Writers impose, readers dispose. In the US alone anywhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 novels are published annually, and the average offering sells no more than 250 copies. Of course, not everyone reads all the books they acquire. Nevertheless, readers are a catholic, and acquisitive lot. It is not uncommon for those possessed of copious personal libraries, perusing several books at any given time, to still be eager to acquire yet more titles. If some titles remain unread that’s a bullet avid readers are willing to bite for the benefit of retaining flexibility, and autonomy, in their choice of reading material at any given point in time. There is no need to present justifications to other readers, or the world at large, for choosing to read one book while consigning many potentially deserving others to the tsundoku pile indefinitely.
Reading, like writing, is a somewhat solitary enterprise; one may read in a group but one is still obliged to read with a sensibility that is uniquely personal in as much as it is conditioned by prior life experiences, literary maturity, and personal taste. At best readers can bring other readers to see a work they admire, or love, in a light which brings into sharper focus for others the specific admirable, or loveable, features of the work as they see it. It is eminently possible, in any case, for even a lone reader to admire a novel without loving it, and vice versa. As Levinson (2017) observes, a novel may be loveable in that it may persuade you that you want to inhabit the world represented, or make you fall in love with a character who strikes a chord with you. Clearly, a novel with these loveable features might be lacking in features that qualify it as an admirable work of literature. A loveable novel might lack formal sophistication, have a clumsy vocabulary, have a hackneyed plot, or be ham handed in its treatment of various themes. Parallelly, a novel that is formally sophisticated, verbally virtuosic, intricately plotted, and discerning in its treatment of various themes might strike one as patently hideous and unlovable. This might be because the world it represents is cruel, its characters are ghastly, or its plot and themes don’t conduce to edifying interpretations of concerns articulated by the work as a piece of fiction. Over the course of a reading career one might come to love books one previously only admired; conversely one might come to loathe books one loved as one’s sensibilities as a reader evolve, and one comes to expect more from the technical aspects of a novel. The reading public, likewise, is in flux between love and hate, admiration and derision, for the received post-war canon of Literature with a capital L.
Even sophisticated readers can get caught on the wrong foot when they’re unclear about their own feelings towards a novel, or a writer’s oeuvre. They might let their feeling that a given writer’s oeuvre is unlovable convince them, without further evidence, that it is not admirable either. Of course, the converse situation is also possible when they coach themselves to fall in love with an admirable oeuvre that fails to organically arouse anything like love in them, by lying to themselves about the lovability of the content; a version of literary Stockholm syndrome. These are but two ways to be mistaken about the admirability and lovability of a novel, or a writer’s oeuvre. But the number of ways to get something wrong are infinite, even if the work that is the target of readerly approbation is “infinite or nearly” so as jests Hungerford (2016, p.161) about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Are some writers so morally unsavoury that their novels, however admirable, are incapable of being lovable? Amy Hungerford, Ruth Fulton Benedict Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, certainly thinks so. In her polemic against Wallace in general, and Infinite Jest in particular, she opines that Wallace’s zealous defence of the length of his doorstop against a condescendingly described Michiko Kakutani’s protestations can only be evidence of his misogyny. Evidence that by her lights turns dispositive when tallied up with his portrayal of misogynistic men in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, BIWHM, his dismissal of the question of whether it takes a misogynist to write convincing misogynists, and his concern that lay critics like his girlfriend might possibly be innocent of the idea that narrators are not to be identified with their authors. Never mind the fact that even a Professor of English and Comparative Literature is unable to disabuse herself of the intentional fallacy involved in poisoning Wallace’s well with the repugnant traits he so acutely described in BIWHM. By all indications, Hungerford believes acknowledging that there is evidence of a well-recognized flaw in her argument automatically removes the flaw. Only that can explain her proceeding as if the charge of making the intentional fallacy doesn’t apply to her ascription of his characters’ misogyny to Wallace himself. Why think it patronizing that someone not a professor of literature, like Hungerford, would not make the very same mistake? It appears Wallace was very considerate, if ultimately self-serving.
While acknowledging “our favorite book lists are bound to include the works of rogues, misogynists, and manipulators of all genders and orientations” (p.148) Hungerford goes on without irony to maintain she intends to find Wallace’s oeuvre wanting on account of his misogyny, and manipulative extracurricular behaviour. Very well, she contradicts herself. She contains multitudes; multitudes of anaemic reasons David Foster Wallace’s fiction is morally reprehensible, reasons which only insinuate but fail to reveal any substantial connection between textual themes, personal character, gender attitudes, and the “erotics of reading” (p.153). Wallace believed like Mark Nechtr, a literary model of his, that the writer is out to fuck the reader by hook or crook. Hungerford is within her rights to refuse this overture, and even to take offence at the infelicitous presumption built into this ambition. But in characterizing Wallace as a literary rapist she descends into self-parody with as little “self-consciousness” as she ascribes to Wallace. His wanting his audiences to have to reread Infinite Jest is no different from James Joyce’s wanting professors to spend their whole life decoding his genius in Finnegans Wake. Another similarity between Joyce and Wallace is that the former too was known for his manipulativeness, extreme self-assurance with respect to his own greatness, and his stark refusal in his late works to meet the reader where they might be expected to be.
Nevertheless, Joyce is let off with a slap on the wrist for his excessively demanding, deliberately outré, and so for the average reader unlovable, tomes when he explicitly set out to write books that baffled and kept scholars busy for the rest of their lives. He’s chided for conceiving of genius in “persistently masculine terms” (p.157) and forgiven his arrogance because his greatness is now institutionalised, and more or less immunized against grievance theoretic literary criticism. Hungerford cannot strip Joyce of his privileged place in the modernist canon, but she can prevent the canonisation of Saint Dave—or so she thinks. Don’t confuse Wallace’s work bearing all the signs of “‘serious’ and ‘literary’” work (p.158) with its actually being serious and literary work like Mary Carter, director at the University of Arizona, and D. T. Max, Wallace’s biographer, did. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably isn’t a duck. We can prevent this arrogant writer’s misogynistic, and pretentious, oeuvre from taking a place among great contemporary literary fiction by tarring his works with his problematic “relations with women” and “ugly” conception of sex—even if it is not possible to establish how these bear on the texts he has produced without massaging the work grievance theoretically or simply refusing to read it on account of the notoriety of the author’s behaviour. An editor of the LA review of books who politely asked her to try “good old fashioned close reading” (p.160) before rubbishing Wallace’s oeuvre as so many mansplanatory apologias for misogyny was dismissed by Hungerford as patronizing, and impertinent. Even if one agrees with Hungerford that the editor was wrong to think Wallace has lessons on appropriate gender relations, misogyny, sex addiction, and the erotics of writing in his fictions generally and in IJ, BIWHM, and Adult World in particular, it simply doesn’t follow that Wallace’s work is morally problematic on account of failing to provide such lessons. Must fiction instruct? An affirmative answer is aesthetically and ethically primitive, and bespeaks the sensibility of morality plays from the Tudor period. Can hideous works not teach, if only a keener appreciation of the hideous? Even if there is no instructive value in Wallace’s life or writing it is not at all clear why this is a failing of his writing at an aesthetic, or literary, level. There is no reason to believe “he has anything smart to say about the dynamics between men and women and reading” (p.150). All the same, it’s hard to dispute that his work remains valuable even if it’s nothing but the product of the hypergrahpia of a privileged, manic depressive, nerd obsessed with tennis, advertising, and pornography.
It appears Hungerford is simply unable to love Wallace and his writing, which is a perfectly legitimate response to any artist and their body of work. How can one grudge someone their inability to love someone or something? But she is confusing her dislike for Wallace with an objective reason to think his work unworthy of admiration. This is both unnecessary as works repulsive to one might still be admirable, and unfortunate as it signals one’s immaturity and inability to consider one’s affective response independently from objective features of the thing eliciting the response. Hungerford just dislikes Wallace so much any stick is good enough to beat him with, even if that stick is a leg of the chair she’s sitting on. Discontent with careful, textually motivated critical examinations of Wallace’s work Hungerford is moved to excoriate the tendency criticism has to engender yet more criticism, increasing Wallace’s reach and posthumous influence beyond what she deems his ken. Seeing how the literary sausage is made she wants to stop doing her bit in the lit crit kitchen. However, there is no justification for spoiling another’s broth. As Alex Perez observes in his excellent essay “the literary world has become an inhospitable place for young male writers. The overwhelmingly female editorial side of publishing seems to have made a mission not only of dismantling the boys’ club — arguably a worthy goal — but also of seeking dramatic redress.” While Hungerford talks about the relatively greater representation of male authors in the Western canon she doesn’t acknowledge the recent trend of literary awards being predominantly given to women writers. Refusing to read the works of an author one dislikes, for whatever reason, is a prerogative of every reader. But just because you can’t, or won’t, read some novels, it doesn’t follow that this refusal or inability is a virtue which must be imposed on others not saddled with this inability, or unwillingness. It is commendable that Hungerford is allowing her doctoral student, who’s writing her dissertation on addiction in American literature, to read IJ. Hungerford also deserves praise for being willing to read IJ just so she can be a better interlocutor with her doctoral student. If she’d taken this same sagacious tolerant stance earlier she would not have been obliged to make bad arguments to the effect that her intolerance for Wallace is a virtue.
In dismissing IJ’s success as a consequence of aggressive marketing Hungerford is dismissing Wallace’s fans as dupes. Clearly, she thinks the reading public is dumb enough to not know what is good for it. Yet, puzzlingly, marshalling the anti-intellectual and patronizing stance of Gabriel Zaid with respect to the general public, she bemoans IJ’s heft itself as “form of undemocratic dominance.” She’s also, equally puzzlingly, alarmed that there are too many novels being published these days. If many of these are as fat as IJ then most of us will be unable to read as many as we ought to in our capacity as the reading public desirous to read as much as we can. This casuistic line of thought is riddled with inconsistencies. Consider, arguendo, that a fully democratized republic of letters would maximize the number of authors and encourage everyone to write books as fat or slim as they pleased. Hungerford clearly dislikes this true democracy of letters. That’s because a maximally democratic republic of letters would be one where everyone wanted to and actually produced novels of any length they pleased as often as they pleased. In one possible iteration such a democracy could see 209,128,094 novels published every year as every adult American put forward their unique contribution. Hungerford expresses dismay at being unable to read the “fifty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety new novels” from the contemporary annual tally of 600,000. In a maximally democratic republic of letters, assuming she continued reading 10 novels per year, she could have to forgo reading 209,128,084 novels annually; imagine her heartache! I don’t really sympathise with her plight though, knowing that her regret is merely performative, an attempted justification, a cover, for her irritation at the fact that some man she dislikes has produced a doorstop which is somehow also somewhat popular for a work of literary fiction, and threatens to become a fixture among the great books of our time.
If we believe the world of letters would be made better by everyone who wants to write writing whatever they think fit we must, minimally, develop tolerance for whatever people are currently putting out in the world of letters as it is. This by no means commits us to loving, or even admiring, every work of fiction we read; or, even reading every work of fiction we possibly can; or, loving works we admire or admiring works we love. We are only committed to the relatively modest task of not confusing lovability for admirability, or repulsiveness for lack of merit, and vice versa. Let 209,128,094 novels of 1,700 pages each bloom!
Amy Hungerford. (2016). Making Literature Now. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Amy Hungerford. (2016) “On Not Reading,” The Chronicle Review. September 11, 2016. Retrieved: September 13, 2021. URL: https://www.chronicle.com/article/On-Refusing-to-Read/237717.
Jerrold Levinson. (2017). Aesthetic Pursuits: Essays in Philosophy of Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.