Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Dave Eggers, Wyndham Lewis and Hate

HAAAYYYYYWyndham Lewis was the coming man in 1913. Rich parents, Rugby, Slade School, knocked around Paris, talented writer and painter, good-lookin', etc.

Already he'd been published by Ford Madox Ford in The English Review and shown paintings with Jack the Ripper obsessive Walter Sickert. He also had three paintings in the second Post-Impressionist exhibition with Roger Fry and Clive Bell, members of the Bloomsbury Group. Almost all of those Bloomsbury guys were very what we used to call "fabulous," by which I mean arch, conceited, clever, stylish, discontented and self-regarding (21st-century virtues all).

Roger Fry set up a design studio, the Omega Workshop, and Wyndham Lewis worked there for awhile. But in 1913, after the two of them got into a massive fight, Lewis left in a huff with a bunch of his friends (including Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Dorothy Shakespear) to form the Vorticist group. These Vorticists (so dubbed by Ezra Pound) combined elements of Cubism, Futurism and Dada, and were reckoned to be super tough and modern.

Unsurprisingly, the Vorticists were shown no love by the Bloomsburys who, aside from having gotten into a huge spat with Lewis, were much preferring to affect the relatively effete style and manners of the sophisticated Fauves over there in France, where the food was better and they were less troglodytic, I guess they thought. Robert Hughes wrote: "In 1917 [Clive] Bell sneered at the ‘new spirit in the little backwater, called English Vorticism, which already gives signs of being as insipid as any other puddle of provincialism.'"

Speaking of provincial puddles, though, the Matisse 'n' Cezanne-inspired works of the Bloomsburys tended to be totally derivative, and also kind of limp and watery:


Whereas the contemporaneous canvases of Wyndham Lewis were full of Pow.


Decades later, the energy and originality of Wyndham Lewis and his cohort became very much admired, maybe more so than any of the Bloomsbury painters (who had better luck with their writers, obviously, so that the painters got some traction that way.)

Part of the reason it took so long for the Vorticists to come into their own is that Wyndham Lewis was a very questionable specimen. Lot of things to dislike about this guy. He was wildly anti-Semitic; he even managed to write a whole book in favor of Hitler in 1931 (Hitler, it is called.) The man just shot his mouth off like crazy. As you can imagine, Lewis felt pretty bad when he found out what was actually going down in Nazi Germany when he went to Berlin in 1937! So he took it all back, which is at least something. (His idea of contrition was to write a book called The Jews: Are they Human?, in 1939.) Wilde's friend Robbie Ross called Lewis "a buffalo in wolf's clothing."

All this brings me to Dave Eggers, you may be surprised to hear. Dave Eggers, though evidently not an openly combative or buffalo-like person, is like Lewis in being both talented and roundly disliked; an outsider in his own circle.

Dave Eggers is a thorn in many a side in today's America, my own included. His bizarre combination of fame, enthusiasm and sentimentalizing drives a lot of people up a tree. It's safe to say that Eggers is currently the most detested man in American haute-literary circles. To support this contention, I've made a table of Google searches using the phrase "I hate _________," and put in a lot of divisive-seeming haute-literary names.

Mary Karr: 0
Donna Tartt: 0
Ben Kunkel: 0
Marisha Pessl: 1
Ayelet Waldman: 1
Jonathan Franzen: 2
Michael Chabon: 2
Richard Powers: 2
Joan Didion: 4
Elizabeth Wurtzel: 89
Zadie Smith: 102
Jonathan Safran Foer: 120
Rick Moody: 374
David Sedaris: 774
Dave Eggers: 3880

To which I say: ??!? Of course this is a far from scientific method of figuring such stuff out, but I should never have supposed that zero people on the Internet are currently saying straight up that they hate Mary Karr, who has been very much in the newspapers, when Dave Eggers is experiencing almost four thousand times the virtual hate. (An aside. If you'd like a hint as to how very small the literary corner of the world of letters is, consider that even Eggers is well behind David Brooks (5,090) and nowhere near the political mahoola, Maureen Dowd-who, at the time of this writing, is at 9,550 hate-points. "I hate George Bush"? That one has got over 1.7 million hits and its own Facebook group. Despite the Teabaggers' best efforts, our current President is only scoring a measly 465,000. Give it time.)

Part of the hate accruing to Dave Eggers is undoubtedly due to crab-bucket syndrome, which is when there are a lot of rivals, e.g., writers who are struggling after success in the form of TED prizes and screenplay commissions, and then one of them actually succeeds, and the rest of his fellow-strivers and former comrades attempt to yank him back down again. In the case of Eggers this is commonly depicted as not just envy, but more like a sense that the litterati just ought to have a better representative. Better, somehow, in some way, than this seemingly self-promoting impresario.

As well, a great divide opened between youngs and olds on the issue of Eggers when Where the Wild Things Are finally emerged. Us olds don't just detest twee, childish sentimentality. We would douse it in kerosene and throw a match on it, if we could. The youngs, however, are fine with it (cf. Juno, and so on.) Maybe this is always true, just a generational thing (cf. Harold & Maude)?

Anyway: Dave Eggers! I am writing to compare him to Wyndham Lewis, because while there is definitely something to not like about him, there is a lot to praise. Quite a lot! There is great worth in Dave Eggers. His first book has a few cringey elements, sure, but it is both truthful and funny.

Here is a list of good things about Dave Eggers:

1. Wrote a good book, which as many of us know is so @#)(*$& difficult, maybe impossible.

2. Pub. Believer,

2(b). thereby employing a lot of colleagues.

3. Wants openly to benefit literature and the world. Even if we find this embarrassing, it is manifestly a good thing.

4. The 826 project. They are, in the end, really neat! Anybody can go there and help kids with their homework. I have popped into the Los Angeles one, which sells Time-Travel accoutrements out front (I know! ack) and I signed up, but I haven't volunteered yet.

However questionable any other aspects of Eggers's activities may be, these separate things are worthy of love, not hate. Forget the Time-Travel, and consider instead the work of 826 National that is going on all over this great nation! Forget the deranged see-sawing politics of Wyndham Lewis, and consider his portraiture instead (this one is of Edith Sitwell).


Because if Roger Fry had been less conceited and superior to the likes of Wyndham Lewis, then here is what you would have seen: more elegant Vortistry, and less wimpy Faux-vism. These two schools could have strengthened one another, uniting the force and originality of Vorticism with the Bloomsbury brand of sophisticated Frenchifizing. That is how I suspect you get really excellent cultural experiments like Periclean Athens, where more and more people agree on just a few things together, and suddenly you have a culture that is working hard to do worthwhile things together, rather than trying to figure out how to complain about one another. To find and praise worth strengthens it; to praise the praiseworthy aspects of someone's work doesn't mean you are co-signing his defects.

When finding fault becomes a widespread habit, that is a catastrophe. Because here are the most able people we've got and they are all depressed and bilious and full of hate. Surely we can find the stuff that is good, and to join together to promote that? We can (we must, even) still dismiss the bad, at the same time. It's possible to use the power of your mind to create the culture in this way. Aesthetic bipartisanship, you could call this. The Fine Art of the Possible.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

73 Comments / Post A Comment

Kiala (#3,712)

This reminds me of Gerald Murphy's work during the Montparnasse years.

NinetyNine (#98)

I remember there was a good deal of Eggers dislike back in the days of Might (giving away my stuff from the back of a 2002! Soooo cute!) — my own contributions to the effort notwithstanding. So maybe the better comparison is to Andrew Carnegie.

This was enjoyable* to read but I gotta say that this new niceness is coming on way too fast for me now. I hate Dave Eggers passionately for reasons I don't even completely understand and this is not going to change just because some nice lady told me to nicely.

* I almost wrote "nice"

That last sentence doesn't make sense grammatically. Whatever, BLINDED BY HATRED.

One wonderful side effect of this is that it will increase the number of Google results for "I hate Dave Eggers."

NinetyNine (#98)

Hopefully, it will boost Kunkel's numbers as well.

LondonLee (#922)

Many many years ago in London I saw an exhibition of Lewis' drawings, beautiful things they were which made me a lover of him for life (the art at least) but I haven't seen them since as there aren't that many books of his work out there which baffles me. A great, great artist. The Blast books are, um, fun too.

You know why Edith Sitwell's hands are so abstracted in that portrait? She thought he was such an awful man she refused to sit for him anymore before he'd done the hands.

Annie K. (#3,563)

Is that really true about Sitwell? Neato.

LondonLee (#922)

Apparently Sitwell was very proud of her hands so it was Lewis' little "fuck you" to her.

Annie K. (#3,563)

If you have a club, Maria Bustillos, and if you'll have me, I'd like to join. The Fine Art of the Possible Club. This is so smart and I learned so much and you're making me think, and now that I'm thinking, now what? What next?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

No hate points for Donna Tartt? Must be because nobody actually read her second novel.

C_Webb (#855)

I did. Wish I hadn't.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I read it and told a publisher not to buy the translation rights. I wish I hadn't and they wish they hadn't.

Dave Bry (#422)

This is totally excellent. Hooray for learning stuff with helpful, and beautiful, visual pointers.

katiebakes (#32)

Boy oh boy that portrait of Edith is DIVINE.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Any search that only returns one result for "I hate Ayelet Waldman" is clearly flawed from the get go.

City_Dater (#2,500)

Yes — that is the only search result listed that completely astonishes me.

Ledrew (#654)

Strongly agree. The zero I got on my own search re Kathryn Harrison also suggests a weak link somewhere.

bong hitler (#3,233)

People hate Dave Eggers because Eggers is one of those people who looks like he's smirking when he smiles.

wb (#2,214)

Only 2 "I hate Jonathan Franzen" hits? Amazing!

Kakapo (#2,312)

I take this as definitive disproof of the "Nothing ever disappears on the internet" thing.

Kevin (#2,559)

I know. I better start plucking that chicken.

wb (#2,214)

I just checked it myself–there are three now! And this comment thread is at the top of the list. Clearly, Franzen has figured out how to make things disappear from the 'net.

MaggieL (#3,424)

It seems to me like people who hate Dave Eggers really hate the people who *like* Dave Eggers, especially if they acknowledge (as has been done here) the good things he's done. The vitriol isn't about the man (in fact, other than twee sentimentalism, I'm not sure what his crimes are, according to this post), but about the misguided people who follow him blindly (instead of following something/someone else? instead of having better taste? not sure). This is all to say that I agree with the "good things about Eggers" list, but I'm not quite sure why we have to go to all this trouble to justify being one of the people who like him.

Maevemealone (#968)

You're getting mixed up with Springsteen.

MaggieL (#3,424)

Ha! Yes. Find and replace "Wyndham Lewis" with "Bruce Springsteen" — same effect?

jfruh (#713)

I have always had a soft spot for Dave Eggers ever since I went to a reading/celebration of Lydia David he hosted in a San Francisco bar 2001ish, and people from the audience volunteered to read their favorite Lydia Davis bits, and one dude was this hipster kid wearing a knit hat (this being inside a stuffy bar, in northern California spring), and Eggers was like, "Why are you wearing a hat? Are you cold?" and the kid sheepishly took it off.

Kakapo (#2,312)

This actually adds points to my "dislike" column, which still isn't particularly high.

NYTY (#3,571)

This makes me dislike him more. I wish someone would say to Eggers, "Why are you wearing a smirk? Are you really that huge of a prick?"

Dave Heal (#3,715)

Maria Bustillos is good stuff. More, please.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

Still hate Eggers, but love Bustillos.

Suzi (#3,593)

Maria – Please tell me the "crab bucket" syndrome line was inspired by Big Love.

barnhouse (#1,326)

No, have never seen it? Is it good though? (Remark inspired by really old newspaper article about kids trying to break out of ghetto.)

spikenard (#3,522)

Damn, only 211 hits for 'I hate Martin Amis', who I reserve all my literary hatred for :(

LondonLee (#922)

This was a great post though I'm a little troubled by the connection between Eggers and Lewis. "A bit twee at times" doesn't really equal "liked Hitler" does it?

Clio (#3,719)

I agree, and I'm not sure if that's because we use the word "hate" so much more freely nowadays, and at a lower threshold?

Bittersweet (#765)

Were people less unreasonably vitriolic back then? I'd say yes except that LondonLee's reference to Hitler reminds me that…no.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well yeah, but doesn't "was a totally unhinged super wacko" kind of equal "is twee enough to give you diabetes"?

Apropos of not much, I am a huge fan of GB Shaw whose politics were also a complete fiasco.

NYTY (#3,571)

I think it has to do with his face.

lempha (#581)


KarenUhOh (#19)

The pictures, they are cool. The analysis, it too intrigues.

I wish I could work up something approaching vitriol for Mr. Eggers to drop in his vortex. Like maybe enthusiasm.

Oona (#2,994)

Only 50 Caitlin Flanagan haters! More than Joan Didion, but less than Elizabeth Wurtzel?

Abe Sauer (#148)

"I hate salman rushdie" = 87,300

Abe Sauer (#148)

"I hate salmon rushdie" = 19,200 (!)

Abe Sauer (#148)

Indeed. That is my fault. Or as they say, "user error." I will say though that Salinger, Updike and hornby all score nearly a third of eggers'.

josh_speed (#97)

I usually find it's over-salted.

maebefunke (#154)

Has anybody checked the hate levels for Lauren Conrad yet?

wb (#2,214)

19,200 hits. This game is kind of fun.

HiredGoons (#603)

Mmm, I love Walter Sickert.

mcbeachy (#548)

"I hate Norman Mailer." Only 4. Is that possible?

Ryan (#3,735)

So… the only similarity between Lewis and Eggers is that some people didn't like them?

Jesus, what a worthless association. The major difference between the two is that Lewis was a practiced and devoted artist; a scholar and critic that lived and breathed work. And Eggers is, well, one of the lazy artists of our generation.

Couldn't you have picked someone who was hated, popular, and had the same amount of scholarship and ability?

This article devalues Lewis. Oh well.

beatrixkiddo1 (#2,988)

I like you Maria Bustillos. I like all the things you've written on here actually. Keep up the good work!

Though I do think that comparing a occasionally smug/annoying yet good writer who has a charity that helps kids on the side to a good painter who was a Hitler admiring anti-semite on the side is a little harsh. I see what you're getting at though.

Ern Malley (#3,733)


"Lot of things to dislike about this guy." Yes, and….oh, okay, just stop at the really obvious anti-Semitism. (Um, fyi, pretty much all the prominent modernists had unsavory political views. Fascism a-go-go.) In addition to hating Jews (and Germans, oh boy did he hate 'em) Percy Wyndham Lewis also felt that in order to be a truly great artist, one had to cultivate a whooping case of an STD or two. He would brag about having gonorrhea. Another conviction of his, going hand in hand with the above, was that the artistic genius must have fling after fling. His high-water mark of shitheadery, I feel, was letting one chick he'd knocked up come home from the hospital alone with the baby, only to find Percy banging someone else on the kitchen table. He kind of ignored the hell out of his offspring too, but that stemmed more from his daddy issues.

In fact, Lewis relished this role of the antagonist, the gadfly. He stoked it, sunk his teeth not into just that hand that fed but any unguarded limb. Being The Enemy was his main line of artistic attack. He was hated because he actively provoked the dominant artistic cliques of the time, namely the Sitwells and the Bloomsbury Group, into doing so. His crowning achievement on this front is his novel The Apes of God, an epic satire.

Yeah, sure, Lewis was an ok painter. (How about digging up some paintings of his to illustrate the article other than the one on his wikipedia entry? No?) But it's his contributions to literature for which he will be chiefly remembered, so thanks for not mentioning those. That angular, jagged, jarring technique of his? He pretty much transposed it into a prose version in his 1918 novel Tarr. The dude even PIONEERED an experimental punctuation mark in it, the double em-dash. (It looks like a very long equals sign. And, admittedly, it was somewhat of a failed experiment; he excised it from later editions of Tarr.) Lewis also penned a collection of short stories, Rotting Hill; a magnificent play, Enemy of the Stars; and articulated a sophisticated aesthetic philosophy in several books, notably one called Time and Western Man.

As for Eggers: let's give him credit for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's definitely a keeper. You Shall Know Our Velocity and How We Are Hungry are also certainly worthwhile reads. Kudos to the dude for spearheading literary projects. But with them, he's ushered in an era of sickeningly sweet precious twee-ness, exactly the flavor of the blog Stuff White People Like. Stuff under his helm lacks any wallop. He helped open the gateway for insipid, uninformed writing. This has reached a head in his mind-numbing, feeble fetishization of childhood in Where the Wild Things Are, longing for an innocence that, perhaps, never existed. It's a sign of the manchild who can't handle the world.

Lewis stoked the hate on purpose, yet it was almost a big joke for him, a game with a persona he crafted. Eggers has engineered a post-modern hagiography, which has insulated him from criticism, making what little criticism he gets all the more important. PWL is the thinking man's asshole. Eggers is the modern-day shallow, wanna-be-thinker's false idol twerp. Please! It's like comparing apples to durians.

PS. What about checking the hate-levels for the biggest, blandest, most unoriginal hack of our day — Cormac McCarthy? 47,500 hits dissing him. Good.

Between the username and the encyclopedic Wyndham Lewis knowledge I think I know you. 4013?

barnhouse (#1,326)

I enjoyed reading this a lot! With respect to prewar politics of artists and intellectuals: it's a complicated business to discuss, for the majority of them came to change their minds violently and at least once, plus context is key. It was one thing to be pro-Hitler in 1931, before he'd really gotten going, and 1937, when the super-evil was all cranked up and ready to go. Plenty of Brits were just fine with annexation of Sudetenland etc.

I haven't liked Lewis's books (haven't tried but one or two) but I really, really love his paintings. Was so surprised to hear you say that he would be remembered more for his writing!!? I always thought the opposite view was more prevalent? Maybe I just think everyone agrees with me haha.

We are mostly on the same page about Eggers, excepting the fact that a lot of VERY worthy stuff has appeared in The Believer; it's just very uneven, like what isn't?

p.s. You have to put the whole sentence "I hate ___" in quotation marks or you get all these random things. McCarthy isn't getting so much hate!! But some.

Drew Humberd (#3,864)

There is something intensely hilarious about someone who can reference "Stuff White People Like" and then say "Please! It's like comparing apples to durians."

Atencio (#399)

It's a difficult position to be in, to respect and admire someone like Mr. Eggers for the charitable work he performs and the honest love he has for the written word. However, I simply can't ignore how bad Away We Go and Where The Wild Things Are were. I just can't.

lbf (#2,343)

I'm writing to post that I broke the website in a pretty beautiful fashion (I'm apparently writing a reply to "kialaNinetyNinedevaluingmyfamedevaluingmyfameChoireNinetyNineLondonLeeAnnie K.LondonLeeAnnie K.TulletilsynetC_WebbDave BrykatiebakespetejayhawkCity_DaterLedrewbong hitlerwbKakapoTwistedTexanwbMaggieLMaevemealoneMaggieLjfruhKakapoDave HealvespavirginSuzibarnhousespikenardLondonLeeClioBittersweetbarnhouseNYTYlemphaKarenUhOhOonaAbe SauerAbe SauerlemphaAbe SauermaebefunkewbHiredGoonsmcbeachyRyanbeatrixkiddo1Ern MalleyMy Number Is My AddressAtencio", and to say that David Foster Wallace scores at a measly 192.

barnhouse (#1,326)

The love I bear David Foster Wallace will nullify far more than 192.

I know him to be personally disagreeable but also an effective promoter of good things and good works. His own output is mixed. I don't really feel the need to have some sort of overarching opinion. He does good, he does bad. I enjoy the good, I quarantine the bad.

NYTY (#3,571)

"PS. What about checking the hate-levels for the biggest, blandest, most unoriginal hack of our day – Cormac McCarthy?"

You lose all credit for this.

NYTY (#3,571)

Has anyone here seen Lewis's lit-mag Blast? I think it survived only two issues but they were better than all McSweeney's combined.

joeclark (#651)

There are only 164 hits for the precise query "I hate Dave Eggers" (quotes around phrase mandatory; results when not logged in).

I assume the writer has committed the usual journeyman sin of plugging in an unconnected string of keywords and reporting wildly inflated numbers.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I just got 3,760 (double quotes.)

lukequinton (#2,723)

Before this post dies, just gotta holler to the dark inter-cave that What Is The What is amazing, any sentimentality and similarities aside.

andj (#1,074)

While I agree that Dave Eggers is admirably civic minded, this post is really just damning him with faint praise. Maybe Dave Eggers is a rare comet who landed on the idea to launch a literary career in order to promote worthy causes… but I strongly doubt that a novelist or artist of any sort would be consoled by the consensus "His art was shit, but his community service was exemplary!"

QuietDave (#3,044)

The title "The Jews: Are they human?" is likely taken from the 1595 satirical pamphlet Disputatio nova contra mulieres, qua probatur eas homines non esse (English translation: A new argument against women, in which it is demonstrated that they are not human beings)


barnhouse (#1,326)

The title was a takeoff of a then-popular book, The English: Are They Human? by G.J. Renier (1931.) Still, if Lewis was trying to make amends for his former position, you'd think he would have chosen a more mollifying title.

QuietDave (#3,044)

Ahhh, that is interesting. Thanks.

29jobs (#3,805)

golly jeepers, i didn't realize dave eggers was in the hate camp by the litterati. now i'm REALLY happy i compare my book to his work (mainly Staggering) on my bookflap.

maybe i'll get famous being hated, too.


Ted Rheingold (#3,818)

Why not spend time on something productive then write about something you don't like even though you like a lot of it?

Pablo Schwartz (#6,300)

haven't read any Eggers, but i'd be shocked/surprised if he's ever written anything as dreadful/derivative as Richard Powers' Galatea 2:2.

ps/ thumbs up on W. Lewis' "Doom of Youth" !

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