Eugenides is Alive, so He Might As Well Act Like It

November 4, 2011 § 9 Comments

I still have not read the reviews for Eugenides The Marriage Plot.  I read the book happily, enjoying it, and then thought who I might give my copy to.  It’s very readable, but not great.

The first section, when the characters were at Brown studying literary theory, were too close yet comfortable. I was that girl, I went out with that boy. In the summer of my sophomore year, someone gave me a collection on semiotics, On Signs, and the next two years were all about post-structuralism and deconstruction. The only difference without a difference would be my slightly younger age, which meant Foucault was sprinkled all about my seminars and late night talks. Too bad Eugenides graduated earlier: Foucauldian puns would have made great fun. Plus, Foucault is cool because his adjective changes the “t” to the “d”

And then I did that thing: I kept on, going to graduate school in English, becoming a professor, writing overwrought articles on the death of the author. But enough about me and the similarities. They are many, and I spent many hours remembering my younger days while reading the novel.

I get what Eugenides is doing in this novel, and I like him for doing it. A conventional novel, the question of the suitor. But I wanted him to answer more questions than who Madeline would choose, or why David Foster Wallace struggled so with life. In the end, the novel lacks both gravitas and enough humor to offset its lightness. Were it written by a woman, it would be scuttled off to the “smart chick lit” shelf, where many people would read and enjoy the book but at which critics would not linger. Readable but not great.

But here’s the thing that most unsettles me about The Marriage Plot: the facebook post Eugenides wrote the other day.

Here it is:

So this is his pose? My publisher made this page? (i.e. “I’m not one of those pandering, pleading, social media-obsessed authors desperate for buyers”). I don’t usually do this stuff? (i.e. “I am an Author, important and mysterious.” ).


The author, ultimately, is beside the point?

That is a very Modernist pose. It undercuts your own novel. I get your Barthesian pose here, but for Barthes the point was that the reader makes meaning. And now your readers can talk to you about the meaning they made. You can ask them questions directly, they can ask you questions. A good semotician author should relish and exploit the new channels of communication between author and reader, not retreat.

This is my problem with the “Great Novelists” my age, the Franzen, Eugenides, Lethem crowd. They are stuck in an older model of authorship, of the writer/reader relationship, Throw away Barthes — who you are really following is the T. S. Eliot of the “Intentional Fallacy,” and who wants to do that?

Social media has changed literary authorship. The gap between writer and reader is narrrowing. Get on twitter (and without the “oh now I have to do this because the publicist is making me” pose). Get over yourself, and come into the fray. There is a new energy and charge amongst the small group of folks who know the names of the “Great Novelists” I name above. It is a small world. Most people don’t know your name. And posterity? Pffft. No one knows. You have all the critiques on canonicity anyway. So put that aside too. Forget the authorship models of the  past.

There is such a thing as a literary community, and to  assume it is dirty to join  (and self-righteously proclaim you have unhooked your computer from the internet) is a sign of your coming irrelevance. Enough with the absent/present pose (and enough with the domestic realist novels of love triangles, but that’s another post).

Excise the models of Great Novelists from your minds, boys, and you might find your writing invigorated. You might find yourself commenting on the world we live in today instead of writing about the insides of your head and your memories. Be more ambitious by lowering yourself into the fray.




§ 9 Responses to Eugenides is Alive, so He Might As Well Act Like It

  • Ann MG says:

    Side reaction: all his descriptions of how emotional the book tour has been are about other people’s emotions, not his own. The author is dead, indeed.

  • Anne Trubek says:

    Good point. I was also amused by the preface to his post, when the publisher tells us she is delighted “to share the following note sent from the author himself to his readers”

    The author himself!

  • What a bizarre disconnect. He talks about how meaningful his interactions with readers in real life are but totally discounts people who might reach out to him via social media. How very odd. Why just two weeks ago I left a comment on a reviewer’s blog post that caused her to completely re-evaluate her theory of the book she was reviewing – it wasn’t designed to do so, I was just mentioning what had made me wary of the novel and something I said made her rethink her entire thesis. Just, you know, the way discussions in seminar groups in English courses would do. 🙂

  • The author isn’t dead—he’s made of pixie dust & rainbows!

    So wise in post & comments, the pay-no-attention-to-the-creep-behind-the-curtain quality of ancien-regime author-making. Which is not to say that social-media authorship isn’t a wrought thing, too… only better wrought than reeking!

    I want an “awkward author photos” tumblr; this is such rich territory.

  • Anne Trubek says:

    True, social media authorship is perilous. But it’s more fun. Plus, ancien regime authorship sets itself up for fake twitter feeds of authorial clothes.

  • I’ve loved Eugenides for so long that The Marriage Plot felt like a serious letdown, both thematically and narratively.

    What’s even more disappointing is that it might be a DECADE before we see another Eugenides novel (seriously, he’s like the Terence Malick of books).

    My full review can be found here:

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