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Pickle Me This

November 13, 2009

Sloppy Shorthand

This article in The Guardian was a bit weird. Now, usually I’m all down with not maligning women’s fiction, but popular fiction is popular fiction and Melissa Bank is not George Eliot, and I felt as though Harriet Evans was trying to tell me otherwise. But what Evans was trying to tell me is not the point here, rather that in her piece, she practices what I’ve come to call the sloppy shorthand of literary referencing.

She includes Dave Eggers in league with a number of other male writers who write “about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they’ve done, what a crazy nihilistic time they’re having in London / New York.” Now, I’ve not read the other writers she mentions, but then I don’t think Harriet Evans has read much Dave Eggers either.

Eggers does get tarred as something of a postmodern show-off by readers put off by his 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. To his credit, however, he wrote that book nearly a decade ago, and in the years since has created some terribly creative fiction and nonfiction (and has blurred boundaries between the two, and become a philanthropist, and written a movie I loved, and another that people are obsessed with, and countless other really amazing things, and he’s done them well and with genuine class). Also, I thought A Heartbreaking Work… was remarkable for numerous reasons.

All this to say that Dave Eggers is sloppy shorthand for a male writer with flimsy chops who appeals to an idiot public.

Similarly, Zadie Smith. In fact, one of the commenters on Evans’ pieces mentioned Smith, but that post has since been removed for being offensive. And there really is something about Zadie Smith that brings out offensive comments like no other writer since Margaret Atwood. Which is strange. Perhaps I can understand how a reader might not like White Teeth, for example, but I’m at a loss to explain how one wouldn’t be somewhat impressed by its construction. I thought it was a fantastic novel, and was similarly moved by On Beauty, and I’ve found Smith’s literary criticism to be the most compelling and fascinating I’ve read.

But it seems that Zadie Smith is sloppy shorthand for a girl writer who people like because she’s pretty.

Then, there’s Margaret Atwood, but I’ve talked about that before. Definitely Margaret Lawrence, who is unfairly derided by readers who weren’t old enough when they read The Stone Angel or The Diviners. I suppose we could even include Shakespeare on this list, as people who’ve read just one or two of his plays can hold the strongest opinions on his oeuvre.

And poor John Irving, of course, perpetually accused of an obsession with wrestling, weird sex and bears.

Anyone else?

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