a few thoughts on A Supposedly Fun Blog
I’m really intrigued by and happy about this Infinite Jest project, and A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog for people who are reading IJ this summer and reacting to it in print. It’s filled with a lot of bright people and good writers. I want to wait, to see how their reactions develop, and (I hope) to see them gradually taking to the novel a bit more than it seems they are now. But there is an idea, floating in the blog, that I want to react to, because it is a piece with a much bigger conversation that has gone on for as long as I have been concerned with the business of reading and longer.
Conor Clarke of the Atlantic writes, prefacing a negative review of David Foster Wallace’s work from James Wood: “Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world.”
This is something you hear so often in literary criticism that it almost goes unnoticed, and certainly I wouldn’t want to scold anyone working on A Supposedly Fun Blog about it for that reason. But despite its ubiquity, it’s actually incredibly destructive, and a symptom of a really pernicious attitude that pervades our appreciation of literature. Careful: James Wood likes James Wood’s aesthetics. “Aesthetics”, in literary criticism, has become as question-begging a term as “realism”. Both assume a narrow vision of important concepts, like what constitutes aesthetic pleasure and what exactly realistic representation entails. The traditionalist tells the punk rocker that he prefers music which “sounds good.” For those of us who are interested in novels which continue to push up against the walls of our expectations and heave away– for those of us who have read “Daisy Miller” and like it fine but don’t need to read yet another author rehash its style, voice and structure– ceding the definition of the word aesthetics is to give up the game. What constitutes beautiful and moving art is precisely what we are arguing about when we argue about literary greatness.
Again, this is so prevalent an attitude, that one and only one set of evaluative criteria carries the pride of place that comes from representing aesthetics, that you can’t blame anyone for thinking that it’s true– particularly for those who aren’t academically or professionally involved in literary criticism. But it’s a constricting and arrogant attitude, full of a noxious combination of elitism and faux-populism, and it’s one that we should push back against. The right to define aesthetic pleasure is part of a private contract between reader and writer. Don’t be fooled into thinking anyone, even someone of James Wood’s institutional authority, has the ability to usurp that interchange.
And, crucially, this myopic view of artistic beauty is the popular attitude. Again, you’d never know, because most every literary conservative constantly represents him- or herself as being a lone voice of sanity among the crowds of disaffected, listless, ironic pomos. This is interesting, because if you put most contemporary literary critics in a room together, you’d find that very many of them are in fact shouting in full throat that they are the only shouters. Harold Bloom likes to call himself “a chorus of one” due to his (proudly) old-fashioned critical stance; but, really, he’s a chorus of most everybody. When you look for the pomo-loving, tradition-hating, beauty-deriding, sneering throng that is described so often by the Jonathan Franzens and BR Meyers of the world, you’ll find instead an auditorium of traditionalists, decrying their low numbers. I don’t want to rehash Ben Marcus’s notorious takedown of Franzen and his fellow travelers, but it is important to understand that it was Marcus’s that was the lonely voice. (And, sure enough, the traditionalist establishment quickly dispatched Cynthia Ozick to pen a disingenuous and empty smackdown of Marcus, in the pages of Harpers, to remind the world of who exactly holds the cards.)
None of that means that you have to like the aspects of Infinite Jest that are not traditional, or think that he pulls them off, or that they aren’t affected or pretentious. I am not a booster of the novel, personally. And I don’t mean to involve in an old squabble a bunch of people who are doing nothing other than good-naturedly taking on a book and reacting to it publicly. Certainly, there is no indictment of the people involved in the group blog intended here. I’m not meaning to argue by proxy and I have nothing but good feelings about the blog. I bring all this up only because it’s depressing the degree to which the atmosphere of distrust has become the norm and seeped into popular culture. All I want to say is: don’t think that James Wood has any right to define the aesthetic, don’t assume that any experimentation must be an affect, don’t confuse the intentional difficulty some of you have noted with an intentional lack of pleasure, which after all is a beast of many faces. And enjoy the novel.
Finally, I point out this: all of this, the aggrieved and distrustful critical reaction to any novel that comes within a quarter mile of what we might call the postmodern, has been established for years. It was well established, I mean to say, when David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Which means that he, like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the good faith of his audience. The interview Dylan Matthews quotes shows the degree to which this act of faith haunted Foster Wallace; yet the book remains. Julian Sanchez, commenting on the controversial footnotes, says “having notes at all announces ‘behold, I am a quirky, convoluted pomo novel .'” Again, I can’t blame him for feeling that way. But no book announces any such thing. Rather, it has that announced for it by the “fuming, unwanted ambassadors” that Ben Marcus rightly derided, the antique gatekeepers who unasked and unwanted try to save readers from books. This novel, faults and all, is a work of faith, and when read with trust and courage, will reward both.