There's no denying that Steven Johnson—he of Everything Bad Is Good for You and now Ghost Map fame—is a smart cookie. Video games! Who knew.
The problem with Johnson is that in our minds, he's come to be a poster child for a certain type of writer. We're sure you know the type: typically in his (and it's almost always his) late 30s or early 40s, writer-hot, lives in Brooklyn (Johnson lives in Park Slope), and of course, he's been quite successful (a book or two under his belt, thought-provoking articles in national publications, etc.). But despite the success, there's always a nagging false modesty to these guys. It's a humility that says, "Oh, STOP, I so didn't write the best story in the Times magazine this year! Oh, well, okay, maybe I did." Did these guys' moms tell them they were special, like, five times a day?
A passage from the review of Ghost Map in the Times Book Review a few weeks ago perfectly summed up our feelings:
One tic, which seems to me not just a matter of careless wording, is his overly frequent use of the word ''ironically'' and its variants: ''The tragic irony of cholera'' was one thing, ''the dominant irony of the state of British public health'' was something else, the ''dark irony'' of the miasma theory was this, the ''sad irony'' of Snow's argument was that — and I could cite many other instances. That's a little too much irony for one short book, and it seems to reflect Johnson's insistence that his insights, beyond being interesting and significant, are ingenious reversals of expectation.Then we came across this passage from Johnson's own blog. Needless to say, it inspired lots of eye-rolling, to ourselves:
I have a somewhat disturbing tendency to assume, when I'm in the middle of writing a book, that obviously, obviously this book is going to stand out among all the other books published that year. But then you actually take a look at some of the other incredible books that were published, as in this list of the Times' "100 Notable Books of the Year" — and it's pretty humbling. So I'm very pleased to have made that list this year — this is the first time I've been on it since Emergence. (And we just had our third week on the BookSense national bestseller list, so that's nice too.)What rarefied company he keeps!
We also took at look at the new blog that Johnson's been penning for TimesSelect, and what we found were three harmless but hardly earth-shattering entries. One was a rehash of the major points of his new book. The second was a rehash of the Republicans live in rural areas, Democrats live in urban areas trope that's not as accurate as Johnson would lead us to believe, and the latest argued that it's okay that people listen to their iPods and talk on cell phones, because, hey, we've got the Internet! Groundbreaking stuff, that.
Which leads us to wonder: Is Steven Johnson the real deal? Or is it just that he's not as clever as he'd perhaps like to think? Your thoughts are, of course, welcome.