In Defense of Mocking Literary Figures

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 someone as incompetent as Deborah Solomon talking with Foer reminded me of a weekend I once spent at a Days Inn with a venemous journalist who insisted on calling me “Johnny from SF.” She insisted on abbreviating my hometown and didn’t offer an explanation. Needless to say, the weekend fling didn’t pan out, Solomon’s article hit close to home, and, after penning the post, I was reduced to chronic weeping for the next three days. These are some of the unfortunate things that happen behind the scenes here at Return of the Reluctant. I wish I could tell you more about the blood, sweat and tears. But that might be as unfortunately earnest as Foer’s emails were to Solomon.

However, I’m troubled by Mark’s suggestion that making fun of literary figures involves bitterness or his further insinuation that certain people are off limits. Particularly in an age when television that people pay for is being seriously considered as “indecent” and people are being placed on no-fly lists simply because they venture an opinion. I should remind Mark that taking the piss out of someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you despise them. Any good humorist knows this. Beyond this, appreciation or condemnation of another person’s contributions to letters is hardly a black-and-white issue. (To offer a personal example, while I’m not exactly a fan of Dave Eggers’ writing or the way he exploits his volunteers, I nevertheless commend what he’s done with 826 Valencia and have been nothing less than nuts about the comics issue of McSweeney’s, along with the two Chabon-edited anthologies.)

Like any redblooded American, I too read and enjoyed Everything is Illuminated. Even saw the guy when he came out to A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books years ago. Seemed nice enough. He was mobbed by youngsters who couldn’t scrape up the dough for the hardcover. And when Foer replied on these pages that he had given his PEN money to people who needed it, I was quick to commend him. As was Poets & Writers.

But there’s a fundamental difference between a writer’s life and the work he puts out. At issue here was Foer’s behavior, which seemed out of step with the privileged life he led that many of us writing in the skids dream about. Not his books.

If Philip Roth had decided to do something as manic and desperate, then, as much as I love Roth’s books and as crazy as I am about The Plot Against America, I would have mocked him to the high heavens. Not because I have anything personal against Roth, but because it helps to communicate to the world that writers are hardly the flawless beacons that the press and the literary community (including the litblogs) make them out to be. Truth be told, the publishing industry is nuts. That can’t be stated enough. In Foer’s case, they have given a young man ridiculous sums of money in the hope that he’ll become an instant literary superstar and, like J.T. Leroy, speak to the next generation of readers and hopefully sell boatloads of books.

I don’t envy Foer’s position or the pressure he has with this new book at all. If anything good came out of all this, it was a greater understanding that Foer’s just as fucked up as the rest of us. Raw talent often is.

But Foer’s also a smart guy. And anyone even remotely familiar with the Sunday New York Times, who has even leafed through the magazine at some point, is aware of Solomon’s tactics. He did something foolish and let himself get set up. And 150 e-mails to a reporter (many of them thousands of words) is, even from a twentysomething, a tad obsessive.

Further, there’s a fundamental difference between mocking and outright loathing. I don’t think that any of the people out there actually hate Foer or that he is being “punished,” as Mark puts it. Foer is not Raskolnikov. People are reacting the same way that they responded to Gerald Ford when he said that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. For Christ’s sake, we did the same thing to Franzen.

But for what it’s worth, I’m rooting for him too.


  1. For what it’s worth I wasn’t really referring to your post, which did strike me more as a Solomon dig than a JSF dig. And I don’t think anyone can suggest that I’m not all for taking the piss out of the deserving. But there’s been a level of real viciousness in the attacks on JSF – they’re not all the essentially good natured digs of RotR – and I’ve actually spoken to folks who have professed a visceral loathing (“loathing” is a word that’s used quite a bit) of the guy. So it seemed time to urge some people (again, not RotR) to chill the fuck out.

    Pissing in the wind …a TEV specialty …

  2. And I should point out that, disagreements aside, I still happen to think that Mark Sarvas is the sexiest litblogger in Los Angeles.

  3. If anything, Franzen offers definitive proof that I can mercilessly mock an author and still believe he is a stunning literary talent.

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