Your Words Have Iron in Them
I never paid attention to commercial writing. It said nothing to me about who I was or how to survive in this bullshit factory. But in the last ten years, I’ve noticed a blurring of the lines.
Mainstream writers who don’t say risky things or take important stands have begun to promote themselves as anti-establishment. Palatable authors who write for commercial success, and get all the perks, money, and awards associated with it, have begun to market themselves as questioners of the status quo. Neurotically well-adjusted writers who say little of importance and offend no one, have begun to present themselves as taking on The Man. Much like everything else in our society that has been coopted and gentrified by the wealthy, there are rich and famous writers out there who have coopted and gentrified the literary subculture.
Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, for example, aren’t badass American authors bringing back truths from the front lines of the lower-class condition. They’re clever scribes who provide entertainment for the establishment. I never thought about Chabon until I came across Mysteries of Pittsburgh at the library. It called out to me like a laser. First, I’m a huge Steelers fan. Second, the title was obviously taken—unless it’s the greatest coincidence in literary history—from one of my favorite socialist novels about the lower classes written in the 1840s called Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue. Mysteries of Paris was revered for its realistic portrayal of the poor and given credit for helping set the stage for the workers’ revolt against the monarchy in 1848. Mysteries of Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is an MFA-written, sheltered, insulated fantasy about how us poor, white, drugged-out trash actually live. I don’t know what bikers Chabon has ever hung out with, but the bikers I knew never dated debutantes and sat around talking about art and love. The bikers I knew carried around ice picks and sold meth. Chabon coopted a novel that set off an uprising and turned it into a suburban housewife’s dream about a bad boy. He even repackaged the 80s punk scene as a dance hall for violin-playing rich chicks. Chabon is the guy who built the multi-million dollar lofts on top of CBGB’s.
To be fair to this award-winning writer, I went to go check out his other books, but wasn’t really interested in reading about life on the dangerous front lines of an MFA program, Wonder Boys. Or another fantasy about grown men who read comic books and dream of superheroes published during the nightmare of the Bush administration, Kavalier and Clay.
Jonathan Lethem also likes comic books and superheroes. Evidently, they’re the best way to fight gentrification and displacement of the poor in Brooklyn. But, other than an overeducated yuppie moving into a live-work space on the Gowanus Canal, who could understand the self-referential nods, hip references, self-absorbed sentence structures, adjectives, adverbs, and art school changes in voice narration of that edgy novel, Fortress of Solitude? For a writer who claims to stand tall against the gentrifiers, he sure as hell seems to write for them. Call me crazy, but I don’t picture the Blacks and Puerto Ricans who are losing their apartments to rich people in Brooklyn passing around Lethem for clues about how to fight the system. But I do picture the rich people who are kicking out the Blacks and PRs showing off his books on their rainforest-gutting mahogany bookshelves as they give the tour of the townhouse before the dinner party.
In hundreds of articles and promotional materials, Lethem has marketed himself as the arch-enemy of commodification, when he’s actually one of its biggest fans. Outside of the fact that his novels are virtual catalogues for consumer culture, the best example of his double-dealing comes in a Harper’s essay a few years ago—“The Ecstasy of Influence”—where he portrays himself as taking on intellectual property and control. He opens the essay with a grandiose quote from John Donne: All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a…blah blah blah blah…
And what’s Lethem’s personal battle plan for fighting against the suppression of art and ideas? He wants to give away film rights to a few of his short stories. You can’t beat this with a stick. He is coopting the radical egalitarian ideals of the anti-copyright movement to promote his own gig. He writes: “My reader may, understandably, be on the verge of crying, ‘Communist!’” Yeah, we think you’re a commie for trying to get your stories made into movies. Never mind that your novels are locked up in traditional copyright agreements with corporate publishers like Doubleday, which is owned by Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann—one of the largest media conglomerates in the world.
Let’s cut the b.s. and get down to brass tacks. Of all the problems on the planet, why am I putting my energy into what amounts to a lame academic spat? Because the anti-establishment literary subculture means EVERYTHING TO ME. Kerouac, Thompson, Bukowski, Selby—they kept me alive during hard times. I would have killed myself long ago if it wasn’t for their honesty. Real blood and guts writing from the bowels of the American condition is one of the only things that makes life worth living for me. And I’ll be damned if some bourgeois posers are going to use it to sell books and make themselves look cool. Call me bitter, jealous, angry, whatever you want—I don’t give a shit—this is where I make my stand. Moving forward…
I lived in San Francisco during the 90s. I don’t want to be the yahoo telling stories at the bar, so let’s just say that I was there. Really. Thick of the literary scene. And in thousands of hours of conversation with people who were living and dying for real writing, I never heard the name Dave Eggers or of Might Magazine.1 Accordingly, it’s been a little weird during these last few years to be told by the media every three–to–five minutes that he’s a hero of the subculture, who emerged from the San Francisco underground to become the voice of my generation. I don’t think it’s fair to characterize someone by using a first-person anecdote—although that’s what he does—so let’s get to the work.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the memoir that made Dave Eggers rich and famous. It takes place in SF and purports to tell us something about the DIY literary subculture. First, the story about his parents dying grabbed me. I come out of my own nightmare and it made me feel for the guy. But there we part ways because I don’t spend my time fretting about Judd the cartoonist on The Real World. It’s high school cheerleader shit. Does he like me, should I like him, I’m soooooo excited, but I don’t want to seem too excited because then he might not think I’m cool. Boiled down, it’s really not all that different from the monologues in Sex And The City. Yet, by putting it in the context of the DIY underground, he repackages this cheerleader stuff as the struggle for integrity and sincerity. This is nothing new. All posers try to present themselves as being real.
The problem, though—is that like a Gap ad or that Miracle Whip commercial where the kids are angry and edgy for mayonnaise—Eggers coopts the convictions and beliefs of the subculture to sell books to the mainstream. The dialogues where the two main characters are talking about starting a movement and taking on injustice are done with a yuppie wink that says don’t take this seriously, it’s all a joke. This is an epic sell-out to the mainstream, because it’s what they’ve always wanted to hear: that anti-establishment people really don’t believe in what they’re doing. That deep down, we all know we’re just a bunch of whiny kids playing around and waiting to grow up. Eggers is secretly trashing the subculture, which is why he’s so popular with the establishment.
I think you can tell most of what a writer is about by their first book, but before I wrote Eggers off as the poet laureate of posers I decided to check out another work that I figured would have to say something: How We Are Hungry… The only thing I’ll give him credit for is that to invoke the tragedy of hunger in a title in order to sell a meaningless short story collection, is something that I’m not sure even Madison Avenue would do. The repackaging of bullshit here is endless—and I’m not going to keep it going. Suffice it to say that the guy even tries to pawn off blank, empty pages as authenticity and integrity. Just to be masochistically thorough, I rented Away We Go—the movie he wrote about the most special couple in the history of the world. It’s so damn condescending that even the New York Times saw through it (see A.O. Scott’s review). But of course the hero of the subculture still tried to repackage this revealingly upper-class piece of shit as being bravely tied into the issues of our time. “This is written during the Bush era,” he told Rolling Stone. “When we were horrified on a national and parental level.” Heavy.
The Chabon-Lethem-Eggers industrial complex can coopt and gentrify the entire literary world for all I care. It’s all pretty lame and depressing anyway. But the one thing I won’t let happen is for them to claim the anti-establishment literary tradition that I love. Because if they claim that, then they claim me. And the last thing I want is for the aliens to come down here in 30 years after we’ve annihilated ourselves through overconsumption and global warming, find a Dave Eggers’ book, and use it to try and figure out who I was and how I lived. So, to you aliens: I want you to know that there were some of us who had bad attitudes, thought consumer capitalism was b.s., took real stands against the system, pissed off the bourgeoisie, got in fights, drank too much, spoke truth to power, and held our middle fingers up to a darkening sky.
1. In honor of Old Dave, we’ll drop a footnote here and say that I helped found a grassroots literary festival called Litstock, now Litquake, with writers of all kinds from every corner of the Bay Area. We sat around in bars for hours making lists of writers that we should contact—trying to get everybody. The name never came up once.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.