I think I’m generally considered by those who know me personally to be like Vulcan-level rational, often to a fault. Rational thought tends to supercede feeling, to the point that I wind up hurting people’s feelings by demanding (or at least expecting, and balking at the lack of) distanced, objective consideration of things that are really more or better felt than considered.
So imagine my surprise when I read Avery Edison’s Infinite Summer post yesterday and found myself becoming defensive and doing this weird rare thing that I think may have been emoting. She doesn’t like the book. She’s reading it with distaste and figures it’s a waste of time. She disdains the style and yearns for more explicit and I suppose active plot rather than what she describes as portraits. When I read (and reread) her post, I find myself getting flushed, feeling angry. She doesn’t deserve this book. She’s somehow profaning the book by owning a copy of it and having these opinions. I wish she’d stop reading it, stop taking pot-shots at it. Why doesn’t she just go get the latest Grisham (not much but plot in those, is there?) or maybe a Harlequin romance? Is she fucking retarded?
Silly, huh? I know rationally that her position is valid and shared by many (for many express similar sentiments in the comments to her post). I know that there are simple matters of taste in literature. And I don’t mean taste as in snobby wine drinkers who’ll buy only from boutique wine shops vs. those of us who are happy enough to drink a Yellow Tail. I mean taste simply as in some people like broccoli and some people don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either position. I know this. When I read Portrait of a Lady many years ago, I had much the same reaction to it that Avery had to Infinite Jest. Rationally, I understand that this book, and probably most of Wallace’s work, just isn’t for Avery, and I know objectively that that’s ok and doesn’t in any way detract from the book’s value for me.
But still, I feel like she’s denigrating one of my children, or unjustly defaming one of my heroes. It’s hard to get past. And here’s the thing: I don’t feel this way about any other author. I’m a great admirer of the work of William Gaddis, but if somebody told me they couldn’t get past page 4 of JR, I’d be neither surprised nor bothered. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Pynchon’s work; it took me three or four tries to get through Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve false started a couple of his others a couple of times too. I haven’t made it more than halfway through Ulysses yet (despite several tries). Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. He’s more traditional and human, in a way, than these postmodern giants. Where I have no real sense of personal admiration for Gaddis or Pynchon (it’s their work I’m on board with), I feel like Steinbeck was a nice, sort of approachable guy, and I sort of like him. Yet if somebody says they don’t like his work, it doesn’t bother me. No hard feelings.
What is it, then, about this disdain for Infinite Jest that sticks in my craw? I do admire who Wallace seemed to be. I think he was probably a good, nourishing person to know personally. But I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t chalk my hurt feelings up to that. Maybe it’s because he died, but then Steinbeck is dead too. Maybe it’s because he’s the first real author whose prime occurred during my active reading/intellectual prime, and whose life ended during mine. That does make it all more personal to me. I had looked forward to many more books from Wallace, to many more years of not only enjoying his work, but of watching it develop in something more like real-time than for these old or dead authors whose work I admire mostly looking back in time. Reading Wallace’s work has been, in a way, almost like watching a child grow up (though I’m not comfortable with the sort of superior or parental role that simile places me in, so let’s discard that part of it). And now that work is done.
There’s a reference somewhere in Infinite Jest to a character (I think a past boyfriend of Molly Notkin’s) who believes that there’s a finite number of orgasms available in the world, and so he’s crippled by the fear of consuming one of them and thus depriving another person of one of them (side note: it just occurs to me that this orgasm limit and selflessness ties in with the whole can-of-soup discussion Marathe and Steeply have at the end of this week’s milestone). Although I know it’s irrational, I feel almost that way about reading Infinite Jest. If somebody’s going to read it at arm’s length or with a sneer or a frown of distaste, I don’t want her to read it. It’s almost like she’s wasting its time (rather than its wasting hers) or preventing some other person from enjoying this major piece of what sadly turns out to be a finite (and far less prolific than I’d desire) body of work. It’s irrational and stupid, I know, but it’s how I feel. Hashing it out here has helped me step back a little bit, so that I can get past the weird flash of anger or resentment I feel when I think about Avery’s post (and similar reactions), but it still all hurts my feelings a little, makes me feel sad and further bereft.