In a New York Press review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which wasn’t as well received as Illuminated), Harry Siegel lynched Foer for being, as he described it, “willfully young.” Krauss’s debut, Man Walks Into a Room, was published in 2002 as well, and by the time her second novel, The History of Love, came out in 2005, at the very same time as Foer’s Extremely Loud, the backlash to the backlash had become even more meta. Both books featured similar plots and books-within-a-book; MediaBistro.com even asked whether the couple had planned it as “a cute postmodern joke” between themselves. It seemed like some kind of pre-packaged setup and punch line for critics to tap into as they saw fit.
Winston, who acquired the paperback reprint rights to Illuminated, says she fell in love with Illuminated, and not because of Foer’s looks. However, Winston notes that it isn’t enough these days for something to just work on the page. “If you find out, say, from the agent, that the person is also extremely attractive and really young . . . I don’t think the publishing community is idiotic. You think, ‘Oh, that’s a bonus.’ But you’re not going to not publish the book if that’s not the case.” Literary Darwinism is full of mixed messages like these.
Sometimes, though, it’s about being at the right place at the right time. Nell Freudenberger, 31, had a particularly auspicious introduction. While toiling as an editorial assistant for the New Yorker, fiction editor Bill Buford discovered she wrote short stories, and published one of them in the magazine’s 2001 Summer Fiction issue. Every writer featured in that issue was photographed, but Freudenberger’s picture was especially flattering. Given that she is naturally stunning, this isn’t a difficult feat. So there she was, posed on top of a shiny coverlet on a bed in her apartment, appearing equal parts serious and sensual with her slender figure, large eyes, and pert nose. The debate began over her story: was it really good enough for the New Yorker? Was it included because of her insider status? Then, quickly, the topic switched to Freudenberger’s looks. Did her heavy eyelashes and searching expression sell her piece?
After her story ran, Freudenberger published her first collection, Lucky Girls, which received a favorable reception and was reviewed in publications ranging from Vogue to The New York Times Book Review. In her particularly snide Salon piece, Curtis Sittenfeld, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate and the author of Prep, felt it her duty to take Freudenberger to task. Sittenfeld’s review, entitled “Too Young, Too Pretty, Too Successful,” doled out a series of viciously back-handed compliments to pre-empt her opinion about the book — which she admitted to liking, just not “loving.” “It would be overstating it, but not by much, to say that you could see down her shirt,” Sittenfeld declared of the New Yorker photograph, and admitted to hating Freudenberger for what she stood for. She then sarcastically derided Freudenberger’s decision to turn down a reported $500,000 offered during a bidding war for a reported $100,000 from Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint: “Meaning she was, like, virtuous and un-greedy on top of everything else — it was sickening!”