The Literary Collective Herd

Travis Nichols may not be able to tell the difference between a novel and a memoir (re: Heartbreaking), but I think he nails a major flaw in Dave Eggers: “[B]y telling Deng’s story in the identifiable manner of Team America, Eggers strips him of some of his Otherness in a way that leaves us asking: Can we feel charitable only toward people whose stories seem like our own? And if so, are we more interested in helping other people, or in flattering ourselves?”

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong in telling a story in an accessible manner. I think there’s room for both baroque literary endeavors and books that function as “page-turners.”* But I do object to the idea that when one reads a book and one likes it, one immediately joins a team of unquestioning acolytes (the “Us” team that Nichols suggests in his first paragraph). This is quite possibly my only major objection to the Litblog Co-Op. The current atmosphere of championing books is a good one, but it sometimes leaves little room for points of contention or spirited (yet amicable) debate about a book’s flaws. I feel that my own enthusiasm has contributed somewhat to this atmosphere, and I have tried to offset this partisanship somewhat with my interviews, where I often ask challenging questions of the authors (even when I greatly admire the work in question).

In the case of Dave Eggers, however, I suspect this collective herd mentality is even more egregious. Where the LBC’s boosterism is in some ways accidental, Eggers has styled a more deliberately programmed “Us vs. Them” mentality. Eggers has consistently boasted about how all the What is the What sales will go to Valentino Achak Deng’s charitable foundation, and it’s a bit like observing a little boy constantly tugging on his mother’s sleeve every time he does a good deed. But I think Eggers, much like Eddie Vedder before him with Tibet, is attempting to set an example and act like a leader in which his followers act upon the same impulses. This is all fantastic if you are naive enough to believe that humans will understand goodness entirely by mimicry, but the problem with this approach is that I don’t think this allows the McSweeney’s acolytes to think actively and intricately about the Sudan situation on their own. It assumes, like a liberal attending a protest against Iraq greeted by pro-Palestine supporters who immediately assume that the liberal is on their side, that the person is on board completely for the cause. But skepticism, particularly when applied to one’s belief system, is a very important part of being a good thinker and, as such, a very important part of being a good reader.

If What is the What was written with all this in mind, then I’m wondering if this decreases the book’s literary worth. The collective mentality didn’t work well for Bolshevism and it certainly doesn’t work well for literature. (Witness for example how well the One Book, One City campaigns have done.) And it seems possible to me that some of the people cradling What is the What on the subway are doing so with the same eager zeal in which others have clutched Mao’s Little Red Book.

* A brief aside: I should note that I disagree with Jeff VanderMeer when he suggests that paragraphs used “merely to advance the story” are poorly constructed. Sometimes, a paragraph must bristle with nothing but emotional life. Consider, for example, Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing: a novel in which nearly every paragraph is used to advance the story. If Huston had paused to embed what VanderMeer identifies as “intellectual life” within his paragraphs, then the book’s hard visceral thrust would have been lost. The protagonist’s spiral into the underworld must occur in a kind of half-formed, miasmal universe where both the protagonist and the reader don’t have a clue as to how the protagonist got there. Sometimes, fiction operating on pure emotion is the best mode with which to affect a mood. Small wonder then that “page-turners” are often dismissed by literary types because a term like “intellectual life” is more valued than an author’s ability to advance the story and thereby evoke mood in a way that books which concern themselves exclusively with “intellectual life” (Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle comes to mind) are sometimes incapable of.

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7 Comments

  1. “Eggers has consistently boasted about how all the What is the What sales will go to Valentino Achak Deng’s charitable foundation, and it’s a bit like observing a little boy constantly tugging on his mother’s sleeve every time he does a good deed.”

    probably that kind of thinking, ‘mother’s sleeve,’ has origins in your own head, since the most obvious and concurrent with, and most relevant (if you want to help people, if that’s your meaning in life), even, explanation to why eggers’ stresses the charity is that it will sell more books and create more awareness of charity, that someone powerful is involved in charity, both of which are things that will help people more

    i’m really tired of literary bloggers who just attack everything meanheartedly, even if it is george bush; it’s really tiring and unhelpful and vacuous, like watching TV, the goal seems to be to attack ‘what is bad’ instead of looking at facts or ‘trying to befriend what is bad’

    i don’t know

  2. also eggers believes he is doing good in the world, if you are a person who can look at your actions and believe that you are being good, you are reducing pain and suffering, then you do not feel any guilt in promoting yourself, so that you can get more money and do more good things, i guess

  3. I think it’s important to point out that I was talking about short stories, not novels. I also don’t see how this makes any sense at all:

    “I should note that I disagree with Jeff VanderMeer when he suggests that paragraphs used ‘merely to advance the story’ are poorly constructed. Sometimes, a paragraph must bristle with nothing but emotional life.”

    Not to seem cantankerous toward the well-respected BS, but “merely to advance the story” is not synonymous with bristling “with nothing but emotional life.”

    My point was simply that in many *short stories* that are not attempting to be breathless noir or whatever, the writers are being careless or sloppy or not taking advantage of opportunities.

    Nor is there *any* reason why you cannot have “emotional life” and some sort of intellectual resonance in the same story, nay in the same paragraph. Nor am I suggesting airless, skeletal intellectual rigor at the expense of emotion. Nothing in my post suggests that.

    In short, I think you’ve skimmed my post, not read it, and I demand satisfaction, sir.

    Swords or muskets at dawn, your choice, Noble BS.

    Cheers,

    JeffV

  4. Tao: Stalin and Pol Pot also thought they were doing good in the world. One person’s good does not automatically generate good and can in fact generate much bad. The point I am making about Eggers is that much of his succor is promotional in nature, in sharp contrast to the silent altruism of simply helping someone without any quid pro quo. Simply because one wants to be kind and put out good.

    Jeff: Thanks for clarifying your position. The heading of your list read “Inability to construct a solid paragraph,” which led me to believe that the complaints you lodged represented paragraphs that were less than solid. And in terms of “advancing the story,” I’m referring to this sentence in your post:

    “Instead of recognizing that sentences and paragraphs can do triple or quadruple duty, the writers are using them merely to advance the story.”

    So after reading this (and the other parameters you set), I inferred this to mean that paragraphs functioning as unequivocal textual units, solely to advance a story forward, represented an “inability to construct a solid paragraph.” Thus, the dichotomy that formed in my mind.

    If you want to get into short stories, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” employs banal sentences like “He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment.” to convey the dull mood that Mitty resides in when not immersed within his imagination. There is only one way that this sentence can be read: a declaration of Mitty’s doldrums. Perhaps you can make the case for “intellectual life” with the unnecessary “shocked” before “astonishment” — a deliberate oxymoron. But otherwise this is pure emotion which generates mood. And it works just fine on ONE level.

    I suspect we probably agree more than we disagree, but perhaps you might want to articulate what you mean by “intellectual life.”

    As for Mr. Segundo, he’ll take up your request if he can, although he will likely be plastered to the floor of his Motel 6 room!

  5. Ed, a great, visceral page-turner with intellectual and emotional impact that I read this year is a new Oz writer’s first book, The Pilo Family Circus – author Will Elliot. I think you might enjoy it if you can get hold of it (try an Oz online bookshop, Readings or Dymocks.)
    Agree, one makes one’s own judgements free of the madding crowd – very important.
    I didn’t review Elliot’s book on my blog as it was one of my first freelance reviewing gigs. Nice piece in LA Times, BTW.

  6. i disown my comments. i had a headache.

    still, the more a charitable organization promotes itself the more ‘good’ it can do, because the more ‘money’ it will have; perhaps eggers’ is thinking that

  7. If Eggers goal is to bring attention to and alleviate the problems in Sudan isn’t promotion the A-1 requirement of the effort? What is the quid pro quo? More attention for Eggers? Isn’t it possible that Eggers (or Bono, or George Clooney, or the Jolie/Pitts, or Oprah or any higher profile type) does all kinds of acts of “silent altruism” but you and I don’t know it because it’s silent?

    I have no doubt the dude likes his share of attention and approval. That whole first memoir thing is a story about someone who is dying to be recognized (either for his suffering or his achievements). At least he’s channeling that into something that seems to me objectively good.

    I also don’t know about this “us” v. “them” dichotomy. In any situation like this, it always seems like it’s the “them” (those who feel like they’re on the outside) who exclaim the existence of the “us” the insiders, but upon examination, it seems to be mostly projection from the “them” side.

    Have you read What is the What? I have to say, I’m intrigued by all the positive reviews, though I wish they talked more about the book and less about the cause. But it’s impossible to get a copy.

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