Dispatches | October 22, 2007

Mark Sarvas over at The Elegant Variation calls it “the essay heard ’round the blogosphere.” In the latest issue of The American Scholar, Melvin Jules Bukiet takes on writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Alice Sebold, and just about everything their books stand for:

Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness. … [But your] father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.

Back when the poetry wars were at their fever pitch, TMR would occasionally use magazine space to publish polemics on the state of the craft. It was a kind of public service, meant to provoke thought among the readership, or at least provide a mantelpiece for the gossip over who it was, exactly, that was going around and destroying all the damned art. These kinds of aesthetic discourses—academically speaking, the closest some writers come to brandishing a gun—have long since taken a backseat in the grand scheme of things, only sometimes raising their heads to snipe at things like workshop culture and the cruelly-coined “McStory.” Yet Bukiet’s polemic may be the early sign of a backlash against the new trend he stops just short of calling the culture of the cute. Bukiet asks: Is the new literature too fresh, too exuberant? Too unique?

Making us reply: is that even possible?

Challenging questions, and ones I believe will keep surfacing, as the debate has now extended beyond literature. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article Michael Hirschorn levels aim at Wes Anderson and Ira Glass, two giants in the wondrousness business, by accusing them of kitsch. “We’re drowning in quirk,” Hirshorn declares. The complaint: the new stuff is all flash, no thunder. Further accusations of superficiality over substance fly. Milan Kundera gets paraphrased with abandon. The kids are called self-indulgent. Oh, I forgot to mention—

“[Quirk] is the ruling sensibility of today’s Gen-X indie culture,” Hirschorn writes. “They’re young,” Bukiet corroborates.

Ah, yes; it’s the kids. The books under indictment—prominent contemporary works such as Everything is Illuminated and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—exude a certain joie de vivre so popular with young writers and young readers that at points it’s going to be hard to tell if all the opprobrium is legit lit criticism or just thinly veiled ageism. Are our young authors really not big enough sufferers? Should Chabon actually be channeling Dostoyevsky?

It will be interesting to see where the debate goes if it continues. Personally, I’m a big fan of the polemic, and since my friends love the very books Bukiet attacks, perhaps it’s high time we hoisted the black flag, spat on our hands, and burned all the Dostoyevsky.

Outraged? Maybe you should be.