Writing in the Observer, freelance world-critic Choire Sicha* takes on “today’s malformed, self-centered boy-writers,” who, he says, “are friendly. And ambitious and ashamed of ambition.” According to Sicha, writers like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dana Vachon, Joshua Ferris, Jeff Hobbs, Keith Gessen, Charles Bock and Christopher Hitchens deserve our pity because, coming up in the shadow of lady-writers they’ll never surpass like Renata Adler and Edna O’Brien and Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm and Ursula Le Guin, they just haven’t “figger[ed] out what to do.”
Also, they’re writing novels for the wrong reasons, and then deluding themselves about those reasons: “Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author. And they are bewildered, I think, because their bewilderment shows in books that try to understand class and economic conditions even as they are being happily further ensnared by them. Their books read as if this were the first time they’d ever thought of all this.”
These are both interesting theories. I have another one.
With the exception of Christopher Hitchens — well, unless you’re into that sort of thing — the “boy-writers” Sicha mentions and quasi-mentions (“Deep Springs” being understood here as code) are all youngish, photogenic-ish specimens. And while an insistence on the part of publishers that their debut authors be not only precocious and interestingly-backstoried but unusually capable of gazing soulfully into Marion Ettlinger’s (or whoever’s) lens is of course not entirely new, MAN has it gotten more pronounced in the last 10 or 15 years.
This insistence transcends gender. So it seems a bit unfair to be comparing these boy-writers to lady-authors whose careers were established long before headshots started routinely being enclosed with book proposals. Of course, all of those ladies were/are indisputably hotter than leprechauns and trolls like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, because women in public life have always been held to a higher baseline standard of physical attractiveness than men. But it’s still not fair to compare today’s boys to them. Instead, stack those boys against the Marisha Pessls and Nell Freudenbergers and Zadie Smiths and Jennifer Egans of the world, and a new argument forms.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes youth and beauty and talent actually do coincide! But can it really be possible that they’ve just begun coinciding a whole lot more lately? Well, no. So that’s why, in amongst the Egans and Ferrises, we’ve got dud avacados like Hobbs and (maybe, depends who you ask) Pessl.
Instead of worrying why boys can’t write, we should be thinking, again, of what we’re losing when we rush to publish novelists while their author photos still lack crows’-feet to photoshop. It’s unrealistic to think that we’ll ever revert to some pre-metrosexuality, pre-Styles-profile, probably-nonexistent golden age when book promotion was all about what was between the covers. But blaming boy writers for allowing our culture to begin to objectify them almost as much as it has always objectified lady-writers — lady-anythings, really — seems slightly unfair.
My argument presupposes that given more time, and a few more whacks with the ugly stick, boy-writers would learn to puzzle out “class and economic conditions” better. Would they? Will they? We can only guess, and wait.
*(Disclosure, applicable throughout: Whatever. Google me.)