This Week in Books: Readers Who Hate Novels and Novels That Hate Readers
“Reader, you and your curiosity are terrible nuisances. What’s it matter to you?”
So, I was reading Jacques the Fatalist the other day. “It must be obvious by now that I’m not writing a novel,” writes Diderot, after the fourth or fifth time the narrator has paused to muse over (i.e., to complain about) what kind of thing would happen next, if this were a novel, usually citing some melodramatic posturing and how boring that would be, so he’s definitely skipping it. “I’ll spare you such things—you can find stuff like that in novels, in comedies written by ancients, and in your daily life dealings with other people.” It’s a funny little idea, because he’s saying bad fiction is bad because it’s too close to real life, not too far from it. In real life, people are fucking dramatic! “Reader,” scolds the narrator, after refusing to describe the place at which his pair of travelers, Jacques and the Master, have just arrived, “you and your curiosity are terrible nuisances. What’s it matter to you?” There’s nothing a novelist hates more than people who read novels, perhaps the most dramatic people of all.
In an essay on literary trolls, Lauren Oyler writes that
…Jarett Kobek trolls throughout his 2016 novel I Hate the Internet, which begins with a “trigger warning” for a long list of topics, from “capitalism” to “historical anachronisms”... The better troll is that, early in the book, Kobek declares, “Almost all movies are better than books. Most books are quite bad. Like this one. This is a bad novel.”
which is an evolution from Diderot’s position. In the past, the novelist who hates novels would claim their book wasn’t one; now, they just acknowledge it’s a bad one—because they’re all bad.
A guy writing a novel the only way to do it: unhappily.
There’s more than one way for a novelist to demonstrate his hatred of the people who read novels. Percival Everett shows us the way. As Dan Sinykin and Edwin Roland explain in a sidequest to their super-long quantum analysis of contemporary literature,
[Everett’s] Erasure… [was] a direct outgrowth from how booksellers treated Frenzy. Fiona McCrae, Everett's editor at Graywolf, writes: "that a major chain chose to display [Frenzy] only in the African American studies section surely sowed the seeds of anger that gave rise [to] Erasure. Everett was furious that booksellers pigeonholed him as a black writer with a book that, in his estimation, had nothing to do with race.
Erasure features Thelonious Ellison, who, like Everett, is a fiction writer and an English professor in southern California… In need of money to support his ailing mother, Ellison writes a hyperbolic parody of Richard Wright's Native Son and calls it My Pafology, though he later retitles it Fuck. Fuck, written under a pseudonym, becomes a commercial success, and Erasure concludes with Fuck winning a major literary award, granted by a committee on which Ellison is a member, horrified by the depth of his colleagues' gullibility…
According to reviewer Sal Nicolazzo, in her also very interesting (though less quantum) analysis of eighteenth-century novels, Nicole Mansfield Wright argues that it’s good to hate the novel. We really should do it more often. Writes Nicolazzo:
…Indeed, what [Wright] ends up concluding is instructive not only for these specific novels but for the novel in general: there’s nothing inherently progressive or empowering about the novel form itself, and its capacities can just as easily entrench existing hierarchies through the very means that we, when we try to recruit more English majors, often like to promote as the humanizing and equalizing power of the novel specifically and literature more generally. Wright thus offers a crucial contribution to a growing body of work that shows the critical and pedagogical generativeness of not necessarily loving the archives that define our fields and curricula. When the archives that define our fields are largely racist and/or colonial—as is certainly the case for eighteenth-century British literary studies—it becomes even more crucial to emphasize the absolute non-necessity of loving these texts…
1. “Certain Unidentified Roses” by June Jordan, Bookforum
Two poems excerpted from The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller.
Dear Sirs: / I have been enjoying the law and order of our / community throughout the past three months since / my wife and I, our two cats, and miscellaneous / photographs of the six grandchildren belonging to / our previous neighbors (with whom we were very / close) arrived in Saratoga Springs which is clearly / prospering under your custody
2. “Magic Actions” by Tobi Haslett, n+1
Tobi Haslett writes about last year’s uprising. Much scholarship is mentioned throughout the piece of course, but Haslett especially draws our attention to the foresight of the activist James Boggs:
…Of all of the black radicals whose legacies are now being scoured for lessons, [James Boggs’s] is among the brightest and most appropriate to this new phase. Born in Alabama in 1919, he spent nearly thirty years working in the Chrysler plant in Detroit, during which he agitated on behalf of black workers and came to see their predicament… as the prelude to a wider crisis. Decades before neoliberalism, he knew that postwar growth and high employment would evaporate, and that the working class was changing shape…
[H]e knew that riots—the destruction of property and mass clashes with police—would be a routine feature of a society riven by racial hatred and which refused to feed its poor… Although he split with his mentor C.L.R. James, Boggs held to James’s belief that despite the fixation on “equal rights,” the vigorous challenge posed by the black movement proved that it was power, not the democratic ideal, which was being fought for and forfeited every second in the real world. “Rights are what you make and what you take,” he wrote in The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, published in 1963—the high noon of Civil Rights…
3. “László Krasznahorkai: ‘Before you call me an elitist, let me call myself one’ Part 1 of 2” by Márton Jankovics (trans. Owen Good), Hungarian Literature Online
4. “Part 2 of 2”
A somewhat skeptical interlocutor elicits some wonderfully grandiose statements from László Krasznahorkai. (They are discussing — sort of — his latest book, Herscht 07769, which is as yet untranslated. His most recently translated novel is Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming.)
…The great cultural bemoaners of the 18th – 20th centuries saw things clearly. There was a transition period when there was still a fight, but that ended, in Amsterdam Van Gogh became a fridge magnet, in Paris Monet a light headscarf, and in Kyoto the Ryoanji Temple Rock Garden a one-hundred-and-fifty-kilo American tourist, who sits beside it, and who, with one glance across the garden, releases such a fog of stupidity over the Ryoanji, completely shrouding it, in other words, the victory is total, the common, though nuanced, is capable of asserting itself as true quality, since there’s space only for the barbarian, the brutal…
Moloch presses down on the artist with immense force… Our entire lives are interwoven with this new order which switches the lights off on reality, and projects a film – always the same film. Moloch keeps his affairs revealed, brutally naked, but blinds his subjects… Hence why mass communication is so strong… It helps to maintain a virtual, completely fabricated reality, so the naked order won’t collapse. It knows exactly what people need. Because it’s not prophets people need; it’s false prophets.
5. “Against Conglomeration: Nonprofit Publishing and American Literature After 1980” by Dan Sinykin and Edwin Roland, Post45
A fascinating data analysis of the contemporary American publishing industry, which includes many historical details which I had never encountered before (feminists occupied the Grove offices in 1970!, Graywolf published a novel by Scooter Libby in 1996?, etc); which reveals that “conglomerate” fiction is more likely to use words denoting bureaucracy and machination whereas “nonprofit” fiction is more likely to use words denoting fleshiness and embodiment; and which adds expertly to that noble pastime held dear by so many American readers who find themselves absolutely tired of all our bad books: that is to say, breaking down all of American literature into two big categories so as to pit them against one another!
In 2008, Zadie Smith imagined "Two Paths for the Novel": lyrical realism in the long tradition of Balzac and Flaubert; or avant-garde, along the more recent model of Barthelme, Gaddis, Pynchon, and Wallace. (She voted for the latter.)
The next year, Mark McGurl published The Program Era, about how creative writing programs changed American literature. The editors of n+1 responded by proposing that the two paths for the novel were MFA or NYC: creative writing programs or New York publishing. MFA: Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson. NYC: Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Gary Shteyngart.
Both Smith and n+1 tell partial truths. By missing corporate conglomeration, they miss the whole. The two paths paved by the period — which subsume and reorient realism or avant-garde, MFA or NYC — were commercial or nonprofit.
1980 marked the start of this era. Under tremendous financial pressure, commercial and nonprofit publishers split in their approaches to literariness. Viewed at scale, we see patterns emerge. The conglomerates produce allegories for themselves. Language of ambition, bureaucracy, and social mores differentiates conglomerate books from those of the nonprofits. And the nonprofits double down on what distinguishes fiction from nonfiction: language of embodiment…
…Writers of color, who make up a disproportionately small fraction of literary production, do not align easily along the intersecting axes of conglomeration and literariness. Works by leading conglomerate writers of color — Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison — are sometimes misclassified by our model as nonprofit books. Percival Everett’s and Karen Tei Yamashita's novels are sometimes misclassified in the other direction. Rather, conglomeration organizes writers of color by how they respond to diversity. Everett and Yamashita, writing for presses with multicultural missions, make explicit, in their response, their refusal to play the role of writer of color passively…
6. “Adjunct Hell” by Maggie Doherty, The Nation
Maggie Doherty reviews Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind and Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, both of which she identifies as a new type of campus novel: the adjunct novel, “versions of the bildungsroman, the novel of education—but here education means learning just how precarious your future is.”
…Smallwood [introduces] us to insecure grad students who, in her words, read aloud “in the same tone one uses for driving directions or a recipe.” …[S]he describes a grad student’s dissertation on “the politics of doors.” Strong, meanwhile, is great on the small details of the literature classroom: the dead silence in response to a question, the student spooning yogurt from a large plastic tub throughout the first hour of class. When her narrator, unnamed for most of the novel, teaches Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child to her students, one complains that book’s main character is “mansplaining Auschwitz to his wife.”
But The Life of the Mind and Want are not typical campus novels—because for most of us the prototypical campus experience no longer exists. Capitalism and corporatization have ravaged the university, making the stakes of academic work extremely high rather than comically low….
7. “U Mad?” by Lauren Oyler, Bookforum
Lauren Oyler writes about people who troll the literary world.
The literary world—full of gullible romantics, blinkered narcissists, and people who understand their preferences as inseparable from their souls and therefore never to be insulted—is easy to troll.
8. “Notes From Below” by Elias Rodriques, The Nation
Elias Rodriques reviews Richard Wright’s “lost novel” The Man Who Lived Underground, which has recently been published for the first time.
A surrealist and existentialist tale, The Man Who Lived Underground was rejected by several publishers, but the novel found an afterlife via a series of winding roads. The rejections led Wright to condense the narrative, in particular cutting the lengthy description of police violence in the novel’s opening, and turn it into a short story that was published in 1944. That story was admired by Wright’s friend and mentee, Ralph Ellison. Later, after winning the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man, Ellison stated that his novel had been inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. While he and Wright had fallen out by this time, Wright’s influence on the novel was hard to deny…
9. “Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison” by Ahmed Naji, The Believer
Ahmed Naji writes about his imprisonment on charges of “violating public decency” for having written the novel Using Life, which is about a secret society of urban planners that has been manipulating the course of human events via architecture.
...The cellblock… was home to the wealthier prisoners, as well as to foreign citizens, who were visited regularly by embassy representatives. Despite the differences in our crimes and backgrounds, everybody read books. It was the only licit way to pass the time… Most of these people had rarely read before coming to prison, but now they had nothing better to do. For the first time in my life, I was meeting the Average Reader. They read for pleasure, without paying much attention to the cultural or historical context of the book. One man came up to me carrying a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Eternal Husband. “Have you got anything else by this guy?” he asked. “He’s hilarious!”
10. “Slave Traders Knew Exactly What They Were Doing” by Rebecca Onion, Slate
Rebecca Onion reviews Joshua D. Rothman’s The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, which “tells the story of how… three men profited from the United States’ decision to outlaw the foreign slave trade...”
…“Their professional dominance came in part from their command of the intimate daily savageries of the slave trade,” Rothman writes. “The exhilarating thrill of acting with impunity animated them…”
This dynamic is most visible in the traders’ letters discussing teenage girls who were sold as sex slaves… Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard prided themselves on their ability to know what buyers might want—their success “speculating on the erotic desires of slaveholders”…
11. “The Real Power of Fictional Grievance” by Sal Nicolazzo, The New Rambler Review
Sal Nicolazzo reviews Nicole Mansfield Wright‘s Defending Privilege: Rights, Status, and Legal Peril in the British Novel, which “asks an extremely timely question: how is it that narratives of victimhood at the hands of arbitrary and excessive power are deployed so frequently in defense of those in power already? To answer this question, Wright turns to the eighteenth-century British novel, a genre long understood to be entwined with liberal modernity…”
The central literary phenomenon she documents—enslavers’ cooptation of testimony of the enslaved as a rhetorical tool to be deployed in defense of slavery—offers a powerful reminder of the vulnerability of all rhetorical tools, no matter how much we may regard them as inherently liberatory, to cooptation to serve the interests of the powerful…
12. “The Informants” by Julian Rubinstein, Guernica
An excerpt from Julian Rubinstein’s work of investigative journalism The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, in which he comes to suspect that the biggest threat to a Denver neighborhood is not its gangs, but rather “the guys calling the shots if not pulling the trigger… [who] remained on the street and close to politically charged events, despite being the well-known authors of violent crimes. They were an invisible army inside the invisible war” — that is, the police informants.
Alex Alonso, the sociologist and founder of Streetgangs.com, said that his research suggested a recent surge in the numbers of informants. Alonso, who lived in Los Angeles, believed that this was an untracked but leading factor in the rise of gang violence. He estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of gang homicides were connected to informants—either committed by them, or as revenge against their perceived presence. This was one important reason why intra-gang violence had surpassed inter-gang violence, and why gang violence statistics were often so off-base: the FBI and many municipalities, including Denver, defined gang violence as an action by a member of one group against another group. A member of the Bloods killing another Blood didn’t count.
…[O]thers told me they believed the problem went deeper. They believed the police used informants in northeast Denver to strategically undermine opposition to initiatives sought by city hall…
13. “An American Historian” by Joshua Cohen, n+1
An excerpt from Joshua Cohen’s novel The Netanyahus.
My name is Ruben Blum and I’m an, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical. By which I mean I’ll die and become history myself, in a rare type of transformation traditionally reserved for the purer scholars. Lawyers die and don’t become the law, doctors die and don’t turn into medicine, but biology and chemistry professors pass away and decompose into biology and chemistry, they mineralize into geology, they disperse into their science, just as surely as mathematicians become statistics. The same process holds true for us historians—in my experience, we’re the only ones in the humanities for whom this holds true—the only ones who become what we study; we age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time…
14. “You Say Plagiarism. I Say Provocation.” by Dustin Illingworth, The New York Times
Dustin Illingworth reviews Sam Riviere’s Dead Souls, “a fantastical, alternate-world version of London in which poetry has become the city’s major cultural product.”
…[T]he capital’s ascendant literary scene is embroiled in scandal. Sophisticated detection software created at the behest of publishers — the quantitative analysis and comparative system, or QACS — has confirmed that the poet Solomon Wiese, a rising star, is a plagiarist. Paranoia engulfs the commentariat…
15. “Matrix Revolutions” by David Grundy, Artforum
David Grundy writes about N.H. Pritchard’s volume of poetry The Matrix, originally published in 1970 and recently reissued.
…Visually, Pritchard emphasizes paratextual features such as gutters and margins, turning the book’s pages into zones of punning drama, “forums of ruined will”...
…A particularly grim and historically resonant visual pun sees the word “Passage” printed in the gutter between facing pages, literally down the middle of the book. Yet from the very experience of loss and dispossession—“ghosts / hovering . . . in words / from an unknown / tongue”—Pritchard’s “decomposed” poems begin to reach toward another light, to “return / in something other than urn”...
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