Entering the Literary Dialogue

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Irony and Sincerity

As one enters the literary dialogue, the way writers present questions tangles together with how readers approach these questions. Whether the questions are posed with ironic fanfare or with sincerity affects the reader’s thought process.

Entering the Literary Dialogue

So, what exactly do irony and sincerity look like today? First, consider irony. 2010 irony is a departure from traditional irony. Mockumentary TV shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation and the increasing co-opting of hipster culture have made irony practically the air we breathe. This is both fun and wearisome. 2010 irony is complicated. Knowingness has produced it. Hip cultural references are only a click away, so one sees every passé implication of whatever one is doing, and makes jokes that wink at the person in the know. With 2010 irony, real meanings are ambiguous, but what’s not ambiguous is that self-consciousness attaches itself to each action, statement, fashion choice, or literary choice. A Georgetown Voice journalist observed about today’s irony: “We are… still used to being able to ask about sincerity and get a straight answer…yeah, my moustache is just for laughs. Today’s irony is far more ambiguous… and far richer for it” (Collins).

This ambiguity illuminates a nihilistic worldview behind irony. Much contemporary ironic literature arises from the view that if you peel back the layers of an organized and structured world, you find howling chaos beneath it. Author Michael Chabon, who skillfully merges irony and sincerity in his writing, is forthright about this worldview. In one essay, he celebrates an author for expressing “The fragility of life, of ‘reality,’ of all the structures that we have erected to defend ourselves from our constant nagging suspicion that underlying everything is chaos, brutal and unreasoning” (131-132). If all is chaos underneath, then the structures that humankind has erected are facades – all fair game for wisecracks.

[blockquote]Thinking of irony and sincerity as binaries is no longer valid.[/blockquote]

Then sincerity must be the better choice for Christians, right? Let’s consider sincerity. Thinking of irony and sincerity as binaries is no longer valid. Contemporary writers crave sincerity, but for those who came of age watching The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, getting away from irony would be as tricky as getting away from their own skin. Sincerity looks different in the age of irony. In many cases, fear of sentimental obviousness has synthesized irony and sincerity.

Consider contemporary author Dave Eggers. Eggers, 40, has been called the avatar of his generation and has embodied hard-to-pin-down irony. He pretty much created an empire. He published numerous books, wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are, founded several nonprofits, and started three magazines, including the genre-bending taste-maker McSweeney’s.

Some reviewers classify him as a self-conscious ironist, others as the leader of literature’s New Sincerity. He’s both. Consider the acknowledgements section of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: “The author would like to acknowledge that he does not look good in red. Or pink, or orange, or even yellow – he is not a spring. And until last year he thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman, and that George Eliot was a man” (xix). Toying with the word “acknowledgements” winks at the reader’s knowingness. On another level, it’s an admission Eggers is approachable. The book is performance, but Eggers still wants us to know his real self.

The title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is both sincere and ironic. The book covers heartbreaking subject matter. In his 20s, Eggers lost both parents to cancer, then raised his 7-year-old brother Toph. Heartbreaking. Yet no one could get away with using such a grandiose title without irony (McGrath; Pierce). 2010 sincerity is aware of audience reactions and of layers of meaning barnacled onto words and symbols.

Still, examples of less ironic but still informed sincerity abound. It appears at poetry slams, where the best poetry is authentic with a thick skin. It appears in literary magazines. It shows up in the popular literature of social justice.

What worldview undergirds much of literature’s sincerity? The New Sincerity’s credo is: love what you define as “awesome” whether or not other people support you because you need to embrace life as the only thing that is actually guaranteed (Kharakh; Muehlhauser). Instead of posturing, say those embracing New Sincerity, instead of being ambivalent, and frittering away your years, focus on life because its sweetness is the only existence humans will know.

Next Page: “Transforming Irony and Sincerity”