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On the Arts: Lamenting the breakdown in trust between reporter, subject

Sunday, April 15, 2001

By Bob Hoover

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is daring the good gray audiences of the arts to stretch a bit. For its "Voices for a New Millennium" next weekend, it's bringing to town Sandra Bernhard, a hipper version of Joan Rivers, and writer Dave Eggers, who's been rattling the media establishment lately.

This week's
book reviews


"Piranha To Scurfy And Other Stories"

Mystery Roundup

"Death In Holy Orders"

"Unholy Dying"



"Silent Joe"

Bob Hoover is the Post-Gazette book editor.


Culturally, for me, Bernhard is of no consequence, but Eggers poses some interesting problems for my business, which covers the writing and selling of books.

His memoir (and no matter what he calls it, it is a memoir), "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," reaped a mountain of notice after it was published last year, when Eggers was 28.

Its artless sincerity and lack of self-pity won over reviewers and readers.

Eggers' parents died within weeks of each other, causing the then-21-year-old to care for his 8-year-old brother. The book alternates between the raw family tragedy and Generation X comedy as Eggers tries to manage his jobs and sleep with various women while watching out for his brother.

His youth, self-sacrifice and earnest humor alone were a winning combination. But Eggers offered something more -- commitment to honesty.

At first, he used the real names and sometimes phone numbers of friends to prove his point that "one could be completely factual and still tell a story that felt and read novelistic, somewhat timeless, at least fluid."

In the introduction to the just-published paperback version, Eggers admits that some were offended by seeing their names in his book and that he made adjustments.

He maintained his pledge to honesty in another way, though, listing his income and expenses to arrive at a profit of $39,567.68, unheard of for a writer to do. Also rare was Eggers' insistence on rewriting or explaining passages from the original book and designing alternative covers.

The paperback is really two books with two covers -- the memoir and a commentary, called "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making."

Eggers now runs an Internet publishing concern called Timothy McSweeney's, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, plus correspondence and commentary.

He's a literary celebrity -- brash, cool, young, independent. And he knows it. He's dismissive of media interviews, refusing to speak directly to interviewers, insisting on a question-and-answer format via e-mail.

"This way there is no leverage given to either side," he told McSweeney's readers. "It's simply information without any tweaking."

He calls it "a format always agreed to when a periodical simply wants to get information to its readership without bending it."

His position is why you probably will not read any interviews with Eggers by me. I don't like e-mail interviews. I'd rather hear a person's voice, with the pauses, the "ahs" and the other sound effects. They are indications of personality.

Eggers prefers direct exchange of information, period. No tweaking.

When he discovered "tweaking" in a New York Times story Feb. 14 about the publication of his paperback, he responded in a nasty and embarrassing manner.

Eggers' victim was the author, David Kirkpatrick, who covers publishing for the Times. His weapon was Kirkpatrick's e-mails, which he reproduced along with his replies on the McSweeney's Web site.

Kirkpatrick was revealed as a fawning supplicant who begged "please, please, please" for an interview, saying he was doing what Eggers' publisher wanted -- a Times story timed to the release of the book. He didn't have to say that the publicity value was enormous.

Eggers at first refused, then relented after Kirkpatrick praised his book. But he did insist on speaking frequently "off the record," limiting the scope of the interview.

Many journalists, including me, close the notebook when sources needlessly declare an "off-the-record" session. If we can't use it, we're not interested.

Kirkpatrick also said he would allow Eggers to read parts of his story before publication to make sure the author found it acceptable. Most journalists don't do that, either, unless it involves technical material that a source could check for accuracy.

In short, the Timesman bent over backward in the name of celebrity, as though he were writing a story with the headline "I interview Dave Eggers."

His approach backfired, of course. The story appeared before Eggers reviewed it, and he angrily attacked Kirkpatrick for using off-the-record material, making errors and characterizing him as a hypocrite about money.

As part of his response, Eggers included a hypothetical description of Kirkpatrick, admitting "you [Kirkpatrick] and I know whether there is any truth to that paragraph, but no one else does. Maybe there is some truth. Maybe none of it is true."

That was a bit harsh and perhaps potentially libelous, but the real damage might be to the shaky relationship between artist and the press. While it's refreshing to find an author who's not desperate for publicity, it's disturbing to learn just how suspicious some are of the news media.

Nearing 30, Eggers is of a generation that neither trusts nor reads the press. So far, his success might indicate that he doesn't need it as well, although the lavish praise of newspaper critics had something to do with his book's popularity.

Finally, thanks to Kirkpatrick, Eggers and his followers might be a bit contemptuous of a medium that appears so willing to play by his rules rather than its own, all in the interest of celebrity worship.

After the Eggers-Kirkpatrick dustup, the relationship between press and subject is out of balance. We in the press can adjust that by clearly stating again what our job is -- presenting a rounded view of our subject in the interest of informing our readers.

And our subject merely has to be just that -- our subject. Leave the aggression and agenda at home, please.

Eggers, I fear, wants a new world, one without a filter between him and his readers. Perhaps because of his Internet experience, he's comfortable only with that relationship.

But, until the Internet has put us out of business, Eggers had best make some room in his genius for the press.

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