Lit Snit

As I ponder career paths not taken, I often cast a jaundiced eye at Novelist and Journalist, desperate for the slightest whiff of grapes gone off.  Inevitably (and—these days—rather quickly) I turn to the field of literary criticism, where both vocations converge at their simultaneous extremes of gnawingly attractive hipness and appallingly juvenile pettiness.  In short, it’s a junior-high school crush.

Like everyone else, I read (way) more book reviews than books, and I occasionally feel bad about it.  For me, reading literary criticism without having read much literature is the cultural equivalent of flossing; a Sisyphean task that feels so good because it hurts so much.  If Catholics receive absolution by going to confession and Protestants by going to the dentist, I get it by reading The New York Review of Books.

If I am driven to read lit crit by cultural and vocational insecurities, I often come away from it feeling the self-loathing that comes from following too closely the antics of the House of Windsor: Are the dramas of these fundamentally alien people truly relevant to my existence?  Having neither lived in New York nor read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I am confronted with the sensation of being disqualified to comment on the writings of these people, yet I want to share their (apparent) conviction that Literature Matters. I’ve followed the work of Ana Marie Cox since her days at Suck, when the novelty of Internet publishing obscured the inconvenient reality that longevity as an online writer probably required some degree of meatspace proximity to actual culture or reporting.  Cox has recently held a brief as gadfly for The Believer’s Snarkwatch, and a mission of her blog (currently guest-hosted but nonetheless on-message) has been to question the tenet of The Believer (and, by implication, of Believer-founder Eggers) that contemporary literary criticism (and, one supposes, literature) is unhelpfully fraught with "snarkiness."  I’m trying (believe me) to get worked up about this, particularly because I’ve read at least of couple of the books mentioned and the thread seems open to laypersons.  Then Clive James (who?) shows up in the New York Times with a Jon Stewart.

The tragic thing is, I actually read "Measuring the Jump" (it being A Browfurrowing Work of Reassuring Brevity).  Having been exposed to both plauditory and snarky discussions of Eggers, I restrained every instinct to judge, lest I find myself too directly influenced by the opinions of others.  Of course, this disaffected inability to judge is (reportedly) Eggers’s stock in trade, so I began to wonder if I weren’t having an "authentic" reaction to Eggers’s prose after all.  In the end, I despaired of my patience.  It was only seven magazine pages long; how could I slog through 496 paperback pages?  I lost it after the protagonist Fish recalls being scammed for twenty bucks:

The thing is, Fish had just wanted to help the guy. He spent that first day thinking he had helped the man, believing in the community of souls, in Daly City or anywhere, and then that man took it away. He reached inside Fish and took that from him.
Not that I take Eggers at face value here.  I just can’t imagine any level of irony (or snark) that would countenance such whining, even for a New York minute.

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