The Odd How of Reading

I wish I could still subscribe to the Death of the Author theories I glommed onto so readily in college. In part, it’s easy to look at the text through such a narrow lens, and in my experience, that ease was really laziness. Who wants to trudge through the author’s biography, her critical responses, posthumously published correspondences… It’s a lot of work.

Which I’ve known for a few years can’t be avoided. Case in point: When I finish David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, I will be moved to deep sadness for all the obvious reasons extrinsic to the novel-reading experience. John Jeremiah Sullivan captures it well: “I myself was surprised, on finishing the review copy, to have the wind sucked out of me by the thought—long delayed—that there would be no more Wallace books.” Sullivan also masterfully writes out a long magazine piece in exactly the method he professes envy toward DFW for pulling off consistently, which is to say, sans direct journalistic access to the piece’s subject. A must-read.

Others have been far more eloquent than I regarding Wallace’s contribution to literature and the sadness at the heart of his early passing. So instead, I’d like to shift a little bit to “the odd how of reading,” or my observations about the changing conversations about books.

The great Tournament of Books always provides entertainment and highlights unheralded novels. This year was especially illuminating.

In the final “battle” between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad–both great novels–the final judgements by the seventeen judges talk more about what kinds of books they prefer more than anything specific to either novel. You can feel that most judges are happy to have such strong case studies with which to look at their own personal Platonic ideal for the novel.

As someone who works at Franzen’s publisher, it’s been really, really fascinating to see the inside/outside of people’s reactions to the book. I’ve been lucky enough to read it as a stack of white sheets of paper, and as a finished hardcover. There was the excitement, the hype, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, etc. (I tuned out; I’m sure there were many more cycles in there I missed.)

Franzen put it best in an interview (it may have been in the Paris Review) when he said that it seems the culture has to have a big name novelist at times so we can debate what a big name novel is or means or should look like. In that this proves readers think about and wish to discuss what a Great American Novel is/isn’t/could be, it’s pretty fucking awesome. It certainly helps me remain optimistic.

I’m not getting any closer to my point. Apologies.

I invite you to read John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile’s commentary throughout the Tournament of Books, as they put forth a number of interesting ideas regarding how hype and certain kinds of review coverage can help or hinder a novel’s reception. Short of all the ToB judges writing books about criticism (à la James Wood), it’s also some of the best writing around exploring just why and how we like the books we do. And of course: why and how we hate other books.

In the more general sense, then: How much does the cycle of hype in its accelerated form hinder or help our reading of a novel? Is the analogy of seeing The Blair Witch Project after it grossed $100M applicable here (or crass)? Is framing it as a help/hinder dichotomy pointless and reductive?


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