But despite all of his insights, I was still hesitant to assign Eggers to my students. I was hesitant to assign his book for the same reasons that the reviewers praised it.
First of all, the book is ironic. Cynical. Self-loathing.
Most reviewers called this sense of irony the book’s energy or force. Though some papers, such as the London Times, stated directly that the book’s “tone” is an “uncommon sort of irony.”
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? Even the title’s ironic. I think Eggers wanted to write a heartbreaking work. But he’s living in the Age of Irony, so he had to take a step back. He had to be self-knowing, to wink at the audience.
I’ve spent enough time in graduate school, studying literature, to know that irony is the order of the day. That anyone who wants to be considered intellectual should prefer snark to sincerity — since the latter could be construed as sentimental or, God forbid, corny. (I must thank Margaret Edson for the last three words of this sentence. I believe she’d have something to say about snarkiness, cleverness, Wit versus sincerity and truth…but that’s another post).
I know that snark is what we’re supposed to teach and what we’re supposed to praise and cultivate in our college students. And, trust me, our students have learned — they have it down. My youngest sister, after turning in her first newspaper assignment at Emerson University got this note from a peer reviewer: “I’d love to see you be less editorial. More snarky.” Of course, I’d love to make that student understand that snark is just another type of editorializing.
I’ve also read enough early early 19th century novels to understand why irony has become so preferred — to know what all of these oh-so-knowing writers and academics are rebelling against. Especially when dealing with a topic like sickness. I’ve read enough books with caregiver protagonists (usually female) who never make a peep. Who only wish they had more hours in the day and more energy to devote to their sick charges. I’ve read enough bedside speeches and romantic depictions of the easy and beautiful death. So I get it — I get why irony might be better than sentimentality.
But it’s a mistake to pretend that either extreme, that either sentimentality or irony, is more honest. More true. And that’s what we want GET BETTER to be. We want our story to be funny, yes. But not cynical, not snarky. And we want it to be sincere but not sentimental or corny.
That’s a fine line to walk. A tall order. How do we do it?