the flame wars


Earlier this year, a young novelist named Keith Gessen published his first book. Even more than most such debuts, All the Sad Young Literary Men was highly autobiographical: it had several narrators, but each were recognizable as versions of the writer, and the real-life originals of even minor characters could easily be identified. The novelist’s own ambition was the book’s major theme, and in a sense its writing was less important than its publication, which consummated the drive for recognition that was both its inspiration and its subject. Because of this self-reflexive quality, the book took on a kind of symbolic significance. It was an almost chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer. The limitations of this kind of ambition could be seen in the book’s reception, not so much in the print reviews as on the Internet, where it became the target of extraordinarily virulent attacks. Attacks, not criticism, for in the discussion of All the Sad Young Literary Men on several blogs and one popular website, literary criticism in the ordinary sense played almost no role. Its detractors had little to say about its plot, characters, or prose style; more curiously, perhaps, neither did Gessen, when he took to the Internet to defend himself. Both writer and readers treated the book, properly, as an assertion of self, and the only question was whether that assertion ought to succeed—whether Gessen ought to become famous.

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