Controversy and Craft: On Dave Eggers, Part 3

by K.M. Zahrt

This is the third installment of a four-part series on Dave Eggers.

This past December, Dave Eggers, seemingly at random, became the “sensation of the literary Internet,” as Malcolm Gladwell put it. Gladwell was responding to a Gawker article titled “On Smarm” by Tom Scocca, in which Scocca claims that Eggers represents a cultural attitude he calls smarm: “What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance — an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance.” Scocca adds, “Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.”

This begs the question: How can one be nice, be positive, be a value-added member of a community without being smarmy? What’s the difference? By Scocca’s definition of “smarm,” the niceness must lack substance, be artificial, exist only to deflect criticism. So, Gladwell (also cited by Scocca as a purveyor of smarm), what do you say to that? Gladwell responds with his own article posted to Page-Turner, a blog “on books and the writing life” by The New Yorker: “When [Eggers] was unhappy with the publishing world, he went out and started his own publishing company. When he thought that disadvantaged children needed better educational opportunities, he founded two nonprofits” (par. 12). That’s a lot of substance. That’s an impressive amount of putting your money and your actions where your mouth is.

Scocca criticizes Eggers for stating that one should “not dismiss a book until you have written one” when it was suggested that Eggers was a “sellout” for accepting “$12,000 payment for a single article” (par. 20). What I think Eggers was trying to illustrate was that someone who has established a writing career would understand that the $12,000 is not only payment for a single article, but also payment for countless hours of unpaid labor accrued while developing a craft, establishing a reputation, and building an audience. It might seem like all of that appears out of thin air to an outsider, but it doesn’t. And that $12,000 comes nowhere near squaring the balance. That’s something the common critic is unlikely to understand.

However, this isn’t intended to be a defense of Eggers, because I’m not convinced a defense is necessary. If I was inclined to defend him against Scocca’s snark (to use his own terminology), my defense would only be labeled by Scocca and the like as a product of Eggers’ smarm and, therefore, would begin a song that would never end. But, it’s hard to avoid nodding my head when Gladwell makes his case: “When [Eggers] tells students that they ought to aspire to a primary relationship to art — to put more energy into making art than into denigrating the art of others — he is speaking from the heart. You have to be running pretty low on ammunition to look at someone like that and call him full of shit” (par. 12).

Revisit Part 1 and Part 2 of this series and join us next week for the forth and final installment. We’ll take a look a closer look at Dave Eggers’ latest novel.

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