The Deep End of the Pool

For a long while now, it’s been my contention that whether you like or dislike a novel is about the least interesting thing you can say about it. The same goes for arguing about which books are or are not “great literature” (1). Every book has something to say, and possibly an interesting way of saying it.  Focusing on these things is where the fun is, and it is where reasonable people have room for disagreement.

There are many heavy-hitters of the literary canon that I’ve read but didn’t particularly enjoy reading.  Joyce’s Ulysses and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment come immediately to mind. Those works don’t speak directly to me, and I didn’t dig deep enough to find a connection with them.  I may revisit them at some point in the future, or I may not. But I’m convinced that I’m better off for having read them, even if they’re never likely to be favorites of mine (2).

The fact that I’m not a fan of either work isn’t a fault of either author.  Both novels are classics–required reading for people who take literature seriousy. Both authors have other works I have sincerely enjoyed (e.g. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground; Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). My experience with reading them simply underscores the fact that what anyone in particular happens to like doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion. I also like Dr. Pepper, sushi, mandarin oranges, and chicken-fried steak. But, unless you’re taking me out to a very odd dinner, it’s not really of much interest, is it?

I’ve bailed on a good many literary works, too. And some of them, regardless of what good might or might not be mined from them, I’ll never revisit. As a professor I had in college once said, “By this point in my life, if there’s anything I’m still missing about, say, DeFoe, I’m content to miss it.” We probably all feel that way about certain authors or at least about certain works (Paradise Lost comes to mind).

A certain amount of the complaining, over at Infinite Summer, about the length, heft, and complexity of Infinite Jest, serves, a similar function to the locker-room post-match sessions in Infinite Jest: it’s just a release valve for the pent-up frustrations of a difficult but useful task. It also gives cover for those considering ditching the project entirely. And that’s sad, really, because it strikes me as the sort of book that really is worth the effort.

I run into this sort of attitude a lot when I’m teaching. Some students complain that some modernist novel or poem is convoluted. They want everything to be direct and not to have to do any work–or, at least, not much work–to figure things out. They want answers, not puzzles. Cognitive dissonance gives them the howling fantods.

Since they are, mostly, unfamiliar with how long realism held sway, they have a hard time understanding why novelists get bored with what has gone before and try to find new ways to say things. In short, they don’t often appreciate technique, much less how a particular technique might lend itself to a particular theme (rather than just being all for show). They’re accustomed, to the extent that they’re accustomed to reading at all, to reading for plot and for “entertainment,” in the lowest-common-denominator sense of the term (3). Unfortunately for them, quite a lot of literature, at least after realism, requires just this sort of jumping in at the deep end of the pool and hoping you can swim your way back out. It’s not surprising that not everyone finds that prospect entertaining; but some of us do.

Or, as DFW put it–in a Salon interview about teaching that I read after I penned the previous paragraphs–and much more succinctly and casually than I am, evidently, capable:  “To watch these kids realize that reading literary stuff is sometimes hard work, but it’s sometimes worth it and that reading literary stuff can give you things that you can’t get otherwise, to see them wake up to that is extremely cool.”

That sums it up pretty well, I think: sometimes hard and sometimes worth it. I just happen to think this is one of those times, at least for me. And, honestly, this is cake compared to Ulysses, if only because DFW and I were both born in the same country and in the same century.

The self-selecting crew of people participating in the Infinite Summer project is much larger and much more varied than any group of students in a literature class. It’s a wide spectrum of people with a wide range of motivations and a wide range of familiarity with literature in general and DFW’s work in particular. I don’t know how many were signed onto the project at the beginning (there’s no official tally), nor how many remain. Attrition is a factor in any project of this sort. Some people simply aren’t going to have the time for it. Others will find that the book simply isn’t what they expected and will lose motivation for it. This would happen no matter what we were reading. Even though DFW’s bona fides as a literary genius are well established, not everyone will have the time or motivation to make it to the finish line (4).

I might not either, for that matter, at least not until all the bleachers have been folded up and the street sweepers have finished cleaning up the confetti. At the rate I’m going, I might make it there before Christmas. As with most projects, I overestimated the time I’d have to devote to this one. But I’m content to keep on limping toward the goal. Because, even though there are certainly some tedious parts of Infinite Jest, it’s still holding my interest, and I still feel like it’s worth my time. And I don’t anticipate changing my mind about that.

So I’m going to post this and then get to reading, because I’m way behind, and the water is deeper than it looked when I first jumped in (5).


1. Discussions of this sort are entirely contingent on whose definition of “literature” and whose definition of “great” has jurisdiction. And it doesn’t take too many counterexamples to find that there’s no definition of either which has 1) stood the test of time or 2) ever been shown to be applicable to enough works to be useful without, at the same time, leaving out plenty that any reasonable person would want to include.

2. I am a believer in the probably psychologically and philosophically naive notion that reading is good for you. And, given the time I’ve devoted to it in my life, I have a vested interest in believing that reading challenging works is better for you than reading whatever is on sale at the supermarket this week. Call it elitism if you like. That doesn’t mean that all great literature must be, by definition, challenging to read.

3. For a good and very accessible discussion of entertainment in literature, check out Michael Chabon’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2005. Chabon has his cake and eats it too, defending entertainment as a concept but also pointing out that sometimes it takes something a little more complicated to entertain people.

4. He’s a MacArthur Fellow, for Christ’s sake. That puts him in some pretty good company.

5. If it wasn’t obvious, this post is in response to Detox’s post and Daryl’s post, both of which are in response to Avery’s post.

5 thoughts on “The Deep End of the Pool

  1. Daryl Houston August 12, 2009 / 8:22 am

    Very nicely said. And welcome back! Hope that if/as you have time, you won’t hesitate to write quick posts here and there, even if they’re behind the milestones.

  2. steven August 12, 2009 / 9:34 am

    Wallace says this in the 1996 KCRW “Bookworm” interview with Michael Silverblatt:

    “I guess when I was in my twenties like, deep down, underneath all the bullshit, what I really believed was that the point of fiction was to show that the writer was really smart.”

    He was not too long out of his twenties when he wrote this book. Why does everyone have to pretend that that quality does not come through in his writing? Michiko Kakutani even noted it in her review.

    I read “Consider the Lobster” a few years ago and was impressed, so I’m giving this one a second try. Four years ago I quit at about p. 280. Now I’m on p. 540, so I will finish.

    There’s a party at E.T.A. where everyone comes wearing a hat. He uses it as an opportunity to name all the exotic hats of the world which he himself never even heard of before he looked at an illustration in a reference book. It reads like a bad creative writing exercise. I ain’t looking up the hats in the dictionary!!! Other writers have used this technique more artfully.

    Michael Chabon is a very accomplished writer whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel I happened to read. But he’s not my kind of writer and I doubt that I’ll read anything else by him.

    I read a lot of books in very different styles and I know firsthand that there’s a lot of “genius” in all of the creative arts, so I’m not particularly impressed with his IQ or his knowledge of mathematics or any fellowships he’s received.

  3. wheat August 12, 2009 / 9:55 am

    No offense, Steven. I haven’t made it to the hats chapter, and I don’t claim the book is not showy, occasionally to a fault. I just don’t yet think it’s flawed–or, at least, flawed enough to put down (Huck Finn, many argue, is flawed, but it’s still worth reading). I don’t have a problem with anyone not liking the book. There are plenty of books I don’t like. I tried to make that clear.

    What I’m trying to argue against is the idea that anything other than straight, declarative prose is somehow unnecessarily complex, insulting to the reader, or both. That’s what I’m seeing, lots of “this is too long, this is too complicated, OMG it hazz foot notezzzz!!!!!” For all those folks, I say: man up.

    I’m still on the fence with Chabon. I’ve read an essay or two, one story, and one novel by him. I loved the story and didn’t care too much for the novel. The jury’s still out for me, with respect to his work. I’ll give him one more novel to make his case.

  4. Slimbolala August 12, 2009 / 2:47 pm

    Wallace is undeniably strong medicine and likely to provoke strong reactions of one sort or another. For me, it resonated powerfully, but I can certainly understand and sympathize with those who find his voice excessive and off-putting. It is what it is what it is.

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