A Clarification
February 22, 2001 12:22 PM   Subscribe

A Clarification -- Dave Eggers wants to expose the process, "By reprinting your correspondence to me I hope to illuminate the journalist's mind: how a writer starts by telling me he is a fan of my work, supports my company's endeavors, etc, then writes a snippety little thing full of sneering and suspicion." so he's posted ALL of the email correspondance he had with david kirkpatrick before this unflattering piece was printed... and after.
    "I think it's important that our exchange be published. It's the only remedy commensurate with the impact you enjoyed with your original piece. I want your friends and family to see it, and to say 'David, ew.'"
    Meanspirited all around, but can you blame him?
posted by palegirl (43 comments total)
Wow. Remind me to never piss off David Eggers.

But speaking as someone who knows what it's like to get bent over a table by a journalist with an agenda, more power to him!
posted by mikewas at 12:51 PM on February 22, 2001

I sorta agree. But it's tough because if you don't want to get "bent over" as it were (I assume in a bad way) then you have to avoid journalists at this level (NYT). You live by the sword, ETC.
posted by johnnydark at 12:58 PM on February 22, 2001

I think you can blame him. I'll grant that the NYT journalist took some liberties, but I don't think the Eggers response was merited.

Eggers says something in the clarification piece about how he was thinking about stopping the production of the paperback (as if it was his choice). He says that he sometimes wants to just go hide. Well, maybe he should. If he hadn't responded (albeit grudgingly) to the NYT reporter's requests, the whole thing would have never happened. The piece probably would have been scrapped.

He can't have it both ways.
posted by MarkAnd at 1:05 PM on February 22, 2001

I'm a little worried about Dave Eggers. He seems…sensitive.
posted by rodii at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2001

Mike: Never piss off David Eggers.
posted by harmful at 1:20 PM on February 22, 2001

The piece wasn't a hatchet job, aside from the one reference to the lawsuit with the agent who is a friend of Kirkpatrick. (That's a major ethical lapse the paper should address.)

As a former reporter I think it's entertaining to watch one of my kind squirming a bit for making false promises about a positive story, but when Eggers makes a German opera out of a reporter's "ugly tone," he's begging other reporters to knock him down a peg. In some ways this reminds me of how Jesse Ventura is fixated on the press, constantly agonizing over the coverage he gets to the point he actively antagonizes them, which will only lead to more bad press.

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
posted by rcade at 1:26 PM on February 22, 2001

David Eggers basically seems to think that all critics are no-good cockfarmers: whether this is because he's sensitive to criticism himself or genuinely can't see what purpose negative criticism serves, I don't know.

Undoubtedly there are a lot of mean-spirited critics and journalists out there, but Eggers seems quite happy to tar the whole profession with this particular brush. In this case, though his chatty piety leaves the usual bad taste in my mouth, he may be in the right, but neither correspondent emerges in a particularly good light.
posted by freakytrigger at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2001

"Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

I'm not sure this doesn't apply to both parties. Maybe it will make a fine book! I, for one, won't be writing the review.
posted by jmcnally at 1:31 PM on February 22, 2001

That Harvard Advocate item is too insufferable for words. I haven't read Eggers' book yet, but I can't believe something so highly praised could possibly be as sanctimonious and phony as his lecture on "selling out." Heaven forfend that someone have the gall to say they didn't like a book until they had already written one of their own, or for someone to question the judgments that artists make in search of filthy lucre. Let's all just logroll each other.
posted by rcade at 1:40 PM on February 22, 2001

Much ado about nothing. So some writer is self-conscious and whiney!! Wow. Stop the presses.
posted by yarf at 1:44 PM on February 22, 2001


I wish more people would get revenge on misquoting, lying, write-things-out-of-context, journalists.

posted by bondcliff at 1:44 PM on February 22, 2001

I dunno, eggers may come off as a control freak, but I can certainly sympathize.

I hate how many journalists operate, asking you a few questions, then highlighting whatever phrases you happened to mutter that support their position. They never come out and say "I'm writing an article about foo, and how it relates negatively to the world" they just call and say "I'd like to talk about foo with you for an article!" You may say something off the cuff, half under your breath, and that shows up in 24pt Times.

And quoting his off the record responses without his ok? Why in the hell would he ever do that?! Ever heard of a thing called "trust?"

(off course, by reprinting all the emails, eggers is just as guilty of breaking someone's trust, but I suppose the reporter did it first and eggers doesn't really care about burning any bridges)
posted by mathowie at 1:49 PM on February 22, 2001

I liked Eggers email rant to the Harvard Advocate. I liked it a lot.
posted by tranquileye at 1:52 PM on February 22, 2001

I gotta go with Eggers on this one. He was clearly reluctant to engage in the interview at all. He finally agreed, only after the reporter implied that the piece would be written, regardless of his input.

Looking at the contrast between the Times piece and the emails, it seems pretty clear that the guy took some unconsionable liberties, both in tone and substance. I think it's fair that he should squirm a bit for his lack of professional courtesy.
posted by Optamystic at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2001

Two words on Dave Eggers and his approach to coverage: martyr complex.

I can't judge the reporter's integrity, because it's all he-said-she-said, but I can read what's on the printed page, and that article doesn't warrant Eggers's hypocritical high horse.

In the end, of course, it's just another NYC media catfight that we have to hear about because they're the media (incl. Dave Eggers).
posted by Joe Hutch at 1:58 PM on February 22, 2001

I just think if he was reluctant to enter into the conversation, he should just not have entered into the conversation. Given his reluctance, why the surprise at how he was treated? (And then, why the need to write 5,000 words blowing off steam ending in an ad hominem attack?)
posted by MarkAnd at 2:02 PM on February 22, 2001

Is he sanctimonious and phony, or is he passionate? I lean towards passionate. Because it's true, Eggers is doing good work-- McSweeney's is an amazing magazine. I can't imagine how much money he must have been losing in publishing it, and he started the magazine before his book became a hit.

So where does anyone get off targeting Eggers as a sellout because his book sold well? I don't know about you, but I do not live 100% pure, and I can't take anyone seriously who tries to make like it's even POSSIBLE to live without compromises. Like KRS-One said when he was criticized for letting Nike use his music, any way to get his message out is valid because every venue is corrupt!

No one is perfect. No one is pure. Everyone sells out on some level.

I also really appreciated this part of Eggers' rant:

The Baffler is nice-looking, too, and they print *20,000* copies. Does that put Tom Frank in league with Tony Robbins? I'm exasperated. Saadi, you have to trust me, and you have to trust Tom Frank, because Tom Frank, for example, matters. If Tom Frank, tomorrow, agreed to be in a commercial for the Discover Card - as Kurt Vonnegut did a few years ago, for whatever reason - you would still have to trust Tom Frank and respect him, because he has for a decade been doing work that matters, and you have no idea about his motivations or needs or state of mind when he say okay to the Discover gig.

It's not like A Heartbreaking Work... was calculted to achieve Bridget Jones-like success. It's a loose narrative with a lot of involuted self-criticism that would probably try your average Oprah Book Club reader's patience. I can't see anyone writing a book like that, and then cackling to himself, "Now I'm sure to make a mint!" If Eggers has achieved success and a certain amount of hip cachet, it's because his writing speaks to a lot of people, and he's doing some genuinely admirable things with his talents.

That said, I didn't think the NYT piece was hugely critical, though a lot of the quotes seemed out of context, and the dig about the agent was a shot in the dark. It didn't come off as a critical piece so much as an uninsightful take on the whole phenom of Eggers' success.

The biggest problem I have is that Kirkpatrick harped about the three covers for the paperback of AHWoSG, but failed to describe the intricate, inventive formats in which Eggers has printed McSweeney's, particularly the issue that was published as several bound pamphlets compiled in a neatly designed box.
posted by wiremommy at 2:10 PM on February 22, 2001

I gotta go with Eggers on this one. He was clearly reluctant to engage in the interview at all. He finally agreed, only after the reporter implied that the piece would be written, regardless of his input.

That's a standard reportorial trick. Kirkpatrick played him like a fiddle.

Eggers has dealt with enough media to know better than to trust anybody with off the record comments. I don't think that absolves the reporter, but there's a reason why people in journalism call the job a confidence game.
posted by rcade at 2:13 PM on February 22, 2001

I am personally hoping that this whole incident will rend Mr. Eggers' fragile ego to the point where he *goes* go away and hide...

... and never come back again.

o god, I can dream.
posted by Sapphireblue at 2:16 PM on February 22, 2001

A correction both the NYT and Dave missed:

The book won something of a cult following for Mr. Eggers, who lives in San Francisco.

Dave lives Brooklyn, unless he’s moved back in the last few days. And his cult following was around before the book. It started with the occasionally brilliant Might and grew with McSweeneys.

I know journalists who have tried to write about Dave before and have felt his fury. Eggers is very particular about how he and his family is portrayed, one of my journalist colleagues calls him an “egomaniac” whenever the topic comes up. Which is interesting, considering he wrote a biography. He must have a thing for self-flagellation; certainly he understood people were going to talk and print articles about his book.

I certainly don't hold it against him, though. I love his stuff.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 2:18 PM on February 22, 2001

Ok, so I have to admit, I'm writing this having read the NYTimes article, but not Egger's response. Am I the only one who didn't think that the Times article was all that negative?
I mean, its not exactly glowing, but I didn't think that he was getting "savaged" or anything.
posted by bshort at 2:36 PM on February 22, 2001

Goddam phonies, all of them.
posted by sudama at 3:29 PM on February 22, 2001

i'm totally with dave on this one. even i could tell that the off the record stuff was meant to remain off the record. he even said to let him know if he wanted any of it said on the record, implying that there would have to be a restatement. i think he was justified in his clarification. besides, it's not like he went after kirkpatrick with a big chainsaw.

i think this is a really interesting read, actually. it's interesting how kirkpatrick gets the whole thing started by saying "oh, i love your book, beg beg asskiss asskiss" and then writes that piece. which, while not savagery, has nothing, absolutely NOTHING in common with either what eggers said nor what kirkpatrick himself said in the beginning emails.
posted by pikachulolita at 3:42 PM on February 22, 2001

It will be interesting to see how Eggers reacts after his book receives the "Hollywood treatment." If this episode is any indication, it should be more entertaining than the movie. Gotta admit, I think the guy has done a lot of good work, though.
posted by gimli at 3:51 PM on February 22, 2001

rumor has it he's moved to Los Angeles.
posted by muta at 4:12 PM on February 22, 2001

my take:
DK's article is cynical about DE's motivations and depicts DE in a negative way to a large audience using in part his own quotes

The email exchange reveals that DK misrepresented his motivation for writing the article, betrayed the little trust DE placed in him, ignored DE's requests and possibly made some stuff up.

DE seems very sensitive about his public depiction and would like to control how he is represented. (which he can do in his own biography but cannot do easily in the press)

I dont know much about either DE or DK so to me the most fascinating thing about this is that DE has attempted to use his own website to, as he puts it for DK, fullfill his "wish" to "take each person reading this aside and try to explain". I'd love to see the New York Times link to DE's clarification from their article, their audience would be interested and the email transcripts makes far better reading than the article.
posted by atom71 at 4:30 PM on February 22, 2001

Here's something to chew on:

While Eggers claims to be uninterested in 'gimmicks' and promotions, his response to Kirkpatric serves only to keep him in the limelight for a few minutes more.

By manufactuing (or at least prolonging) this conflict, he is in effect, selling more books.

Goddam phonies indeed . . .
posted by aladfar at 6:35 PM on February 22, 2001

This definitely needs to be added to the discussion. I would just add the link and leave it at that, but since stuff scrolls off Romenesko's letters page, I'll have to repost to insure everyone sees it.

That McSweeney's bit gets less cute with each dayFrom GERARD VANDERLEUN:
With all due respect to Andrew Ross (letter below), he's got it backwards on the Eggers' story.

Rather than revealing (as is so easy to do) the awfulness of the Times and the writers that do their evil bidding, Eggers' open and endless email stack reveals what a preening and pedantic little pissant he's evolved into in his "Year of the Living Lit'rary Wunderkind."

Breathes there a person who has been subject of a profile that has ever felt the writer got it right? Never happens. There are *always* problems with people. "Not quoted right!" "That stuff was off the record!" "I can't believe I forgot I was talking to a *newspaper*."

Every writer knows that the subject will think he got it wrong and start to whine. The only solution is to let the subject have the story and give in to their every rewrite. And even then, odds are that it will be *wrong.* If
Eggers is as sophisticated as his pose, he knows this. Will the Times *get*it*wrong* from the subject's point of view? YES! Every time! And yet sooner or later they will be back for more. Usually when their fast fame is at a lower ebb and their "plenty of money" is running low.

What really galls me about the Times is that they were so ready to assume the position for Eggers as much as they did. Especially to accommodate his [location deleted] vacation at the other side of the world, and the kid needed to sleep, awww! Bad form on their side to be this coddling, but I guess they were too deep into the Suckupathon to quit. Spiking would have been too good for him.

The McSweeney's Bit was cute when it first came along (count me as another life member -- but so far the copies have been showing up, even though I never got the promised 'special gift'), but it is getting less cute with every passing day. And this little snit takes the cake for now.

I was willing to give Eggers the benefit of the doubt after his sister outed him as a prig in Harpers last year, but now I shall revise my opinion. Ditto about that box with the stupid bird on it. Face it, we just have that kind of stuff around our offices to impress the groundlings. Nobody really reads
it after the first try.

Prediction 1: Eggers may soon wake up and see that his email play is not exactly the smooth move and take it down. Make your copies now! (On the other hand, the whole incident reveals that he's probably beyond such feats
of self-examination.)

Prediction 2: This endless bit of email exhibitionism by Eggers will mark the moment his Sputnik began to slip off the radar screen as the NYC literary cabbage patch doll of the moment. Note to aspiring young literary things: The wunderkind position is open again. Gentlemen, start your websites!
posted by aaron at 7:40 PM on February 22, 2001

if there is one thing this does NOT smack of, it's Eggers just doing this to sell books. I am surprised at this discussion, I don't get all these complex levels everyone is putting on it, is everyone just looking for something to argue about? I hate Eggers' writing, and I find him annoying, but this is obviously a case of him being really pissed off by a writer who lied to him, used quotes he said he wouldn't, made up facts, etc, and Eggers decided to make him look stupid. I don't see anything wrong with that, I think it's great. You can read ego into this, but I really think you're over-analyzing and not just looking at the facts here.
posted by beefula at 7:44 PM on February 22, 2001

I haven't read anything by Eggers but I tend to side with the people who are defending him. Of course it's inevitable that a given journalist won't be exactly right (unless they spent hours and hours in the company of the subject and just printed exactly what the subject said, and even then it might not be perfect) but surely they should at least try. Journalists who deliberately mislead people (in whatever area) deserve all they get.
And then there's Pynchon. I'm just about to start reading another of his novels and I am aware that I know very little about the man. Maybe he has the right idea about "the media"; avoid it.
posted by davidgentle at 8:04 PM on February 22, 2001

My dissatisfaction with this is that Eggars used to play the critic game (as the Advocate piece makes clear), and he's still playing the game just by "not playing". If he wanted to be Pynchon or Salinger, he could get away with it, because they have, more or less. But he's only content to make himself the subject of his own secondary literature: that's to say, the only valid media treatment of Eggers appears to be Eggers' own.

The image that pops into my head is that of a little kid who plays along until something goes wrong, then runs home screaming "Mummy, look what nasty things the other boys did."
posted by holgate at 8:08 PM on February 22, 2001

(oops, overlapped the Pynchon comment with davidgentle's.)
posted by holgate at 8:09 PM on February 22, 2001

And then there's Pynchon. I'm just about to start reading another of his novels and I am aware that I know very little about the man. Maybe he has the right idea about "the media"; avoid it.

If memory serves, a couple of writers for Spy once tracked him down through credit card records (possibly his wife's credit card records. Umm. He is married, right?), found his house, and followed him to the grocery store where they took some photos of him grocery shopping, and then were so horribly ashamed of themselves that they didn't write the piece.

(This may be fuzzy memory about some other reclusive writer, like Salinger or the comparatively publicity-seeking DeLillo, or it might be an urban legend.)

As re: Eggers, there are very few excuses I can think of for a journalist to quote and attribute someone's off-the-record comments, and that piece didn't have any of them. Whether Eggers is an pompous ass, a sensitive genius, or a sensitive genius who's also a pompous ass has no bearing on that breach of journalistic ethics.
posted by snarkout at 9:00 PM on February 22, 2001

I thought "off the record" was dead. Still a staple in movies and stuff, but in the real world it was cremated long ago.

Some reporters I know will still extend the courtesy, but political and business reporters don't, as far as I know. In this sort of domain it's certainly different - but still, you can't invoke it after the fact, as Eggers did. When Kirkpatrick first wrote and identified himself as a guy doing an article, unless and until Eggers negotiated his "off the record" status, it was for publication in my opinion.

That said, I am entirely on Eggers' side on this one - trusting, of course, that it is the entire email dialogue that he published. The piece in the Times was mean-spirited and cynical, and did twist the facts to (in my opinion) make the reporter himself seem clever and world-weary. To me, Kirkpatrick's article was all about "look how cool I am" and only tangentially about presenting Eggers and his book in an interesting and engaging fashion.
posted by mikel at 9:40 PM on February 22, 2001

Dunno, the thing that struck me most about it was kirkpatrick saying eggers could review the piece then sending edited highlights as it were. By anyone's standards that's not getting to review the piece. You could make an unfavourable article sound at least neutral if you were clever/devious enough that way.

And hey, just 'cause you're egotistical doesn't make it any more ethical to lie to you.
posted by mr_stru at 5:55 AM on February 23, 2001

Dunno, the thing that struck me most about it was kirkpatrick saying eggers could review the piece then sending edited highlights as it were. By anyone's standards that's not getting to review the piece.

I've never worked for a publication that allowed writers to send full pieces to subjects for review. When I did it once while freelancing for a magazine, the source showed why editors don't allow it -- he called my editor at the last minute to bitch for some changes.
posted by rcade at 7:35 AM on February 23, 2001

Off the record:

I'm not sure what the question is. Does Vintage want to sell books? Of course. Do I care? Not in the least.
Such elaborate stunts are the kind of marketing most authors only dream about, but Mr. Eggers insisted it made no difference to him. "Does Vintage want to sell books? Of course," he said by e-mail, the only form in which he would agree to answer questions. "Do I care? Not in the least."
Do journalists really not honor requests that comments be off the record/not for attribution or on background? Jeez, I thought they were a mainstay of political reporting. Are any of the working journalists who read MeFi reading this thread? Is that the case? Have I been fooled by reading All the President's Men too much?

In any case, I don't think extending the basic courtesy of allowing your interview subject to define when he or she is actually participating in the interview is too bizarro for an arts puff piece.

(Crossing my fingers that this is formatted right, with the blockquotes and all.)
posted by snarkout at 7:38 AM on February 23, 2001

Oh, the other exchange worth noting:

Eggers: "But if you agree to a Q&A-only interview, where you just print the exchange without alteration, I will chat. If the Times won't allow that -- and I doubt they will -- I understand."

Kirkpatrick: "And only the official 'responses' will be considered stuff I can use.... If you want to offer my any guidance on background--- meaning, I let it inform what I write but don't attribute it to you--- that would be very welcome."
posted by snarkout at 7:42 AM on February 23, 2001

I fall right in the middle. Kirkpatrick comes off as a squirming, manipulating asshole with an agenda, while Eggers comes off as two-faced and disingenuously "wounded." Come on--would someone as media-savvy as Eggers clearly is (poking daggers into the media is McSweeney's bread and butter) really be so outraged and haunted by shabby treatment from the mainstream press? What, is he new in town?

And I've read Eggers' stuff before, and I liked it, but in a distant way; sort of the way I admire Vermeer paintings. They are beautiful, but so chilly and crafted-within-an-inch-of-their-lives that I get sort of creeped out.
posted by Skot at 8:49 AM on February 23, 2001

Do journalists really not honor requests that comments be off the record/not for attribution or on background?

Good journalists honor them, assuming they want to keep the source. Even then it's easy to be burned because of an unintentional mistake, or an editor who finds out about a great off-the-record quote and puts it in over the objections of the reporter. (A lot of editors don't have to deal with sources, so it's much easier for them to screw people over. When I was reporting on a daily basis, my policy was to keep the off-the-record stuff to myself rather than telling people in the newsroom. Otherwise, it could show up in my story during editing.)

My advice to anyone who deals with the media after 14 years working in it: Don't tell anyone anything off the record unless you're comfortable with it being reported anyway.
posted by rcade at 9:11 AM on February 23, 2001

Y'know, I don't think Eggers was irked by this treatment from some evil entity known as "The Press." He's pissed off because he had a pretty interesting conversation going with a journalist who seemed honest, personable and a fan.

Sure, maybe he should be more cynical or "media savy" and think that everyone's a shill, but what kind of outlook on life is that? I mean, the two of them talked about a vacation locale (which was all deleted) and Eggers made suggestions on what to do (driving down a highway I think) and presumably talked about his trip(s) to that locale.

It seems to me that Eggers is pissed off because he let someone into a personal sphere and got burned for it. No one likes finding out that someone that seemed like a potential friend just crawled over your face wearing golf spikes to get to a good stabbing angle.

(side note, revealing potential bias: I'm somewhere around chapter 5 of Heartbreaking..., and I've enjoyed everything else I've read by Eggers, so I'm probably inclined to see him in a better light. I don't think that completely devalues the above possibillty though)
posted by cCranium at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2001

Snarkout: Yep. It was Pynchon. Let me just root around for a moment...
Hmm. Here's one. but I can't be sure if it's "the one".
Via The Modern Word's Spermatikos Logos.
posted by davidgentle at 4:33 PM on February 23, 2001

thanks for that article, davidgentle. Once again, I have to side with Pynchon. James Bone (the reporter) knows he's being sleazy by taking Pynchon's picture, then tries to laugh off his violation of the author's privacy. People suck.
posted by Optamystic at 12:45 PM on February 24, 2001

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