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Why was a talentless writer like Junot Diaz ever lionized?

Upon Humpty Dumpty’s fall from a very great wall, a number of people volunteered their services to attempt to reassemble an individual who never seemed to have much cognizance in life, let alone self-awareness. You get that impression when you look at any vintage illustration of our egg-based friend, cavorting as he liked to cavort, his face registering that endlessly irksome expression of the person who has been given much for having done so, so little.

There are many Humpty Dumptys in fiction in American publishing in 2018. You are told, by their respective village of idiots—their “teams” of agents, fawning bloggers, friends, people seeking quid pro quo with them, publishers threatened by anything new/fresh that readers might legitimately enjoy, self-loathing insecure types who pretend to care about bad writers so that they can have a community to join—that you must like their work. This is the best writing there is. If you don’t agree, you are a limited thinker, a close-minded person, and no one wishes to think that about themselves, do they? So, you buy the book of one of these authors for your book club, everyone in your book club hates it and is bored out of their minds, and rather than waste disposable income on future books that an industry that is out of touch with reality insists you must buy, you write off their books and them, because no one wishes to feel inadequate. That time, money, energy, goes to re-upping FilmStruck, say.

That’s the trick of publishing right now: the industry blames the unwashed masses for not appreciating and understanding great art, claiming, as a result, that works that are retreads of retreads are the most easily marketable, when the reality is is that they usually only have a kind of prose-in-fecal matter line of trade to peddle. The industry hates newness. It hates the kind of work that readers love. It hates work with a strong life quotient. A high emotion quotient. Work that moves us. Changes not only how we view and engage the world, but how we view and engage our friends, our family, and, most crucially, ourselves. It hates it in part because it is rare and an agent has to rep a certain number of authors, and that agent wants to think they are the bees knees themselves, and all of their writers are oh-so-talented because they are oh-so-talented and no one question this, please. It hates it in part because the people of publishing are trained to look for tired old tropes, which many of their brethren can also recognize, and they fear that they lack the ability to truly recognize talent.

Publishing likes to shame readers. Publishing hates to take responsibility for what it offers readers, which is usually work that is flat, insipid, devoid of creativity, or, simply, a single damn reason to care about it at all. You know how when you go to the museum, and you stand in front of some piece of art you are told on the nearby placard is quite great, and you perhaps just don’t get it? What do you do? You tend, naturally, to internally remark that, well, you weren’t an art major, this isn’t your department, you aren’t qualified to assess this, or maybe even understand it at all. You are not at the museum often, so this thought process—which might not even speak to reality; maybe the painting isn’t that good at all—isn’t one that troubles you. It’s not a problem for you to do anything about, in terms of the day in, day out living of your life.

But with reading? We all read every day. Reading is a part of our quotidian existence. And no one wants to feel that they’re too dumb to appreciate something they are being shouted at that they must care about. Unfortunately, hardly anyone legitimately cares about any of the so-called literary fiction that publishing insists is important to your life, when almost all of it is less important than the decision you will make later after lunch to go with Trident gum over a breath mint.

The publishing system, in these days before its forthcoming fall, also loves to protect the talentless “stars” you are told to care about, whom you do not care about (actually, if you're a normal person out in the world, you've probably never heard of them), and it is ruled by corruption and bigotry—for it hates anyone legitimate, self-made, not from Yale and Iowa, not in cahoots with the right village of idiots bleating out in unison that here is the new flavor of the month. Let us consider Junot Diaz, whose career should be over, after decades of being falsely lionized, but which the sad, pathetic cronies we ought to feel pathos for--if they were not so dangerous to culture and art--will likely try and prop back up into something after a while.

Diaz will turn fifty in December. In 1995, his first book, a collection of stories, Drown, appeared. He had the backing of The New Yorker. Unequivocal backing of The New Yorker. When Diaz produced a story—and it could have been the prose equivalent of him wiping his hindquarters with a fistful of paper—out it would be rolled in The New Yorker. Diaz specialized in faux-life, the simulacrum of the real. Placebo fiction. It was also toxic and crude, and so hateful of women. It read like it was written by some some angry, self-loathing teen/man hybrid who was a nasty little piece of business, had gotten some version of power, and was going to get revenge on all of the girls who wouldn't go out with him by treating women terribly, and talking about them like hunks of meat with pleasing holes. You were told by the sheep that this was Diaz satirizing machismo. It was not. It was autobiography in fiction form, devoid of any emotional substance. It was like a misogynist's version of erotic fiction. Brutish. Like that guy at the gym who towels himself off while bragging about what he was going to do to some (insert crass term), and probably slips the word "painal" into the occasional boast.

In a quarter of a century, only two more books would follow. Do you know what great artists do? They create. If you were John Clare, and you were so poor that you could not afford paper, you got yourself some bark, and you wrote on it. You wrote a lot on it. Hundreds of poems for the ages. But if you were Junot Diaz, with no ability, and you simply fictionalized your life, dropped in endless amounts of misogynistic machismo because you were that insecure that you actually worried how tough or “hard” you came across, and you had the king-imprimatur backing of The New Yorker, all you could manage would be one other story collection, and a thin novel that was indistinguishable from everything else you did. Your main character shared your name, your interests, your jobs, your background. Hey, that's you! This writer could not think up anything in terms of a story, and no one has ever written female characters worse.

To read a Latino writer like Diaz, for the hidebound, virtue signaling, “I’m one of the good ones” folk of publishing, meant that you were doing your bit for people of color. You didn’t like his work. It added nothing to your life, but the fact that this emperor not only had no clothes but was going to town on himself in a manner to make Onan proud as things like a shiny Pulitzer were dropped at his feet, gave you an opportunity to pat yourself on the back, while never having to do the heavy-lifting of actually being an accountable person, a person of character, a person who went out and looked for things that were actually good, rather than taking up a position in line as sheep #679.

Realty was inverted for Diaz. He was not a writer of no ability who could not think of anything to say or write, but rather, in the arena of this flackery, he was a writer who “took the time to get it right.” It wasn’t sloth or stupidity, it was care and dedication, went the official line of BS. It was care and dedication my royal Boston rear. It was a lack of anything of actual substance, quality, or work worth two seconds' of your time.

Deborah Chasman is the editor of Boston Review, where Diaz is the fiction editor. She wished for me to go away, because what happens there is Diaz, four times a year, hooks up friends or similarly awful writers who share some of his "above all, bore" mantra, so she lied to me and told me that they were dropping fiction. That way, I'd not be in her inbox again. Two Boston Review poetry editors quit, though, when it turns out that Diaz was retained. They thought it was wrong. But what on earth is the loyalty to this guy at Boston Review? There is hardly any fiction in that magazine as there is. It would have been so easy to skirt any statement on the issue, if you were that worried about controversy, by saying you were going in a new direction with the fiction, or lack of fiction, anyway. You know what it was? This is an increasingly irrelevant magazine that was never very relevant that wants to say they have a Pulitzer winner. Eh, it will come back around for Diaz, maybe, and that risk could pay out in the small, petty, disturbing way that people like this like.

Magazines like this blame the world for readers not reading their fiction. They never think that the fault could be in what they are offering the readers of the world. I never met anyone who liked a Diaz book. People would have them. Curiously, they were often given as gifts. Were they re-gifted? He was only in The New Yorker, it seemed, when he did manage to produce something that was termed a short story. The hallmarks were always the same. The main character would be a fictionalized version of Diaz. There would be some Spanish phrases. Lit business people love that. They think it speaks to how multiculturally progressive and open they are. “Reviews said it was great, but I stopped reading his book after ten pages.” Over and over and over I heard this. Who the hell actually liked this work?

But the trumpeting of Diaz’s greatness was endless. Sometimes I’d see him on TV. He could barely speak. Inarticulate to the degree of a starling who has been stuck in the chest with a needle, and can’t make proper sounds because its mouth has been gagged with a stray bit of cloth. Then I learned that he had a picture book coming out. Figures. Less words. It’s hard to think up the words if you’re someone like this, whereas the truly great writers worry/fret, as they compose, so as not to waste time, that they’ll live long enough to get out anywhere near all that they have to say. A great artist could live to be 750-years-old—and in some ways, they do—and always still have more to say. But not a Junot Diaz.

I’d watch him plug his picture book on TV, and think of that Radiohead song “Fake Plastic Trees.” There is this gorgeous moment in it, when singer Thom Yorke caresses the words “And gravity always wins,” his voice transitioning as effortlessly as low-level fog burnt off into a ray of sunshine on an early June morning to a falsetto, ever-going higher, that reminds us that the artist can sometimes out pace nature and the laws of physics. Gravity always wins because gravity is reality. But the trump card, for the artist, is that art is reality with, as F. Scott Fitzgerald would say, a bit extra.

It was around this time, in April, that Diaz decided to identify himself as a victim in a New Yorker piece he wrote. I read this online as soon as it was published, and I thought, “right, you are cooked now, sir. It’s over for you. Because you are trying to get out ahead of something, and you have nothing here, nothing real.” I watched as the likes of sixty-five-year-old Harold Augenbraum, editor of the Yale Review, where the same old endlessly tired, laughably pretentious fiction is printed, and the former executive director of the National Book Foundation, opined words of otiosity along the lines of “You need a subscription to The New Yorker for this amazing Junot Diaz essay alone.”

Sure, dude.

I then sent this pitch to thirty different editors:

“I think Junot Diaz is a terrible writer. I think he simply fictionalizes his life (something the best authors don't do, because the best authors invent), and has a next to impossible time coming up with anything to say. In a quarter of a century, despite having all of the backing such that anything he writes will appear in The New Yorker and be met with critical acclaim--which is almost always for the wrong reasons in publishing--he has only managed to produce three slim books. Two are story collections, another a novel, and in all three he is clearly simply fictionalizing his life. He relies on his standard bag of tricks: Spanglish (which makes uptight lit biz types feel like they're having an authentic multicultural experience), misogyny, the second person voice.

“He is now being lauded for his New Yorker personal history piece about how he was allegedly raped. And I want to know: why do we automatically have to believe this? He has a new picture book out. He is trying to sell that book. He reverted to a picture book because there are less words, and production is obviously a problem for him. The account in The New Yorker is poorly written, vague, and it reads like a half-baked draft of one of his standard short stories. It's in the second person often (a technique that enables vagueness and is often used to create a smokescreen of imprecision and look "arty" while disguising the reality that you're not working with very much), and it also tries to explain away his lack of productivity.

“Why do this now if you're not trying to move books? People lie. People always have lied, people have always lied for business and attention. Why must we automatically believe someone when, simultaneously, we have reasons to question their motives, and what they are putting in front of us is not convincing, well-executed, thorough?

“I think a lot of reasonable people who read that New Yorker piece will think he's lying. I don't need to say he's lying. But I want to look at the bigger idea of the folly of automatically believing anyone, which it seems like we have to do now, or else we are horrible people. And reality doesn't work that way. People have always tried to cash in for the wrong reasons, and if you're going to have your moment where you have your big cleanse with your past, I think you need to put something forward that is far better done than this. And the timing? It wasn't done years ago, before there was a movement to put coin in your coffers, and it wasn't done when you didn't have a book to sell. It seems desperate to me. I also know that the magazine he edited fiction for dropped fiction, so he's down a gig.

“I see people in the literary community who would sell their mothers into prostitution if it meant more FB likes for them, saying "now, more than ever, because of this Diaz piece, you need a subscription to The New Yorker." Those same people sit on every awards committee. And this is how it works. This is what sets you up for those awards. Diaz knows this.”

Of those thirty editors, exactly three wrote back. They could not do it. Diaz is protected. Diaz is royalty. No one expressed disagreement. But no one was going to be a part of saying that the Emperor was as nude as a newborn babe, and no more self-aware.

The piece was out for a bit, and then Diaz was accused of kissing someone against their will and for years of abuse, which began with someone having at him at one of his readings. Do you know what happened in terms of support for Diaz’s work? Nothing. Do you know why? Because no one ever really actually liked it. You just pretended you did. Or thought you had to. It was like paying taxes. You’re not onboard with them, maybe, but you tithe over what you have to tithe over, and this was part of what you tithed over as a good little foot soldier of publishing, or a good company shill like a Harold Augenbraum, of which there are thousands.

You can’t tell them apart because they don’t have their own personalities, and they just march in 2/2 time to the tune of the corrupt, BS-laden piper. But why? What is the point? There isn’t one. We are talking about an Island of Misfit Toys, only unlike Charlie-in-the-Box from the Rankin-Bass Rudolph special, these people do not wish to leave. The mainland is reality, accountability, sanity, even as our world becomes less sane with each shift from AM to PM and back again. They want to remain where they are, with no system of checks and balances, no prying eyes, no blasts of reality.

They thrive on your apathy to their product, because it is your apathy to their product that renders your desire for meaningful reading experiences dormant. You just tune out. You go elsewhere. Powerful feelings always exist inside of you, ready to be stirred anew, ready to be mixed with feelings you’ve never had, with that right book, that right author, that right story, provided that publishing does not get him or her up on a cross first, as an example of how you are not supposed to go against their system. That system has many Achilles' heels, but none more important than the reality that it just does not matter. As the light gets shone on it more and more, as more and more people say that an emperor like Diaz has no clothes, the more it teeters, until its inevitable toppling.

Then, we will have a fresh opportunity to care about reading again. To feel our souls tango in beautiful pairing with our hearts as our eyes move across the black shapes on white pages, in that glorious dance of the self, of being fully alive, fully human, and, let us not forget, legitimately entertained.

As for Diaz, pass the fork. Done. Charles Dickens could be a bad guy. But people loved what Dickens wrote. They wanted more of it. There was demand. So, Dickens’ work lived on, was sought out, even when Dickens was viewed as a heel. Diaz doesn’t have the luxury of having great work that people ever truly liked. It was funny, though: after he pulled out of a festival and issued a statement copping to everything--and I'm sure his agent Nicole Aragi vetted this--he saw that a little time passed and not much more happened. So what did he do? He wanted back in, of course! So he issues a new statement--and I love this--blaming his first one on it being a first draft, he needed to focus more on his process! That is so typical of this guy. Because you couldn't actually just write something intelligent, could you? You need to take fifteen years to write your garbage. And if and when he returns to trying to write something, it will only be in that one voice of his, and that voice is the voice of an insecure, misogynistic man who has to try and convince you how tough he is, because on the inside he is a sucking chest wound of doubt, someone who needs constant praise, not a jot, iota, scintilla--not a bloody micron--of which his work has earned.

That is gone. He will always be viewed through the lens of his one-dimensional voice, which his lack of talent will forever stop him from going past. Undone, in the end, by his lack of ability. Gravity always wins. Because gravity is reality. You can ask Humpty Dumpty, you can ask Junot Diaz, and soon you can ask more and more writers who make the stick of gum v. breath mint post-lunch dilemma seem far more fascinating than what they put in their books and stories.


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