I step briefly into the first person now, a move reserved for more personal posts.
It's been a week since the Jonathan Safran Foer profile appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I've watched the ensuing spew of bitterness, both in the blogosphere and in the MSM, with increasing disgust, and although Foer certainly doesn't need me to defend him, it seemed well past time to offer the other side of things.
Personally, I liked his first book. A lot. I thought it unraveled a bit by the end but it was clear to me that he had talent to burn and he was someone to watch.
I've tried to understand the backlash that's followed his success but every way I parse the reaction it comes down to the two things.
It's entirely possible that he's being punished for the misfortune of having been profiled by the World's Worst Journalist, Deborah Solomon. But I'm putting my money on the jealousy factor. His critics brush this one off but it's not so easily swept aside. Have his two books been overpaid for? Probably. But why should he be punished for having either (a) a good agent, (b) a spendthrift publisher or (c) a combination of both?
These critics say it has nothing to do with his earnings but it's rather that they find his persona obnoxious, too eager to please, self-absorbed. (In keeping with the best of fatwa traditions, many of these critics admit to having read little more than excerpts of his work.) More obnoxious than the likes of Chuck Palahniuk? Neal Pollack? The great grandaddy of obnoxious, Tom Wolfe? Or perhaps the most self-absorbed writer working today, Steve Almond? I'm sure you could think of four of your own for this list. But do any of these writers receive a fraction of the same enmity? No. Most distasteful is that even among his fiercest critics, there's no shortage of earnest self-absorption.
So why the visceral loathing? Too successful, too soon. How dare he?
But all told, I think the jealousy part is the smaller side of the equation. The worst thing I can say about Foer is he sometimes comes off a bit earnestly, and I think he is being punished excessively for that. He hasn't succumbed to the glib post-modernism or cheap, kitschy irony that seems to be the most favored weapon in the MFA arsenal these days (and here I should note that I've never met a single MFA who has anything nice to say about him, buttressing the jealousy argument). I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's recent comment at the Hammer reading, where he expressed a terror of "doing things straight" and it's this lamentable coolness that's made such an inhospitable literary landscape for so many of us who prefer our fiction a bit deeper than Eggers Arid or a bit livelier than The Tea Towel School (another MFA chestnut).
Along comes Foer and he's got the (over)eagerness of youth (we all had it once, even those same MFAs before they were trained that it isn't cool to feel or, at least, to admit to feeling), and if his biggest crime is enthusiasm and an overly sincere nature, well, once again I ask - How dare he? (Personally, I wish I still had the energy to fire off a hundred plus emails to anyone, and can remember a not-to-distant time when I did.)
Seriously, folks, you make yourself look bitter, petty and small with your ceaseless Foer-bashing. I find myself wishing that the lettered classes could aim the discourse a bit higher, our better angels and all that. Perhaps that's Foer-esquely naive of me to wish for, but there it is. One can only hope that he doesn't allow the cynicism and bitterness out there to beat the life and light out of him before he really has the chance to get going.
Because I'm still watching him. And I happen to be rooting for him.