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Jul 03, 2012 12:45PM
Discussion of pp. 211-240
(last edited Jul 09, 2012 01:11PM)
Jul 09, 2012 11:34AM
Don't know where else to put this, but it won't fit on Twitter, so:
I was going to drop my attempts to discuss the apparent hostility toward the reader that's evident (only to me?) in Gaddis' book. Too many people in the #occupygaddis group (that is to say, two) seemed to take it as evidence of MY hostility toward Gaddis, the book, them, or their appreciation of J R. But this morning @SoniaKJohnson posted an
that seems to address and argue against my initial take on Gaddis' stylings. I enjoyed the article, and especially the insight into WG's process, and I welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion outside the constraints of Twitter. I feel her later conclusions are an oppressively grim take on American readership and specifically and personally, me. Since 140 characters don't allow me to respond with any nuance, I thought I'd take the opportunity here.
Gaddis says his main purpose with his stylistic "departures" is to "speed the reader along, to soften distinctions between narration and dialogue ... and ... to capture sound ... remove the narrator ... and oblige the story to tell itself." I think he succeeds at these last four goals, just as he fails utterly to acheive the first one.
To succeed at "speeding the reader along" his stylistic changes would have to be easier to parse than the standard punctuation and style choices that we are all used to from other books. There may be a way to do this, but WG has clearly not done that here. His first two goals seem to be in direct conflict. One-third of the way into the book, I'm still backtracking every fourth paragraph or so to try to figure out who is talking, has the scene changed, and if so to where. There is no possible way that I am alone in that, despite the publicly professed ease with which other readers claim to be flying through the book.
He is writing to his boss, after all ... so I'm not sure if I think he's lying here, or if he's simply tried an experiment that failed. I acknowledge, however, that this note pokes a giant but not all-encompassing hole in my notion that he's adopting a deliberately hostile attitude toward the reader.
And let me pause here to explain that initial notion of mine better than I did on Twitter. I never meant that it was a BAD thing for WG to adopt an attitude of hostility, nor that it made J R a bad book or that I was personally offended at it. On the contrary, I found the idea interesting and wanted to see where WG went with it. After this note, I'm almost disappointed that it may in fact simply be a difficult text, with a devilish and gleeful hostility removed as an overarching structural reason for the difficulty.
As for the rest of Sonia's article: I think I'm the only #OccupyGaddis reader that's even mentioned the word hostility, so it's hard not to think much of it is directed at me. Yes, I am vain, but bear with me. I am a chemist and technical editor. OF COURSE I am a less skilled close reader of J R than a PhD candidate in American postmodern fiction.
Hostility and sadism are not even close to the same thing. Maybe someone else was talking about sadism, but not me. So the psychosexual aspects of reading J R, while perhaps worth exploring, are arising not from "the various online discussions so far" but from your reading of them. Unless I'm missing something.
"This mandate of self-improvement ... is a particularly American and capitalist way of reading." I think many in East Asia, the Middle East, India, huge swathes of Europe, and in many other cultures, would object strenously to this statement.
"Difficult writing is a grim, painful affair inflicted upon the reader by a cruel author." "[I am] put off by this sexual metaphor where the reader plays the submissive to a dominant text ..." Whoa, wait, hold on. What exactly is she accusing me / us of? I don't think you can find a source for ANY of that in what I've said. Sonia, if you are put off by that sexual metaphor, you perhaps shouldn't have crafted it out of thin air just then. And difficult writing can be exhilirating, intriguing, or simply annoying, but rarely grim and painful;* I stop reading well before it gets to that point, as I imagine most readers do.
"That is, the novel and literature generally transcend the potential narcissism of writer and reader." Here, in the final paragraph, is the discussion I really wanted my thoughts about hostility to engender. I quite like Sonia's thoughts here about the novel as a work of "importance and urgency" separate from the reader. It's not that different from what I originally meant by "hostility" but I think she's phrased it much more carefully and effectively. I'll be keeping this reading in mind for the rest of my journey through J R.
* Talking about the experience of reading itself. Of course stories are often grim and painful -- I'm thinking in particular of Blood Meridian.
(last edited Jul 09, 2012 02:55PM)
Jul 09, 2012 02:53PM
Brian wrote: "Don't know where else to put this, but it won't fit on Twitter, so:
I was going to drop my attempts to discuss the apparent hostility toward the reader that's evident (only to me?) in Gaddis' book..."
The debate about ‘difficult’ books and their presumed attitude toward the reader has been coming up quite a bit recently. Admittedly, I initially had the same thought about hostility to the reader when I was reading 'The Recognitions', but I’ve since completely changed my opinion. The article that most helped me get a handle on my own attitudes is this one from Phil Jourdan, written in answer to Franzen:
No Thanks, Mr Franzen, I Like My Novels Difficult
I thought the article you’re discussing by @SoniaKJohnson had a lot of problems, not least of which is her constant begging of the question, as you already pointed out regarding supposedly common sexual metaphors and supposedly uniquely American attitudes to reading. Another area I think she begs the question is the idea of “speeding the reader along’. She interprets this as effectively skimming a book and not worrying about understanding all the deeper references. I think Gaddis works best with the opposite approach; pay close attention to every word or you’ll miss transitions and clues as to who is talking. Putting the initial effort in makes (for me at least) the conversations flow quickly along in the normal tumble and confusion of many voices with different agendas all talking over each other. I think the “speeding along” is more a subjective perception of the content rather than being what people think of as a ‘quick read’.
I think Jourdan (and Steven Moore, whom he quotes freely) also make better use of the sports metaphor as relates to difficult books. It’s not necessarily painful self-improvement or a form of masochism. People who have skied a long time want to tackle the more difficult slopes. No one accuses them of being pretentious or of being hostel to skiers who prefer the bunny slopes. People who read a lot may want more challenging books. If someone else isn’t prepared to put in the work, then, yes, they may find themselves sidelined like a poor athlete. That’s not a failure of the writer or the reader, not every book needs to nor should appeal to every reader.
As for the last part of what you (and Johnson) wrote, could you clarify? I’m not at all sure what “transcending the potential narcissism of writer and reader" means, or how a book can be considered as ‘separate from the reader’. Is this at all like considering a sandwich ‘separate from the eater’? Because I don’t know how that would work either.
Thanks for the post. You’re right, it would have been hard to get all that in on Twitter :-)
Jul 09, 2012 03:09PM
I won't get to post much more today, but I just want to pop in to say 1) thank you both for keeping this going, and 2) to clarify, hostility != difficulty. For example, I found Infinite Jest somewhat difficult, but not at all hostile. On the contrary, I think a sort of kindness suffuses that book.
More when I get time!
(last edited Jul 10, 2012 11:21PM)
Jul 10, 2012 11:16PM
Whitney: I think I just meant that I agree with Sonia that art is always considered now as inseperable from the audience, and as somehow incomplete without an observer; but in pre-modern times I think that may not always have been the case. (If I wanted to be utterly facile I'd link this change to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but I don't think science influences art that directly.) It's possible that Gaddis is hearkening back to that, and he's crafting an object without quite as much concern for the reader as is common in writers of his era.
This is probably another area in which Gaddis is similar to Joyce, but I'm the wrong person to ask about that. I've read Joyce but did not much enjoy him.
Jul 11, 2012 04:05PM
Brian wrote: "I think I just meant that I agree with Sonia that art is always considered now as inseparable from the audience, and as somehow incomplete without an observer; but in pre-modern times I think that may not always have been the case..."
Brian, interesting you said that, - have you read ‘The Recognitions’? The main character makes a point of saying how the Flemish painters made purer art, because they made it for the site of God, and a painting degenerates when it becomes conscious of being looked at by other eyes (to paraphrase).
If this applies to Gaddis’ writing, I’d say I at least partially agree with you that he probably had less concern for the ‘common’ reader, but not that he had less concern for every reader. To add to your Joyce comparison, Joyce said of Ulysses "I'm writing a book to keep the scholars and professors guessing for centuries. That is the only way to ensure one's own immortality." Not the words of a man unconcerned with readership, just one more concerned with a particular type of readership.
I’d like to hear more about what you meant by ‘hostility’, since you made it clear you didn’t just mean difficulty. And thank for refraining from the facile Heisenberg comparisons :-). It drives me crazy whenever someone claims it applies to anything that isn't measured in nanometers.
Jul 12, 2012 10:53AM
I appreciate this discussion. I'm haven't found myself focusing on what the intent of the writing style has been. I've focused on how my own experience of reading has been changed. Being confused about who is talking and where they are is an experience that I am tolerating and sometimes enjoying.
So I'm wondering how a reader's confusion might actually improve the experience of a book like JR. Since I'm not done reading, I haven't drawn a conclusion, but I'm sure there are several possible answers.
Jul 13, 2012 06:32PM
I think you're on to something, Kristin, saying that confusion improves the JR experience.
I too felt Gaddis's hostility from the beginning of this book, but now, after a month or so, I'm starting to roll with it a bit. Every few pages I lose track of who's talking, or I find myself flipping back fifty or sixty pages to review who's who or what happened to whom. Somewhere around p200 I threw up my hands and even started taking detailed notes on the text in order to keep up. I'm now listing each scene, its span of pages, its participants, and any key developments or revelations. And I'm finding that Gaddis rewards this sort of active reading, the "close attention" that Whitney posted about here. For example, I felt a rush when I was finally able to piece together the Jack Gibbs narrative from the beginning through all of his scenes, proceeding from his drunken episode with Bast, to his German-speaking ploy with the train conductor, all the way up to his conversation with Eigen's wife Marian. Doing this with Gibbs, and Dan DiCephalis, and Amy Joubert (as detailed in this excellent post at
, btw) and all of the characters, really, makes the confusion worth it somehow. It reminds me of the way a single footnote in Infinite Jest tended to clear up days of muddling through a seemingly irrelevant passage from hundreds of pages earlier. I guess the difference is Gaddis wanted to eliminate the narrator, while DFW could never resist inserting himself into the text.
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