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March 07, 2005

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» In Defense of Mocking Literary Figures from Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant
Mark has weighed in on the spate of Foer bashing. Of course, anyone who bashes Foer at this point, whether with blunt objects or swizzle sticks, is beating a dead horse. I succombed to it only because the idea of... [Read More]

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» Tuesday Pimp from fredschoeneman.com
In addition to studying for my real estate license, I'm reading Loren Estleman's "Peeper." Or, more properly, I'm having it read to me my HOT girlfriend. I like it so far, but wonder if the writer wouldn't rather make a... [Read More]

Comments

May Barber

Great defense of Foer. Couldn't agree more with your theory re: jealousy. Of course, the point would've been even stronger if you'd refrained from petty digs at DFW, Eggers, and MFAs. I'm certain your objections to those writers and that kind of work is purely aesthetic, not born out of jealousy, or a belief that their reputations are outsized to what they deserve, right? Still, from here it comes off as hypocrisy.

Dave Worsley

Great Foer defence. The first novel (and for God sake his detractors should be reminded that it is a first novel) was largely solid. I'll buy and read the new one when it comes out. The jealousy chorus is just an indoor sport and doesn't merit comment.
I have a list of writers whose work I'll happily lose my voice defending and I really don't care about the tics and shortcomings of their personalities. If I met Joan Didion and she turned out to be a dismissive worm, well, she wrote the Run River and the White Album.
Lastly, everyone knows the biggest twit writing today is James (Million Little Pieces) Frey.

Katherine

I'm with you - there's far too much jealousy and sniping in the lit world, and Safran Foer should be judged on the basis of his work, not for matters of income, youth, or earnestness. But I've got to say, it's very unfair to lump all MFA grads together - programs are diverse and tastes are extremely varied. Glib post-modernism and cheap, kitschy irony are being inflicted on the world by all sorts of writers, MFA grads or otherwise.

Old Hag

Il faut que je disagree over here. I like a great deal of his stuff too, but much of it is craptacular and he doesn't work hard enough to merit the acclaim. Also, there is a grand old tradition of pointing out how writers can often be twats in person, however delightful their prose/poetry, and I for one remain fascinated by the Jekyll/Hyde factor and will to babble away at it until the cows come home.

Also, just factually, AnOther is a nasty thing to bash. Discussing your own depression doesn't equal self-absorption, as the hale and hearty Norman Mailer definitely proves. Or even if it does, it's not more navel-gazing than discussing your own...anything.

(You know I'm just sensitive because I'm on more drugs than a test monkey at Wyeth. But still.)

SKL

For what it's worth, this MFA will admit to a healthy dose of jealousy towards hugely succesful and under-30 first novelists (which accounts for my only getting around to reading WHITE TEETH last month, and for the record, I liked it). However, I think what makes me crazy and pissy about Foer isn't just his success -- it's his getting caught up in the NOVEL IS AUTHOR thing that publishing seems to be pushing these days. I, for one, am sort of disgusted at the impulse agents & publishers have to push the writer forward as PERSONALITY in order to sell his/her books, but I can see why they do it considering their #1 priority is sales, sales, sales (see the whole PREP sales machine, etc., etc.). What I find icky about Foer is, at least as far as I can tell, having seen him read, sit on panels, and succumb to horrendous profiles, he seems to have bought into his own persona as being as important as, if not more important than, his work. I couldn't give a crap about all his navel-gazing in his personal life, and personally, I think it's a little weird that he seems to think we do. What matters to me, and what I think should matter to him and "journalists" everywhere, is the quality of his work -- which a lot of people say is good (me, I couldn't wade through it, but there you go). So great, he wrote a good book. What the hell does that have to do with his dogs or his bathroom habits? Why does anyone care? And why is he being encouraged to think we do? Until he writes another good book, the jury, for me, will be out, but I think I'd like him better if, in the meantime, he'd just shut up.

SKL

And one more thing: we should all be so lucky as to get the sort of attention he's been getting this last week, good, bad, or ugly -- it all sells books. And Mark, my love, a man who bashes DFW at all opportunities is standing on pretty thin ice claiming the rest of us are petty/bitter/whatever when we go after Foer -- personal taste in literature doesn't make the sniping more nor less defensible.

TEV

Hey, some of my best friends are MFAs.

SKL, small point - I have never ONCE made a PERSONAL attack on DFW; merely expressed my ongoing deep loathing for his output. Tremendous difference, one worth noting.

Stepping back out now ...

Mogolov

It should also help that his new book is much better than his first (and I did like the first quite a bit). Writing a book about September 11 that doesn't succumb to sentimentality or cliche is difficult, and he's done it. The book bears much more similarity to his short story "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" than it does to "Everything is Illuminated." Like in that story, his experiments with type, image, punctuation and layout in the new novel are integral to the story rather than simply being clever little toy to show off.

Regardless of your opinion of Foer as a person, the book is what matters. Unless you're a "I'd like to have a beer with him" voter, as well. In which case, what are you doing reading a litblog?

SKL

Now, see, all this commenting is EXACTLY why I'm not supposed to surf around here until AFTER I get my work done ...

Glad to hear the new book's better than the first. Oddly, I think I may even be looking forward to reading it, and will bench envy for as long as I can muster. ;)

Bob Sassone

Mark,

I've never quite understood your Steve Almond-bashing. I read both "Candyfreak" and the story collection "My Life In Heavy Metal" and found them both quite good. And as far as self-absorbed...I think all writers (and I'm including myself) are a little self-absorbed. I mean, what about writers who keep blogs? You can't get anymore self-absorbed than that. And I've been keeping one since '97. Heh...

Sarah

Like Lizzie, I was a bit confused by the link to AnOther because (while I don't check it that regularly) I was impressed with Nathalie's continued search for material on how the artistic temperament and depression are linked -- it's her problem, yes, but it's many others as well.

As for Foer, I'm on record as not liking the piece because it stressed all the wrong things -- and really made him out to be incredibly repellent. But am I going to read his next book? Of course. I think he has talent and potential even if some of his wilder impulses ought to be reined in.

Mogolov

Reading the NYT profile, I felt for Foer the same embarassment I'd feel if a friend's middle-school poetry were published without his or her consent. Maybe Foer will never grow to regret his forthrightness and naked emotion, but for most everybody else he comes off as adolescent, and it makes us (well, me, anyway) uncomfortable.

I don't know if he's sincere about this, or if he's doing some impressive De Zengotitian mediation, but he certainly does present himself oddly. It's easier to appreciate a fictional character like Foer than it is a real-life Foer who is tied up in the effort to sell his book.

Again, though, I think the book is far more interesting than the author. I sort of wish that we didn't have to know much about the authors of the books we like. It would be much easier to appreciate the books themselves.

Dan Green

We don't "have to know much about the authors of the books we like." Only certain journalists and the editors of gossipy print publications think that we do. If everyone would let them know such stuff is loathsome by refusing to read it, maybe they'd stop.

ibar

For me, my annoyance is the transparency of the appearance in the NY Times: The profile, breathy, not that interestingly, is so clearly a part of publicity plan unreeling that I can't help but feel worked. Is any area of the culture immune from the lure of celebrity? The focus should be on his work. But I'm afraid that his work falls short as well. He's clever. No question. But the first book becomes tedious after awhile. The mechanics are known right away. With the game exposed, there's no real reason to go on reading. The same is true for the NYer piece "A Primer. . ." By the second iteration it's fairly apparent where the story is going, and by the third there is no question. Why go on?

In all of this, the accolades should go to the publicists for their successful pitch.

Jim Ruland

Am I the only one who is dumbfounded by Mark's conversion into an anti-snarkist? Seriously, in a profile there's always a tug of war between what the editor wants and what the subject would prefer; and because the profiler is accountable to the editor and not the subject, the subject frequently gets screwed. It's just as easy to polish a turd as it is to throw mud. For instance, I can compose a profile about The Elegant One that highlights his community building efforts, generosity toward lesser-known writers in the LA scene, and complete dependability as a friend. Or, I could write about what a shrill little harpy he can be whenever someone mentions Almond, the Believer, DFW, and so on through the rest of the alphabet. Both versions are "true"; whether the version that most closely approaches the truth of the subject is something the profiler has to confront when they look at themselves in the mirror each morning. I find the idea that its somehow okay to make someone look like a fool in print because it drives sales beyond cynical and borderline antisocial.

Mogolov

Dan and ibar:

I agree with both of you. If we didn't read the stuff, arguably, they wouldn't print it. My only fear is that with book coverage, if they cut this crap, they wouldn't restore good coverage. They'd just turn the pages over to the TV writers. As ibar points out, because celebrity culture is so much of our culture, it's hard to find anything else to read in the big papers. I'm lured into any book coverage, particularly when the smart people I know are talking about it (as they were talking about this NYT article). To tell the truth, I don't read much of the NYT book coverage, because it is so personality-driven, and so focused on non-fiction. I'd much rather read actual book reviews, and reviews of fiction. Unfortunately, I don't think most newspaper editors care much about books, but they do know that gossip and celebrity sell. Also, they pretty much rely on the PR departments of the publishers. This is a bad situation for readers, if they rely on the big papers. Fortunately, we don't have to.

While ibar and I disagree about the merits of Foer's writing, I'd much rather read an article by ibar elaborating on what was wrong with "A Primer..." than I would an article about Foer's 100+ emails to the reporter. I've had opinions of authors changed based on such articles (followed by a re-reading of the author), and I'd bet it'll happen again. But fluff celebrity pieces don't change anything about how I consider books. They just make me a little sad.

TEV

Um, harpies are female:

1. Gr. and Lat. Mythol. A fabulous monster, rapacious and filthy, having a woman's face and body and a bird's wings and claws, and supposed to act as a minister of divine vengeance. (OED)

Although I do like the "divine vengeance" part ...

Ed

I've pretty much said what I have to say about this at RotR. But I'd also like to add that singling out AnOther was an unnecessary and extremely fey comparison. Nathalie does not have a public persona that she uses for bookstore appearances and seminars, nor has she, to my knowledge, written 150 emails to a rabid journalist.

And Mr. Ruland, I'm partially with you, even though it's very clear to me that Mark hasn't quite declared the war on snark that you suggest.

Another thing to consider: We haven't heard from Foer and it seems picayune to speculate until we hear his side of the story, should he desire to participate. (I suspect he doesn't.)

And yet another: The strange insinutation that has cropped up on a few blogs and emails to me that Mark and I are now mortal enemies, simply because we've disagreed (not all that much, I might add) greatly perplexes me. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, I'm more bothered that he picked Roth over Mitchell in the Tournament of Books contest. But that's his choice. :)

TEV

OK, let me second that and state very publicly that not only are Ed and I NOT enemies or even fighting in any way, we've actually got a date tonight and he's promised to wear that bustier I like so much.

Seriously, folks, reasonable people may disagree and we have here, but anyone who thinks Ed and I are warring knows neither of us.

As for my choice of links, I will let it speak for itself but my point was merely suggest that JSF's critics can be every bit as earnest and self-absorbed as they accuse him of being.

Finally, I just want to say - in all seriousness - I am just thrilled and proud and happy beyond belief with how everyone comports themselves here in backblog. I've seen too many ugly pointless flame wars and I remain incredibly pleased that even when TEV readers disagree, we're polite and cordial and frankly have style to spare. Thanks, all.

birnbaum

I haven't understood the animus towards Foer. I'm inclined to think there is in no small part of anti-Semitism at play here but Mark’s hypotheses sound good. So I ‘m willing to go, "Yea, it’s what he said."

I’ve met Jon and he is bright, engaging, passionate and funny and poised. Certainly sufficient if not necessary reasons to find him loathsome. He did vex me with his refusal to sing Eminem’s White America but that’s a small thing.

And I also I liked Everything Is Illuminated and thought it was evidence of an original talent. I am Iooking forward to reading his new novel and chatting with JSF in the near future— for those of you who are interested.

I think there must be a corollary attribute to not being loved by the camera, not being photogenic—like not coming off well or likeable on the page— not one’s writing but one’s personality. Maybe that’s Foer’s problem.

As for the recent so-called profile by Deborah Solomon — I am at a disadvantage as I don’t read her stuff (she falls into the Laura Miller/Michiko Kakutani camp, literary journalists from whom I have nothing to learn) but I did find Tom Scocca’s lampoon in the NY Observer hilarious.

Lastly, it must be said and I think it’s what Daniel Green was pointing to, those of us who love literature and are never going to get to the bottoms of our To Be Read piles — how is it that we are willing to waste precious time and energy reading such sorry crap as the stuff that occasioned this thread?

Go ahead, boys and girls, answer me that.

Tito

1-2-3
They shot Ed and TEV
there's too much violence it lit blogs
wyahhhhh

Old Hag

I am a big huge Jew (hopefully not literally), not self-hating, v. v. fond of Jewish men and have dated at least 40% of them, had the rest to dinner and a movie, and JSF annoys the SHIT out of me. If I had been invited to his Bar Mitzvah, I would have run out on his Torah portion and not even stayed for the sundae bar.

Everyone else might totally be being anti-Semitic though. WASPs and sundry, check yourselves before you wreck yourselves.

Also, I wish I knew photoshop so I could change my header to "Old Harpy Periodical(ly)."

birnbaum

Liz you clealy missed me (a big Jew) in your dating years (not that it's too late) but what is it that infuriates youu about Jonny?

Old Hag

He's so SENSITIVE. I need to be the sensitive, annoying one. He should check out female engineers.

Confused

"He hasn't succumbed to the glib post-modernism..."

I'm confused. Didn't JSF write a story for the New Yorker that analyzed the narrator's family through the sole use of punctuation marks? Didn't he write a story for The Guardian that was an extended commentary on typography? Isn't there a flip book at the end of his upcoming book, not to mention pictures interspersed in the text that were apparently derived from the web?

I'm no expert in JSF or in postmodernism, but he strikes me as both glib and postmodern, in an unfortunately gimmicky way. Perhaps he is earnest as well. One doesn't have to negate the other. But he seems to be a bit too fond of his postmodern cleverness, and I think this is one reason many readers are repelled. Yeah, and there's the jealousy too.

Carolin Gschwilm

Thank you for defending Jonathan Safran Foer! I think he is a genius and a very sincere and straightforward person. If there were more so-called "sensitive" men like him, our world would be much better! I am fed up with men playing it cool. It is courageous of a man to be soft and gentle and show his feelings, a lot more couragous than to be oh-so-tough and "masculine". We need more men like that, if we want to have a better future! I tell you honestly, some of you New York folks, you do not deserve a writer as great and deep as JSF! One day he will be fully recognized for what he is, and every little note he wrote will be valuable and put into a museum. At that time, there will be people yearning they could have known him ... You should appreciate him while he is there! He propagates positive values. He is good for America. I wish we had a writer as great as that in Germany!
Carolin, Germany

Carolin Gschwilm

Thank you for defending Jonathan Safran Foer! I think he is a genius and a very sincere and straightforward person. If there were more so-called "sensitive" men like him, our world would be much better! I am fed up with men playing it cool. It is courageous of a man to be soft and gentle and show his feelings, a lot more couragous than to be oh-so-tough and "masculine". We need more men like that, if we want to have a better future! I tell you honestly, some of you New York folks, you do not deserve a writer as great and deep as JSF! One day he will be fully recognized for what he is, and every little note he wrote will be valuable and put into a museum. At that time, there will be people yearning they could have known him ... You should appreciate him while he is there! He propagates positive values. He is good for America. I wish we had a writer as great as that in Germany!
Carolin, Germany

Literary Lay Person

I'm intrigued by the sentence above: "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."

Is there a way someone could define "post-mondernism," and this "kitschy irony". Are you referring to styles, basic themes? I've just happened upon this website, and would like to know more. Are there any authors these descriptions refer to. I would like to learn more about what's going on in the new generations of literati. Thank you.

Rae

"If there were more so-called "sensitive" men like him, our world would be much better! I am fed up with men playing it cool. It is courageous of a man to be soft and gentle and show his feelings, a lot more couragous than to be oh-so-tough and "masculine". We need more men like that, if we want to have a better future! I tell you honestly,"

I could not possibly agree more.

We need a lot more Jonathan's out there!

TAJ

I have to say that I find it odd that there are "literary-minded" people on this site and elsewhere who bemoan the fact that JSF, and writers like him have "celebrity fluff pieces" written about them, because they say that it's the book that matters - what the person is like has nothing to do with the quality of the work. What's odd is that they seem to be in search of authors who shun such "fluff pieces". Who are "above" such things. So, the author's personality DOES matter as long as they act within the guidelines set up by the "literary-minded".....?

Alec

JSF is a product of marketing, period. He may have written a good book, a great book, or a crappy book, but he is "Jonathan Safran Foer" today b/c of a business decision pure and simple.

Namely, the New Yorker decided to push "hot young talent" alongside some of their regulars, and book publishers realized that seven figure advances to under-30 something writers create the kind of sales publicity that becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, naturally, the rest of us are mildly bitter. We didn't have the cozy family connections, the gilt-edged glaze, or the simple serendipity (I don't know the real story, but it doesnt matter) to get the cash and love parade.

But step back a minute and look at this blessing: anonymity. What a pain to labor every day merely to see past one's own navel. What a burden to spend one's time in bookshops scrawling signatures. And when such pains and labors cease, what an emptiness will follow. How much better to have only the time and space attend your work, and posterity to judge it.

S

I was at JSF's bar mitzvah. No one ran out during his torah portion (the 10 Commandments from Leviticus) and I don't think there was a sundae bar.

asher church

JSF's debut book was good; the second one was crap. Everything else said on the subject would be unilluminating.

renee

Thanks for pointing me here, TEV. Glad to hear there's are plenty of opinionated folks who are of a positive opinion of JSF.

The comments to this entry are closed.

TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."