ehrenreich's full fledged rage at the pastel "my breast cancer was a blessing" narratives that are required of dying women. Sure, the cancer may be a blessing to some women, but when the expectation is that no one will get too upset with such a diagnosis, you've got to start to wonder what we're being protected from and for.

Note, too, since most people don't seem to know who Bukiet is, that he's not criticizing fabulists nor humorists when he talks about wonder, one of his own novels has a returned Jesus Christ as a main character.
posted by OmieWise at 8:15 AM on September 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


Having read every novel mentioned in his article and actually deconstructing two of them as part of a greater, larger thesis project on Contemporary American Fiction, I found the article insightful and interesting, however, fer christ's sake, look at his own writing. Judge the judger.
posted by banannafish at 10:53 AM on September 27, 2007


I'm not a huge fan of the writers mentioned in the article, but I kind of think that the guy who wrote the article is an asshole, too. Just in case anyone cares.
posted by jonmc at 5:46 PM on September 27, 2007


I get what you're saying, Omiewise. But I don't find the article particularly well-written. "Cogent" is a word I reserve for pieces that are effective; if the point of the piece is what you say, I should think the fact that most of us didn't focus on that would indicate he's not making the point very well.

And, much as I do get what you're saying, and assuming that's what he's on about, I think he's probably throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sure, there are plenty of examples of offensive dimunition what we could cite (Life is Beautiful would be at the top of my list), but I can also think of plenty of examples where an artist is trying to take the fangs out via transformation -- much the way children "transform" their nightmare-monsters by turning them into Grover or Barney. That's not always a bad thing (though no way in hell am I going to defend Barney). It's a close cousin to what Chaplin was doing when he turned Hitler into a clown. (And yes, there's obviously room for argument, there; I personally think that doing that to living figures tends to make us take them less seriously than we ought to -- GW Bush being one example -- and I suspect you might agree with that.)

I'm in a poor position to defend or critique the works Bukiet is looking at, since I don't think I've read any of them. (Though I did see the film of Everything is Illuminated. At least with regard to the film, I'm not seeing the problem.) But I think the line between escapism (Life is Beautiful) and tortured escapism (Pan's Labyrinth) is exceedingly hard to see. Fabulist stuff in particular will always be vulnerable to highly subjective readings. It's rare that an author intrudes into the narrative to tell you (as Peter Hoeg does in Borderliners or History of Danish Dreams) to tell you that he's tricked you into getting it wrong, here's the real score. Usually people have to figure it out on their own.
posted by lodurr at 10:46 AM on September 28, 2007


« Older Legend has it that the world's biggest bible is th...  |  Okay, first, take a look at th... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments