What Is To Be Done About Keith Gessen?

That is what I have been wondering about the hype surrounding founding editor of n+1 (the most important literary journal of our time) and his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men. Last night at McNally Robinson, while waiting for his reading to begin, I gazed over his head and across the street into the PinkyOtto boutique, glaring at their evil shopgirl. A strict-looking, skinny brunette in the crowd made a big show of fanning her face: "He's hot!" she stage-whispered to her girlfriend, cocking her head towards the author. "What?" the friend asked. "He's so hot!" she repeated, louder this time. She looked like she hadn't eaten in days.

Anyway, the reviews are in. And boy are there reviews! Joyce Carol Oates, a terrifying critic if any are, weighs in for the New York Review of Books ("Gessen's humor is persistently Seinfeldian"). The Observer had a delightfully freewheeling, bitchy opinion. The NY Times appears slightly befuddled, and as Gessen himself said, even that fabulous literary heavyweight NYLON has given their opinion—negatively.

Because the media moves as a herd, one is basically required, at this point, to have an opinion or angle on this book. Why? Is it because n+1 is the most important literary journal of our time? (It isn't.) Is it because a novel bold enough to reference Fitzgerald in the title automatically merits discussion? Is it because this could actually be a new flagstone in the Way We Live Now—that is, if we're twentysomethings who went to Ivy League universities, saw that fact as an important pinnacle, and found themselves unenlightened and stuck years later, none the wiser?

Who knows. One of the passages Gessen chose to read was one that is oft-quoted in reviews, about the character Sam. (There's also a character named Keith, written in the first person.) It reminded me of the sad young literary men I have personally known, and exactly why I found them so insufferable:

His Google was shrinking. It was part of a larger failing, maybe, certainly, but to see it quantified... to see it numerically confirmed... it was cruel. It wasn't nice. Sam considered the alternatives: he knew people with no Google at all, zero hits, and he even knew people like Mark, Mark Grossman, who had never published, who had kept silent, whose name drew up the hits of other Mark Grossmans, the urologist Grossman and the banker Grossman and Grossmans who had completed ten-kilometer runs.
As a young, occasionally literary woman, I'm not sure if we should identify with Sam or loathe him after this. But women, I think, are less are prone to self-flagellating intellectual flights of fancy and self-indulgent ramblings of this type. Therefore, during the above passage, all I could think was, Sam! Sam . Sam, to you and all your friends: if you keep thinking like this, it will be your penis that is shrinking.


[Photo: Suzanne Goldish for the NYT ]