The Meanness Racket

Hi Writers,
I try to be a nice person, to use my inside voice, to not get caught up in another person’s meanness. But every once in a while I read something that brings out the lioness in me and makes me want to grab a person with my teeth and drag him to a place he can’t get Internet access.
    The latest piece that has me furious ran this week in The New Republic, “The Niceness Racket” written by a nasty little man named Lee Siegel (I don’t know if he’s actually little; I use the term metaphorically).
    In case you can’t read the piece, here’s an excerpt from his long essay/rant/critique about Dave Eggers and his latest book, the story of an African refugee, What is the What.

“In Eggers’s hands, the survivor’s voice does not survive.
    Where is the dignity in that? How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself—and then call it an autobiography. It is just one more instance of the accelerating mash-up of truth and falsehood in the culture, which mirrors and—who knows?—maybe even enables the manipulation of truth in politics.
    And Eggers’s book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What’s innocent expropriation of another man’s identity is a post-colonial arrogance—the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people’s stories the way we need other people’s oil.”

    I’m aware there’s a long, well-established history of literary criticism and that critics are necessary in the way bacteria is necessary for an otherwise healthy organism. But shouldn’t a critique focus on the literary work in question and not devolve into a character assassination of its author?
    It so happens that I’m in the midst editing a feature for the August issue of Writer’s Digest, on Eggers and Deng’s collaboration for What is the What.
    Siegel implies that Eggers is a cultural parasite, who, lacking an interesting story of his own, leeched onto African refugee Valentino Achak Deng. This is far from the case. Eggers was contacted four years ago by Mary Williams (Jane Fonda’s daughter and founder of the Lost Boys Foundation), to write Deng’s story.

Here an excerpt from our interview, written by Mary Curran-Hackett:

    “Williams formed the foundation to make sure the Lost Boys—by then, young Sudanese men—found jobs, apartments, and mentors who could support and guide them in their new American lives. Having read about Eggers—who lost both of his parents as a teenager—Williams sought Eggers out as a mentor who could help Deng write about the life he and his friends had endured in Sudan.
    “Deng recalls first meeting Eggers and explaining his desire to write a book. “I remember that when Dave came to Atlanta, I said to him, ‘I know I have limited English words. If there is any way you can understand my feelings and how I’m telling the story it’s fine. The best way you can tell the story is all I want.’
    Eggers agreed to help. At first the plan was for Deng to record his story orally, prompted by Eggers’ questions, and then Eggers would work the interview into a nonfiction narrative. But after hundreds of hours of taped conversations, Eggers was coming up empty on how to write it. “I have to say, it was just an unhappy time for about a year and half, while trying to figure out how to tell this well and how to tell it correctly.”

Eggers spent several years with Deng recording hundreds of hours of interviews, sending each chapter to Deng for feedback as he was writing:

And what’s Deng’s take on all this? Here’s a direct quote from him:

“There wasn’t a single moment I found anything I didn’t like. I asked Dave, ‘How are you able to feel it?’ ”
I realize this is the second time I’ve had to pick on The New Republic, but I can’t help it—they really do ask for it. So here’s my questions to you: Does The New Republic hate writers? And shouldn’t a critique focus on the work—not the author?

Until next time…

Keep Writing,
P.S. See, I didn’t even mention Stephen Glass. That would have been a low blow. 

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3 thoughts on “The Meanness Racket

  1. Kevin Alexander

    I like The New Republic and have a subscription (shameless plug for my intellectualism), but, as it turns out, they do appear to hate authors.
    But what really angers me about this is that here is a guy–Eggers– who seems like he constantly strives to push the literary envelope, to try out new things, new literary styles, shapes, forms, etc, that aren’t usually explored (his memoir pushed the envelope, (and, it should be pointed out, had the necessary warnings and cautionary explanations of the fictional parts that fabulists like James Frey did not, McSweeney’s did as well in creating a new, edgy, literary player in the lit magazine scene, he does quality work for literacy in the Bay area, etc) and he is excoriated by this smug, little man who uses a pseudo-intellectual, high road cop-out ("he’s an American using an African’s story, which obviously has to be wrong bc of the dynamics of the countries and how dare he have the audacity to think about or even attempt to get in this man’s head and write about his experiences") without giving any specifics in the content. He seems so blinded by his anger about Egger’s telling someone else’s story that he has lost his ability to do what he’s allegedly supposed to do: critique the book. And excuse me but what the f*ck do writer’s do other than try and take ours or other people’s stories and weave them into something coherent and manageable and entertaining? Is that not in the job description? And, finally, why am I so angry about this? Something from my childhood, maybe? Either way, I’m done. I’m going to go take a shower and calm down.

  2. JohnOBX

    Hi Maria,

    I’m with you on this about 95%. The only times I can see it proper and perhaps necessary for a critic to bring the author into the criticism of the book is if the author injects himself or his personal views. I doubt this is the case with "What is the What" but you could see where instances might arise where this could be an issue. If, for example, Karl Rove wrote a novel about the greatness of the Bush Administration, one might need to question the bias of Mr. Rove and certain views he holds.

    However, I do agree nastiness does not need to be a part of any critical discussion of a literary work. Honesty should not be confused with brutality, though I think it is okay to be brutally honest.



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