My 2007 Stanford-Berkeley Proposal

in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers, Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind, postirony, Tim F. LaHaye

I’m posting the abstract that I submitted for this year’s Stanford-Berkeley Conference, which will be held at Stanford. This paper, when I write it, will become part of my third chapter, on Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s.

How to be a Believer: Comparative Ontologies of Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind (1995) and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (1999)

In The Broken Estate (1999), James Wood argues that “[f]icton demands belief from us, and this request is demanding in part because we can choose not to believe.” Wood here distinguishes between the ontological faith that religion requires and belief in fiction, which can only “gently request” that readers act “as if” they believed. Belief in fiction, it turns out, is only a metaphorical sort of belief. Wood’s claim suffers from an obvious incoherence: the concept of belief is by its very constitution opposed to choice; a believer is someone who cannot help but hold his or her particular ontological convictions. My talk deploys the concept of ethos to argue that literature—both fiction and nonfiction—can and often does make strong ontological demands of its readers. To illustrate this point, I juxtapose two recent bestsellers that attempt to cultivate an ethos of belief in their readers: Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind (1995) and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (1999).

Grounding itself upon a premillennial dispensationalist reading of Revelation, and targeting a putative readership of “secular humanists” or insufficiently-committed Christians, Left Behind functions as an novelistic technology tooled to produce belief in its readers, to make its readers become born again evangelicals. Without the eschatological grounding of his more religious counterparts, Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius must find more secular means of eliciting reader belief. Bearing the subtitle “A Memoir based on a True Story,” Eggers’ book obsessively and continually produces guilt-ridden paratextual commentary on its own veracity, while insistently trying to undercut the charge that this commentary constitutes a form of irony. Eggers uses these paratexts, I will demonstrate, to construct an image of a Mean or Snarky Reader—identified at times with himself—against whom he writes and against whom he demands his readers sympathetically identify themselves.