116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Self-representation as Self-valorisation in Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Philip Jones, University of Sussex, UK

My paper explores the intersection between self-representation and self-valorisation in Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Exemplary of a new dominant aesthetic mode in contemporary US literature, Eggers uses literary work to fashion and present his personal brand.


If, as Leigh Claire La Berge argues, the brand once acted through the postmodern text, creating value for the corporate firm, then in Dave Eggers’ 2000 fictional memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius it becomes the way in which the text itself acts, augmenting the author’s self-value (60-61). Through a critical reading of Eggers’ text my paper will explore how self-valorisation requires discursive practises of self-representation. Moreover, I argue that Eggers’ text typifies a literary culture in which authors use their fiction to take themselves as objects of valorisation. As such, I briefly discuss Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Tao Lin’s Taipei as further examples of this trend.

 In The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault famously designates the neoliberal subject as an ‘entrepreneur of himself’, who is ontologically bound to produce their own value (226). Following Foucault, scholars such as Michel Feher and Niels Van Doorn argue that in the New Economy of ascendant financial markets and digital media the entrepreneurial subject increasingly negotiates their value through abstract markers of self-worth such as visibility, reputation and influence. Wendy Brown argues that ‘enhancing the self’s future value’ now predominantly takes place through accumulating social media followers, likes and retweets (34). Van Doorn similarly explores the ways in which valorising the self through scores and ratings requires the attention of an audience, which is garnered through the successful curation of a personal brand. Despite the centrality of representation to both accounts, neither Brown nor Van Doorn address its critical role in framing the self as a branded enterprise.

 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius formalizes the neoliberal pressure to advance one’s value through acts of self-representation, presaging a now ubiquitous online culture that incites individuals to construct a personal brand for a target audience. In the preface to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers describes the text as a ‘vindication of self-worth’, expressing the hope that it will garner him an audience of ‘thousands of millions of watchers’ which he describes as his ‘lattice’, a network of like-minded followers (xxxi, xxxii, 211). Further demonstrating Eggers’ eagerness to establish an audience, the text concludes by telling the reader ‘I have done this all for you’ (435). In her reading of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Caroline Hamilton shows how Eggers ‘acquiesces to the temptation of public revelation’ in an effort to secure the reader as a future audience (ref). Yet, Hamilton does not link such efforts to a neoliberal culture that compels the individual to carefully compose selected instances of self-exposure into a personal brand. I argue that much as corporate branding attempts to abstract a product or service into a concrete form of propertied life, Eggers abstracts from himself what he refers to as his ‘style of life’’, a ‘lifestyle’ or self-brand which he continues to market throughout his subsequent work both as a writer and publisher (175). As such, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius exemplifies a new aesthetic mode in which literary form becomes interwoven with the negotiation of the author’s value.