I suspect that it’s difficult for critics to assess “charity lit” as honestly as they ought to. I’m referring to books like Nick Hornby’s Speaking with the Angel, Dave Eggers’s What Is the What, and now Zadie Smith’s The Book of Other People, which benefit autism research, Sudanese refugees, and children’s literacy, respectively. I’ve heard good things about the first and have written good things about the second, despite a dislike of Eggers that I’ve cultivated like a Venus flytrap for just about a decade. Three’s a trend, however, and that trend may suggest that young writers are afraid to meet readers on their own terms, without hiding in the warm glow of good intentions.
Each time this gang produces new material, the result asymptotically approaches a flawless and devastating self-parody. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Smith’s new anthology—which includes “well-known writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, and Nick Hornby”—is more enthusiastic than one might hope, but at least it’s forthright: “All the stories in this lively collection are portraits, mainly of human beings, though a monster with an identity crisis, a giant in search of love and a puppy in need of a home put in appearances as well.”
Pace John Gardner’s Grendel, Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien, and, er, John Grogan’s Marley and Me, Kakutani couldn’t have lit upon three better examples of the oddly childish preoccupations of this generation of writers. I don’t mean that I expect the stories themselves to be childish, but I won’t be surprised if many of them evince the sort of eccentricity-on-autopilot that characterizes many of these writers, talented though they may be. (Eggers wrote the “giant” story, by the way, having already done the “puppy” thing in a different book; come to think of it, though, he’s also already done the giant thing, too. Are these guys working from writing prompts?)
This review from Spiked Online is less generous than Kakutani’s, and hints at a problem: The clubbiness and congeniality of writing for a “good cause” can discourage judgment and encourage less than challenging, if not downright frivolous, material. When the “good cause” becomes literature itself—”saving the short story” or “getting people excited about reading again,” expect taste and artistry to go right out the window.