Mark Leyner Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mark Leyner 1956–

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Leyner's career through 1995.

Best known for comedic and satirical fiction often characterized as chaotic and irreverent, Leyner is a prominent contemporary writer who blends literary experimentation with elements of contemporary American life and popular culture, including scientific advancement, mass marketing, and the electronic media. Leyner has stated: "I feel linked to artists who launched their careers reading billboards aloud in the back seats on family trips, who spent their formative Saturday mornings cemented to their television screens with crazy glue, who grew up fascinated by the rhetoric of pentecostal preachers, dictators, game show hosts, and other assorted demagogues…. I said in an article once that we need a kind of writing that the brain can dance to. Well, that's the kind of writing I'm trying to write—thrashing the smoky air of the cerebral ballroom with a very American ball-point baton."

Biographical Information

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Leyner is the son of a well-known lawyer. Fascinated with politics and current events at an early age, he avidly tracked the news both in print and on television. He also developed an interest in literature and read such diverse authors as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joseph Conrad, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. Leyner first took up serious writing while in high school, where he wrote a column for the school newspaper. After spending nearly a year in Europe and Israel, Leyner attended Brandeis University as a student of creative writing and literature. In 1977 he graduated and entered a graduate writing workshop at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, Leyner's writing attracted the attention of a group of experimental writers called the Fiction Collective, who published his first book, I Smell Esther Williams (1983). Leyner earned his graduate degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and returned to New Jersey. He worked at a number of teaching and copywriting jobs before the publication of My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist in 1989, which allowed him the opportunity to devote his time exclusively to writing.

Major Works

In an interview with John and Carl Bellante, Leyner stated that he finds I Smell Esther Williams to be "pretentious," "juvenile," and "very derivative of the New York school of poetry." In addition to twenty-six short stories, the book includes a play, a dialogue, and a number of collages composed of random narrative sketches. Leyner's next work, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, is similarly a composite of prose fragments, described by one reviewer as "a kind of postmodern Arabian Nights." Incorporating a variety of popular culture images and symbols, the collection highlights Leyner's focus on the mass media. The protagonist of the novel Et Tu, Babe (1992) is a popular young author named Mark Leyner around whom all life on earth revolves. Seen by many as a critique of America's celebrity-oriented culture, Et Tu, Babe explores the limits of individual stardom and importance. In Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog Leyner continues to address and satirize the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of popular culture and contemporary society, including technological innovation, commercialism, and celebrity.

Critical Response

Although many critics applaud Leyner's satire and parody, some have raised concerns over the anecdotal nature of his prose, the flippancy of his style, and an apparent tendency toward megalomania. Michiko Kakutani has stated in a review of Et Tu, Babe that a reader "begins this demented book amused and entertained and finishes it reeling from anecdote overload." In discussing Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, she has further noted that Leyner's prose pieces "are clever and amusing and willfully superficial." Rick Marin considers Leyner's fiction to be "likably self-absorbed," with the author, as evinced in Et Tu, Babe, writing "about what he knows and loves best—himself." However, Leyner's focus on the excesses of contemporary American society has routinely earned critical praise. Commenting on My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, William Severini Kowinski has asserted: "At last readable literature has been made from the peculiar material of contemporary life, the stuff other fiction leaves out."