Dear Dave Eggers,
You and I have things to talk about. I read your book – you know, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – when I was still in high school. And it is pretty ballsy to name a book that, you know? And high schoolers are pretty judge-y. I was ready to judge. But you know what, it is a great fucking book. You are fucking good at writing books. It captured the self-absorption and self-destructiveness of our generation better than I thought anything could, and how sometimes you can love someone so much it feels like it is killing you, and how we live in a culture that consumes The Real World and revolutionary art with equal intensity and no sense of irony. That is a big deal! You did a wonderful thing! Using words to say things that have up until that point been impossible to articulate is the highest and best thing that any writer can aspire to. I really, genuinely admire that.
BUT, but but but, then you went and wrote What Is the What. Publishers Weekly described it as a “fictionalized memoir,” and basically you took the life of Valentino Achak Deng, who is a real-life Sudanese refugee from the incredible violence that took place there, and wrote his story for him. I understand why you did this, I really do. You are a huge literary presence and a famous name. You knew that his story needed to be told and you knew that if he told it no one would listen; you knew that if you told it instead, everyone would listen. That’s not a despicable observation to make, and obviously your intentions were good. But I still don’t think that makes it okay to have written this book. Because, bottom line, it wasn’t your story. It was Valentino Achak Deng’s. And all the reasons why you were able to make it heard and he wasn’t – because you’re American, you’re white, you’re privileged, you’re literary, you’re a public voice, you’re “important” – are the same reasons why I don’t think it was possible for you to do this in an entirely fair or ethical way. You have so much more social capital than Mr. Deng in this situation that there’s no way for his voice not to have been drowned out by yours, and for his life story not to be overshadowed by the story of the Heroic White Man who recorded it even though he had no personal investment in the matter. At least, that’s the story that I’ve heard everyone talking about. When it was over, this wasn’t really about Deng or about the Sudan anymore – as Publisher’s Weekly also said, “Eggers makes him an icon of globalization.” That isn’t your job, or your place. It’s not up to you go to making an icon of anyone, unless they’re you’re own character and you made them up. We spend a lot of time turning brown people who have survived violence in poor countries into icons of something or other, we white first-worlders, and I feel like this project was advertised as something different and more honest and important. But it’s not. There’s already so much of a sense that people in our demographic – literature-obsessed white academics – are hopelessly elitist and privileged and white and that couldn’t get beyond that if we wanted to, and I hate that you’re making that come true, or at least making it look that way. I don’t want this to be the record of how people like us reacted to the genocide in Darfur – co-opting it to write bestselling novels that don’t accurately represent the people they’re based on.
And also, besides what I think is the more important question of identity and principles, there’s this: as a writer myself (ahaha that was so pretentious!) I have my suspicions about this project. The facts of the matter are that you are an author with incredible skill at expressing nearly inexpressible pain and tragedy in words, at communicating the authentic experience of hurt in an astoundingly effective way. And you took it upon yourself to tell a story of some of the most ruthless and appalling violence in human history. I find it really hard to believe that you could undertake this project and not be tempted to add your own little literary flourishes, to edit the story in tiny and mostly unimportant ways to make it exactly the kind of beautiful and demanding and uncompromising and awful book you like to write. And if you did that – I’m not saying you did, but there’s no way to be sure you didn’t – it’s not really true anymore, is it? Not even in the kind of soft-focus Life Imitating Art way that you meant it to be true. That bothers me.
I know you’ve heard all this before; you are an educated and literary guy who knows about post-colonialism and white privilege and white guilt and white burden and I’m sure that cranky liberal arts majors just like me have said all these exact same things to you a million times because they don’t appreciate the way that you chose to make a difference in the world. I’m basically just writing because of this: I was in a bookstore yesterday, and I saw a copy of your new book, Zeitoun. The synopsis bills it as “the story of one man’s experience after Hurricane Katrina… Eggers draws an indelible picture of Bush-era crisis management.” The “one man” is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, someone who stays behind in New Orleans to take care of his family. I wanted to read this book so bad, Dave Eggers. I feel like Hurricane Katrina was such a fucking important thing to have happened in my lifetime and my home and my country, and I feel like I understand it so little. And I process so much of the world around me by experiencing it in fiction, and I love your writing. But at the same time, I really didn’t want to read this book, because I feel like I can’t trust you to tell these kinds of stories anymore. I want to, but I don’t. There is a kind of truth about the world that you get by reading fiction: truths about how people feel and think and love each other and what we are like in our deepest selves, and you can uncover laws about how our social and cultural and moral universe works. But I’m uncomfortable with the way that you’re trying to blend that artistic truth and True Stories; maybe I’m just a stick-in-the-mud who isn’t with the times, but if I read Zeitoun I wouldn’t be sure whether it was an homage and testimony to those people who lived through Katrina or an exploitation of them. Maybe one day I will figure that out, or maybe you will go back to doing what you do best, which is writing books about the particular subculture that you know from your own experience and publishing awesome stuff at McSweeney’s. I wish you the best.