The Ax and Pen of a Literary Critic

We know that the point of this New York Times Sunday Styles piece on N+1 editor and author Keith Gessen wasn't supposed to be about the fact that he is obsessed with checking his ranking. Though it's nice to know that even good-looking, 33-year-old Harvard graduates who live in Prospect Heights, helm their own literary magazine, and have a book out that's earned its fair share of praise and attention also have moments of paralyzing insecurity. Gessen told reporter David Itzkoff that more people who viewed the page for his first novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men, bought Sloane Crosley's best-selling essay collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake than they did his book. Oops!

After exposing Gessen in a way that will likely have a good portion of New York's literary circles snickering, Itzkoff veered off and got Gessen to talk about themes and issues in publishing that we've been pissed off about for awhile now. We applaud the fact that Gessen is trying to taking risks with his magazine. At first we didn't think his novel sounded very risky at all. The very mention of it bored us. Then we read this:
The book is also a further unpacking of Mr. Gessen’s personal philosophy on the proper function of the novel: to hold up an honest mirror to society, no matter how frivolous and unserious that society may be. Young people in big cities like New York, Mr. Gessen said: “are willing to acknowledge that they’re a class only ironically. So they’ll have their ironic kickball games. Their ironic magazines.”
And that struck home. Immediately, we remembered how risky we thought Diane Vadino's Smart Girls Like Me was (incidentally, she was part of the whole McSweeney's crew). Vadino was inspired by her own situation, and the lifestyles of young, middle-class urban youth as she lived it. We believe it really is important to hold up an "honest mirror," and when elder critics get up on the soapbox screaming about how terrible it is to write about such non-serious subjects, we want to laugh. So while we admit we were bored with the idea of All The Sad Young Literary Men, we have given ourselves a proverbial slap on the wrist for skipping to the same ridiculous conclusion. The piece continues:
 “They’re willing to have the privileges of their class,” Mr. Gessen added, “to go to a good college, and be subsidized in their New York lives by their parents, but maybe not willing to be written about.”

The result, Mr. Gessen said, is that the everyday lives of young urban adults are no longer considered appropriate subjects for ambitious novels.

That last bit is what drives this whole notion forward. It's so easy for people to write off a good book simply because its subject matter isn't considered "appropriate" for "ambitious" novels. Isn't that what makes writing one of them, and making it good, such a huge coup, and such a worthy challenge?

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