The Unadulterated Soul of Dave Eggers

Writing in the Awl, Maria Bustillos describes how she did a bit of googling and discovered that the most hated contemporary American author, by a wide margin, is Dave Eggers. It might be more accurate to say, though, that Eggers is the contemporary American author who is most likely to attract the kind of Internet commenters who like to talk about things and people they hate. And all that really means is that Eggers is the biggest public figure in American letters. Public figures are the ones who get the anger. Of course Marisha Pessl only has one person actively hating her on the Internet—what’s the point in voicing your dislike for somebody whose name few would recognize?

Bustillos draws some interesting connections between Eggers and the artist Wyndham Lewis, and she lists a few reasons why you ought to like the guy. But there are two things she doesn’t do. For one, she doesn’t address what people are actually writing when they say they hate Eggers—which, on a quick scan, is mainly airy fulminating against the perceived hype that surrounds him and little commentary on the actual work he does. Some of it’s just petty jealousy: “I hate Dave Eggers because he’s like me, and he dared to become successful by being me,” as one blogger put it. At least Dennis Cooper Math T was mad at his actual writing [Update: Thanks to the reader who chimed in to explain that the comment on Eggers below comes not from Cooper but from a guest post from one of his blog’s regular commenters]:

I hate Dave Eggers. His style is totally unreadable to me. Every single sentence is annoying. I’ve disliked almost everything I’ve ever read in McSweeney’s, especially that JT LeRoy one in the Best-of anthology. I don’t like the fonts in which Eggers’ writing is printed. Also, William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, which McSweeney’s published, is SO incredibly boring.

Which starts getting at the second thing Bustillos doesn’t discuss in her essay: Eggers’ fiction. Her arguments for why you should praise Eggers have to do with his nonprofit work, his role as publisher of The Believer, and his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Nothing in the article and little in its 72 comments amounts to a defense of his fiction, which I gave up on after 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity and a couple of short stories. Eggers has sparked my class resentment in the past, so I may fall into the same camp of haters Bustillos describes. But is there any defense for the showy, trying-too-hard first sentence of Velocity?

Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River in east-central Colombia, with forty-two locals we hadn’t yet met.*

Flipping through the book again, it seems stuffed with generalization and overstatement, Eggers straining to build up a head of steam by applying Writing-with-a-capital-w over simple things like a glass of water:

In a small city full of banks we stopped for something to drink. Nattily dressed men at cafe tables nodded to us and we walked into a dark cool restaurant and at the takeout counter we bought oranges and sodas. The sunlight over the clerk’s shoulder was white and planed, and when he poured us glasses of water it was clearer than any water I’d ever seen. It was the unadulterated soul of the world.

But Bustillos wouldn’t have a blog post to write about if Eggers persisted as a fiction writer, because whatever the jealous haters on the Internet are jealous about, it’s not Velocity or How We Are Hungry or his novelization of Where the Wild Things Are; his esteem as an author is now almost wholly connected to his charitable efforts, his nonfiction efforts, and his screenplay work.** A lengthy piece on Eggers in this weekend’s Guardian focuses almost exclusively on Zeitoun his nonfiction book on a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and his quotes seem to suggest that, as a writer, he’s come to prefer working as a journalist:

“It is showing, not telling,” he says. “I just went back to all the things I learned in journalism school. There have been so many polemics about the war on terror, but [individual] stories illustrate these things much better. I’m interested in the human impact of the giant foot of misplaced government. After all, we encounter it every day. Every day.”

If Eggers has figured out where his talents and passions truly reside, and if they don’t involve writing novels, there’s nothing to hate about that.

* I’ve never edited fiction, but my inner Gordon Lish figures this sentence would be vastly improved if rewritten as, “Everything here takes place before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry.” Or just cut the sentence, because expressing an awareness of your own death at the very start of the story is pretentious, confusing, or both, and best as I recall mom, death, and the trip to Colombia have no bearing on the novel’s story.

** I’m a fan of last year’s Away We Go, though at the risk of seeming willfully contrarian I’m giving most of the credit to the screenplay’s co-author—Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida—because the movie seems designed to amplify the best qualities of her fiction: a laconic style, a sense of wanderlust, and a concern with what happens when difficult emotions don’t get expressed. Her Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was one of my favorite novels of 2007, and her forthcoming The Lovers is one of my favorites of the new year.

7 thoughts on “The Unadulterated Soul of Dave Eggers

  1. There’s a really nice piece on Eggers in the latest World Literature Today, in which the author argues that Eggers’ What is the What should be considered world lit. It’s a convincing argument, I think, and makes me want to read the book.

  2. “The sunlight over the clerk’s shoulder was white and planed, and when he poured us glasses of water it was clearer than any water I’d ever seen. It was the unadulterated soul of the world.”


  3. I had to read A Heartbreaking Work because some dilettante reader who had begun attending my reading group (and who subsequently left after he struck up a romance with one of the women there), had swallowed all the guff in the press and insisted that it was the book we had to have an opinion on. Because we all wanted to be nice to a newcomer, we agreed but I was already experiencing the dread that hype induces. And my instincts were proved horribly correct. People are right to hate Eggers because he is all enthusiasm and no discernment, because he mangles sentences, and because he is the non-readers idea of a writer.

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