Eggers On Criticism and 'Keeping It Real'.
August 18, 2000 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Eggers On Criticism and 'Keeping It Real'. Really interesting and well-written, of course. But also, sometimes, infuriating. More inside. (via kottke)
posted by lbergstr (6 comments total)
It was good, yeah, when Eggers decides to do the emotional explosion thing it's time to get out of the fucking way. Look, I disagree with him about criticism in general. Yes, No is a word the small-souled use, but some books are better than others, and sometimes I like to hear someone tell me why. (this point, like the link, stolen from kottke)
But he also pissed me off quite a bit. First of all, of course, Who The Hell Do You Think You Are? A universally praised author, to be sure, but he basically stepped on Saadi.
So basically...doesn't he understand that his whole anti-anti rant is in conflict with his demeanor? He's fucking terrifying, he tears people apart on the page, he must understand this. Even when he goes for joy it seems like it's fueled by anger at the world that would deny him this.
posted by lbergstr at 10:51 AM on August 18, 2000

eggars is clearly mistaking vitriol with criticism. unquestionably, many critics don't understand this difference, but they and he are missing the point.

experiencing a work of art is a conversation between the artist and the reader (listener/viewer). criticism--*good* criticism--happens after a demanding reader has worked to understand what the artist has said and then questioned and evaluated it.

goethe's rules of criticism, as I recall were:
1) what is the artist trying to do?
2) does the artist succeed?
3) was it worth doing?

note the order, it's essential to the process.

adler/van doren have a similar approach:
1) what is the book about as a whole?
2) what is being said in detail, and how?
3) is the book true, in whole or in part?
4) what of it?

in both of these approaches the reader must come first to the work and try to understand it on its own terms before forming an opinion. this makes art a conversation of minds, not a passive experience in which a consumer receives information from an authority and unquestioningly accepts it.


posted by rebeccablood at 11:36 AM on August 18, 2000 [1 favorite]

oh, but I do agree with his keeping shit real bit. that's usually a knee-jerk reaction to not feeling "in the elite" anymore. silly.

posted by rebeccablood at 11:37 AM on August 18, 2000

Nice diatribe, but the world already has enough published authors logrolling each other's books.
posted by rcade at 10:09 PM on August 18, 2000

Well said, Rcade.

The Eggers' "rant" was interesting reading, but on the subject of literary criticism I agree more with Rebecca Blood (as I understand her remarks). I think Eggers is right that "criticism, for the most part, comes from the opposite place that book-enjoying should come from." But that doesn't mean that criticism is "unhealthy" or unnecessary. Through criticism we can understand how a novel (or play or poem) "works", and why it works. And these skills are also applicable to nonfiction. For example, it takes a critical mind to recognize the difference between "Protestors clash with Police" and "Police Clash with Protestors" (also pointed out by Rebecca Blood I believe). Taking-apart is as essential as building-up.

Regarding "selling out", Eggers conflates popularity with commercialization. Sure, it's stupid to "stop liking" a band when they gain a larger audience. But that's very different from not financially supporting a band that "sells out" in a literal sense -- in the sense of doing commercials etc. It's the difference between Massive Attack and Smith and Mighty.

If Tom Frank [of the Baffler], tomorrow, agreed to be in a commercial for the Discover Card...

then I would definitely lose some respect for Tom Frank, and would be less likely to send him money. Why? Not because his work, in itself, is thereby made less valuable. Rather, because he would have agreed to be complicit in the worst kind of advertising: literally selling his reputation without even *pretending* to inform the consumer about the nature of the product. In my opinion, this isn't very honorable behavior -- in the moral sense, not only aesthetically.
posted by johnb at 2:58 PM on August 19, 2000

In terms of D. Eggers ripping into S. Soudavar, let it just be said that the former knows the latter, quite arguably, less well than any of us know Eggers. If all you knew about Eggers was that he was associated -- in some sort of important way -- with this magazine you know something about, and you had some random page-long fragment of Eggers' writing to work with -- oh, say, the "finally, finally, finally, you bastards" passage from his book -- what might you come up with? Tone is a very difficult thing to judge (and I don't think the typesetting of the interview as a pine session helps formulate accurate judgments, either).

Besides, which, Saadi was asking for something with that last question. Eggers' response may not have been the best -- largely because it turns into a diatribe against critics in general and the selling-out-police more specifically, rather than a reply to the moral attitudes encoded in the question -- but that question was just crying out for some kind of slapdown. Eggers made it a bit personal, an issue of being a certain age and thinking a certain way, which and that disappointed me a bit, because I think the assumptions behind the question really deserve to be tackled and shot down and otherwise dealt with on a more, well, reasoned level.

In terms of content, that whole rant annoys me because, other than discussing his personal experience a bit (and thereby supplying a little more raw data), Eggers says nothing new. People have been saying what he says ever since other people first started accusing them of selling out. Eggers' whole "what someone has done and if they meant it" deal isn't very useful, because it completely ignores all of the wholly-legitimate points about complicity and cultural forces and the complexities of the context in which people write books and publish "unprofitable" literary journals financed with the six-figure advances on their books and go on national book tours encouraging subversion (with five-star reviews) of web sites selling their books and get interviewed by literary magazines that ask them about their literary journals and inquire whether they're selling out, which asking, of course, helps move copies of the literary magazines, and so on and so forth. It's a call for a wholly impossible and sentimentalized kind of innocence, and if that innocence actually were to hold, then McSweeney's (and all the things Eggers loves about it and loves to say using it) could not even exist in the first place. Eggers' work amounts to cultural arbitrage, spotting strange and quirky fluctuations in the literary and social landscape and making a quick profit trading on those strange imbalances. And a culture that lived by rules as simple as those Eggers claims to hold dear now wouldn't really offer very much for him to work with.
posted by grimmelm at 12:48 AM on August 21, 2000

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