Monday, December 22, 2008
The Reader and the Page
John Lingan’s essay on William Gaddis in the latest Quarterly Converstation is very good, one of the best analyses of Gaddis’s work I’ve read recently. I particularly like this description of The Recognitions and JR:
Gaddis anticipated postmodern American literature’s obsessions with entropy and the “death of the author,” but he shared the high modernists’ attention to form. Like Joyce peppering Ulysses’s newsroom scene with capitalized headlines, Gaddis constructed The Recognitions and JR as mimetic of their subjects—the former is as bulging and ornate as the Flemish paintings that protagonist Wyatt Gwyon is paid to forge, and the latter is one continuous flood of voices, frequently unidentified, that recall either a stock ticker’s relentlessness or an overlapping teleconference. . . .
I also mostly agree with this characterization of Gaddis’s work:
Just as his novels JR and A Frolic of His Own announce their subjects (”Money . . . ?” and “Justice?” respectively) in their opening sentences, William Gaddis’s career could have started with the question, “Work?” No single word better encapsulates the concerns and organizing metaphor for Gaddis’s artistic project, in which he chronicles the myriad ways that postwar industrial American culture devalues and drowns out individual expression in an endless barrage of information. His concerns were weighty—nothing less than the erosion of western culture and society—but Gaddis’s novels are ultimately saved from grim systemic coldness by his emphasis on work, which he defined strictly and defended with religious zeal. To Gaddis, work equaled an individual effort (best exemplified by the sympathetic and underappreciated artists of his first novels, The Recognitions and JR) to sort through the swarming cultural ephemera and create, with monastic persistence, something that no machine or business could adequately reproduce. Since Gaddis believed the two to be tantamount, his emphasis on the value of work was nothing less than a defense of the artistic impulse itself.
I don’t think that Gaddis avoids “grim systemic coldness” simply through his depiction of work (a point on which I elaborate below), but that the “work” of art holds special value for him is clearly enough illustrated in his novels.
However, I can’t really accept the implications of Lingan’s conclusion about the “difficulty” of Gaddis’s fiction:
The Recognitions and JR. . .are not books that function as the literary equivalent of a player piano. They are not “hot media,” to borrow one buzz term that Gaddis quoted in his National Book Award acceptance speech for A Frolic of His Own. Rather, they require effort, metaphorical reading between the lines, and ideally a little research, as evidenced by the encyclopedic website The Gaddis Annotations, devoted to annotations of the novels. They require, in other words, the readerly equivalent of a Protestant work ethic.
Gaddis is indeed one of those modern/postmodern authors whose writing is considered “difficult,” requiring more effort than the casual reader is likely to expend. While it is true that books like The Recognitions, JR, and A Frolic of His Own call for a special kind of attention on the reader’s part, an attention capable of reading not just between but around the lines of dialogue that comprise so much of these novels, I don’t believe that referring to the act of reading Gaddis as encompassing “the readerly equivalent of a Protestant work ethic” is ultimately very useful or very accurate in commending his novels to potential readers. It suggests that, as the “last Protestant,” his “work” privileges moral critique over art, is more ponderous matter than engaging aesthetic manner, and I don’t think either is true.
Lingan quotes Gaddis himself protesting this austere view of his fiction:
. . .I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. . . . Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.
The perception of Gaddis as a moralist depends largely on construing his fiction as essentially a kind of satire of what Lingan calls “postwar industrial American culture.” There is undeniably an element of satire in Gaddis’s novels but in my view to settle for that in responding to these novels is to settle for the least possible interest one might find in them. Satire is ultimately a one-channel mode of discourse: the satirist mocks, and the reader is duly edified. There is no “participation,” no “collaboration” on the reader’s part--except to agree that the subject at hand is worth mocking. When Gaddis says that what his fiction offers “ends up being between the reader and the page,” he is asserting that it provides a much more complex reading experience, one that is itself the source of “pleasure” and that transcends the lesser value to be found in satirical correction.
However much fiction like Gaddis’s challenges some complacent reading habits, it does so in the service of expanding our capacity to read abundantly, and thus our capacity to take “pleasure” in what we read. An assumption that seems to be held by those who decry “difficulty” in fiction is that the ideal reading experience is one in which little is asked of the reader, who judges the value of the experience by how quickly we can get from one sentence to another, one paragraph to the next. A reading experience is worthwhile if reading is in effect concealed, the reader made to forget that words are interceding between him/her and the “story,” that a work of fiction is ultimately a verbal composition the patterns and internal logic of which are more immediately the object of the reader’s engagement than any “content.”
But I think many readers implicitly reject this notion of reading, and many others could be led to do so if confronted by a text whose initial difficulty--which is to say unfamiliarity--is eventually ameliorated by the work itself, which teaches us how to read it as we go, and which proves to be as aesthetically pleasing as any more transparently “enjoyable” conventional narrative--indeed, perhaps even more so, since this pleasure has been earned more rigorously. Gaddis’s novels are of this type, it seems to me, and fans of these novels are not just responding to their invocation of a “work ethic” but are finding the work exerted amply rewarded by the subtleties of effect that become available and by the very heightened attention that makes these effects more visible. Both the volubility evoked by Gaddis’s emphasis on talk and the silences such talk obscures, the reader asked to make those silences speak, act to make Gaddis’s fiction very active, and thus very entertaining in its own way. This is what makes his fiction appealing to most of his readers, not the prospect of gaining glory through hard work.
Lingan’s oh-so-cute conclusion is remarkably tone-deaf: as if any expenditure of effort counted as the relevant “equivalent of the Protestant work ethic”. (Making Wyatt’s paintings the equivalent of the counterfeit money what’s-his-name’s father makes, on the grounds that they both require research and painstaking care to execute.)
To make a claim like that stick, you’d have to say much more about what sort of attention Gaddis’ novels require, and what is actually being criticized under the name of the Protestant work ethic in those novels, than Lingan could do in so short a piece.