A subversive lampoon of the Western literary canon.
Culture writer and creator of the parody Twitter account @guyinyourmfa, Schwartz (Choose Your Own Disaster, 2018, etc.) distills 500 years of literary history through the eyes of a fictional know-it-all. This entertaining guide starts with Shakespeare and winds through Goethe, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and fiction’s heavy hitters, culminating with the Jonathans (Franzen, Safran Foer, and Lethem). Each profile summarizes a particular author’s biographical highlights and major works. Amid factual details, the MFA student inserts revealing asides and footnotes. Off-track forays, from how to roll cigarettes to how to pen dirtier love notes à la Joyce, build a road map for emulating the ultimate writer. Pointed descriptions home in on the features that have stained some of the authors' reputations. Failed marriages, self-absorption, Updike’s infamous Rabbit character, and uglier histories—such as Mailer’s violence—portray a flawed bunch. Comedy writer and cartoonist Katzenstein creates expressive, grayscale headshots with sartorial flair. Ranging from brow-heavy seriousness to closed-mouth smiles, the authors’ faces are humorously annotated. (Of Kafka: “Auteur hair.” Henry James: “Eye bags—genius never sleeps.” Kerouac: “Perfect swoop.”) Each is given a yearbook hall-of-fame title, such as Milton, a “Goody Two-Shoes,” Fitzgerald, who’s crowned “Prom King,” and Vonnegut, “Most Dependable.” Such offhand remarks are clever rather than blistering. Fittingly, the MFA student is blind to his fawning taste. The role demands a misogynist who pretends to be “woke” and who considers New York as the only literary hub worth mentioning. Schwartz's knowingness and thorough commitment are consistently humorous. She writes the MFA guy with sincere, cringing acuity, and the act stays fresh. An affectionate naiveté offsets his ambition, and the literary overview is useful. A reading list rounds out the compendium, a fun read for the aspiring literati.
For all the skewering, this is a well-researched, passionate tribute to books and authors that have left their marks.