Meghan O'Rourke is having a moment. Her first book of poems, recently published, snagged a coveted full-page review—a rave!—in the Times Book Review. She is the culture editor of Slate. She's in the midst of planning her wedding to New Yorker staff writer James Surowiecki. It's a happy time for Meghan. But while this successful 30ish lady has her share of admirers, she also has her share of critics. An anonymous emailer sums up his concerns like so:
It's not enough that she got her powerful perch at Slate at, like, 26 on the strength of —well, on the strength of what, exactly?—and that her first book of poetry (please) gets a review in the Sunday Times book review (because she's infinitely better than the 300 poetry MFAs churned out every year), but her journalism is absolutely insufferable: a minute examination of her own traipsing, boring life with beau Jim Surowiecki, gussied up alternatively as "journalism" and "verse."
Let's take these criticisms point by point. It's true that Meghan did achieve a lot very young. But one can safely assume that she "got her powerful perch at Slate" on the strength of her previous career achievements, which include a stint at the New Yorker, where she became a a fiction/nonfiction editor at what her then-boss Bill Buford called the "alarmingly tender" age of 24. What got her to the New Yorker—an internship beginning the summer before her senior year at Yale, where she matriculated after graduating from prestigious Brooklyn prep school St. Ann's—is also impressive, and also, most certainly, part of the problem.
People seem to find in Meghan a symbol of many things: ambition, yes, but also privilege and unabashed intellectualism and a specific, even New York-specific, way of ostentatiously combining the three.
Oh, and did we mention she's also an attractive young woman?
As to whether Meghan's poetry is better or worse than the work of the "300 poetry MFAs churned out every year," we've got no idea. We haven't read Meghan's book. We probably never will! We haven't read the 300 MFAs work either, but if anyone has, it's Meghan—she is, after all, still poetry editor of the Paris Review, don't forget! One assumes that the Times wouldn't slight a poet who held such a position, regardless of his or her age or hotness. Those who gripe about Meghan seem less concerned that Meghan got reviewed so prominently; instead, it rankles that she has ended up in a position where her work demands to be reviewed prominently in the first place, which is kind of like asking why the Times Book Review chooses to write about... well, anyone.
So that leaves the third point: is Meghan's "journalism insufferable"? It is exceedingly easy to mock, and don't we know. Meghan brings her personal life into her book reviews regularly. For example, in her review of Rebecca Mead's One Perfect Day: The Selling Of The American Wedding, we find this sentence: "Trying on a lavish dress bedecked with almost imperceptible crystals, I found myself strangely smitten—and telling my fiance about it, he said, 'Maybe you really like planning this wedding.'" Such intimate details find their way into Meghan's analyses of other people's work almost always. Her biographical details are presented without faux-modesty or apology. In fact, her confessions often read as just too sincere.
This sincerity seems to baffle Meghan's critics. Maybe the problem is that sincerity is such an increasingly rare mode of communication that when we see it, we almost don't know how to react. "I went to college in the early days of the 'hookup' culture, as it is now called, and my recollection, through the haze of years, was that the whole point of hookups was that they were pleasurable—a little embarrassing, sometimes, but mostly, well, fun," Meghan wrote recently in a review of a book about "hookup culture." We pilloried her, of course. But maybe the fact that we did proves a point. If everyone is just sarcastic and guarded and self-mocking all the time—as opposed to given over to "minute examinations[s] of [their] traipsing, boring lives"—then what would we have to work with, or think about?