The Unexamined Life
By 2052, according to a recent study, more books will be published in a year than readers will exist to buy and enjoy them. That's taking into account books published by print-on-demand companies--digital printing that produces a bound volume in minutes. Experience bears that out. Among people I don't think of as novelists, nonfiction writers or memoirists, very few of them are not busily writing novels, nonfiction books or memoirs. One of the open secrets of literary life is that it's easier to get a book deal for a first novel, or for a work of nonfiction, than it is to get a short story or an article published in a serious magazine. This is because book publishing now revolves less around the book itself than around the marketability of the author--physical appearance; ethnicity, race, religion or sexuality; media or social connections--while serious magazine publishing, for all of its shortcomings, is still about writing. To a large degree, writing a book has become just another form of producing and selling, another project of the entrepreneurial or egotistical American self. That makes most books being published social, not cultural, events. They are the type of calculating, transactional social occasions that authentic cultural events sublimate into clarifying expression. These simulated books should be reported and investigated in the national news sections of newspapers, not reviewed in their culture pages. But American literary criticism, in its blindness to the advent of the simulated book--namely, to the broad context that produces these new modes of expedience--is about twenty years behind American publishing.
And for good reason. To take one recent example, how do you critically approach Oh the Glory of It All, a "book" that is, for one thing, less a book than a very long e-mail? E-mail's conversion of casual conversation into writing--you chat with your fingers rather than try to organize your thoughts into words--is slowly phasing out writing as a formal mode of reflection, to the point that soon we won't expect writing to have irony or different levels of meaning any more than we expect casual conversation to have a meticulously crafted structure. The discipline of arduously thinking your way into words has given way to the indulgence of going on, and on, and on as a substitute for thinking. When Edmund Wilson said that the typewriter had changed American writing, he didn't know the half of it.
What does a critic do with Sean Wilsey's vulnerable, aching, unresolved memoir of growing up rich, empty and unloved amid San Francisco's high society, an account that is more like a spontaneous, unedited private unburdening than a real book meant to be read by other people? Wilsey's father was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who left Wilsey's mother--a socialite and society columnist--for her best friend, also a glittering hostess, and a very rich woman herself. Wilsey, currently an editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's, writes his memoir in a tone of self-deprecating sincerity that verges on irony but self-consciously resists it; he details his wayward youth, his problems adjusting to his shifting family circumstances and to various social situations, concluding with what he calls his "redemption" at a special school for troubled kids in Italy. Yet the sweet, hapless, beleaguered manner hides a simmering passive-aggressive anger, through whose hidden injuries emerge portraits of Wilsey's father as a narcissistic philanderer, his mother as a narcissistic fantasist with something like a Gandhi complex and his stepmother as a cross between Joan Crawford and Lizzie Borden. Yet the sweetly self-presenting author seems unaware of his passive-aggressive poison--the reader apprehends the toxic vapors behind Wilsey's back, as it were. Oh the Glory of It All seems to have been written by an unreflective person, which is the literary equivalent of being a color-blind painter.
Wilsey does acknowledge his book's undigested quality, unaware that in doing so he's confirming the very charge of being unliterarily wrapped up in himself that he's trying to deflect: "A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are." In fact, a memoir written so that the memoirist can figure himself out is not meant to be read by anyone besides the author, with the exception of people who either love him or have a professional obligation to help him. If you do happen to pick up such a book, you will be eavesdropping, not reading; you will be in the odd position of having to make sense of experiences that the author hasn't made sense of for himself. If you happen to dislike such a book, you will be in the uncomfortable position of passing judgment on the writer, rather than on his creation. You will be delivering an insult, not making a criticism. Who wants to do that?