#OccupyGaddis Begins

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Over at the LARBlog, I’ve written a pair of posts announcing the start of #OccupyGaddis, a collective summer reading of William Gaddis’s monumental 1975 novel, J R. From my original post:

First, get yourself a copy of the J R, either at your local bookstore, your local megachain, online, an unusually literate yard sale, or–you’d better hurry, before it’s privatized–your local public library.

J R is a long book — 725 dense pages — but our pace will be relaxed. If you read an average of 10 pages a day, you’ll finish by August 30. Here goes the tentative schedule I’ve set for myself:

June 29: pp. 150

July 15: pp. 300

July 31: pp. 460

August 15: pp. 610

August 26: done!

Easy, right? That’s only 75 pp. a week, which’ll leave you plenty of time to enjoy the summer weather, take a vacation, watch the new season of Breaking Bad and recover from the season finales of Girls, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. As you read, you can refer to these annotations of J R, which will clarify who is speaking in the scenes we’re reading, and explicate what’s going on.

Today, a second blog post has gone up about William Gaddis’s relationship to failure. A snippet:

Gaddis may still be our most important unread novelist. He’s widely considered a master of American fiction (he won two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is frequently namechecked as a foundational postmodernist writer, but is rarely discussed at length. Even literary scholars, those lovers of the abstruse and the difficult, hardly talk about him. A 2007 edited collection on Gaddis, Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, has only been cited a few times since its publication, and the number of hits Gaddis’s name brings up on the MLA International Database is an order of magnitude lower than what one finds when searching for his peers, like Thomas Pynchon.

Hope you can get on board. If you don’t have a copy of J R you can read the first ten pages for free online while you dig yourself up a paper or electronic copy.

The Mystery of Big Books

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(Crossposted from Arcade.)

“Must literary studies confine itself to the margins of the publishing field?” asks Andrew Goldstone in the first of what promises to be an important series of blog posts on John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

Noting that Thompsons’s amazing account of the publishing field omits readers and writers from its model–and does so by design–Andrew seems to conclude that the answer is “yes,” finding himself “oddly but emphatically at sea about how to appropriate his work for literary scholarship." Indeed, the “world of writers,” Thompson repeatedly argues, is very different from the world of publishers: “for them [writers] it is another world, located somewhere else and largely mysterious in the way it works, an object of wonder, dismay or simply incomphrenension depending on the writer’s experiences of it” (383). And yet the exogenous position of writers and readers to the publishing field need not deter the literary critic. The reason is simple: the objects of literary study aren’t necessarily writers and readers, but books. The death of the author, which literary criticism treats as a theoretical position, is in the publishing field something more like an operational principle. Editors fall in love with books, not writers. And about books, Thompson has a lot to teach us, giving literary critics new ways of talking about the relationship between the inside and the outside of books.

For the most mysterious and central aspect of the publishing field is the fetish of “big books.”

So what are big books, exactly? Simple, you might think: big books are bestsellers. Intuitively plausible though that may seem, in fact it is wrong. Big books are not bestsellers for the simple reason that, for most big books…, at the time when they are being sent out by agents and bought by publishers and are being treated by both as big books, they have not yet been published and no one knows whether they will actually become bestsellers. ‘We don’t know, we just don’t know.’ So big books cannot be bestsellers. At most they are hoped-for bestsellers, which is not at all the same thing. The difference between a big book and a bestseller is the difference between aspiration and reality. (194)

Given the temporal gap between hopes and reality, what convinces actors in the publishing field that they have a big book on their hands? The answer is perhaps just as mysterious as the big book itself: the answer is “buzz,” which Thompson defines as “a performative utterance, a type of speech act,” where “the recipients of hype respond with affirmative talk backed up by money.” Buzz is “a web of collective belief," what happens when hype pulls out its checkbook (194).

Here, the rubber of the literary field meets the road of the publishing field. In consecrating a manuscript with the title of a “big book,” members of the publishing field read together, interpret together, joining a money-minded version of what Stanley Fish once long ago called an interpretive community. Sociologically minded literary scholars might attempt to model how the publishing field chooses big books (or any books for that matter). After all, not all manuscripts get published; not every book becomes "big." At every stage of the publishing chain, agents, editors, publishers, bookbuyers, and ultimately consumers make choices. Some potential-books get knocked out of circulation and others move further down the chain. Some forthcoming books become big, drawing in the publisher’s marketing resources and attention. Others fall by the wayside. By design, the institutions of publishing are designed to manage the problem of scarcity–scarcity of resources and attention. What are the filters, norms, expectations, and constraints that distingiush the unpublishable from the publishable? What practices, rituals, beliefs, and values put some books on the fast track, while holding others back, especially among large consolidated corporate publishers?

It’s possible that what gets chosen by the publishing field is essentially random–there is some fascinating research that suggests that buzz might be allocated without rhyme or rhythm–but it seems that we shouldn’t begin from the assumption that building buzz depends on the random initial allocation of attention and resources. There are a number of important filters already discussed in Thompson’s book that can help us think about the relationship between the outside and the inside of a big book. I’ll name just a few here (some already mentioned in Andrew’s initial post):

  • Voice: “‘To me it’s always about voice basically,’ said a senior editor who acquires both fiction and non-fiction for one of the imprints of a large publishing corporation… ‘Even if it’s fairly analytical or something, it still has to be an author who you feel like you’re kind of in good hands with, and they have this, whatever, special spark of genius that you want to be stuck with for 300 pages” (195). This ineffable quality of the writing itself, so often described in terms of "voice," was analyzed at considerable length in Mark McGurl’s The Program Era. Writers in MFA programs are asked to find their voices, and the publishing field is there to commodify those voices once discovered. Is “voice” the same in both fields? Formally speaking, what sort of sentences have "voice"? Which don’t?
  • Comps: Comps are simply comparable books, books that can plausibly be said to resemble the manuscript under consideration, both in terms of content and in terms of possible future sales record. To be publishable, it helps to be legible to actors in the publishing field in terms of what has already been published. This act of imagination and scenario-building drives the creation of hype and buzz. But as Thompson points out, there is a logic of plausibility that must ground comps. You want to comp a manuscript not to a major bestseller but a more modest but promising success. The question for literary sociology is: what are the horizons of the imaginable? What are known frames of reference in the world of publishing? How do top-ten lists, prizes, syllabi, and other factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the publishing field, shape this horizon?
  • Track: this is the author’s history of sales, as recorded on services like Neilson BookScan. Here, the filter is the marketplace itself, as represented though sales data, which then gets interpreted among members of the field. If an author is on a declining or stagnant tragectory in the market her capacity to sell manuscripts will diminish. Editors and publishers will have a harder time convincing bookbuyers to stock what they publish. Here, one could imagine more work being done on studying the relationship–and balance–between market performance and other factors in determining which books publishers select. As Thompson points out, unpublished authors often have an advantage over published authors, because their lack of a track record allows buzz to float free of inconvenient data.
  • Platform: This is “the position from which an author speaks–a combination of their credentials, visibility and promotibility, especially through the media. It is those traits and accomplishments of the author that establish a pre-existing audience for their work, and that a publisher can leverage in teh attempt to find a market for their book” (87). Platform is especially important for nonfiction, and can explain why a book like Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like could earn a six-figure advance on the basis of nothing more than a popular blog. When investing the concept of a platform, we might try to figure out how different platforms accrue cultural capital, how the dynamics of different platforms shape the broader media environment, and so on. Given the proliferation of platforms online, there is a lot of work to do looking at how platforms affect books, and–as authors increasingly realize the potential to build audiences through other means–books affect platforms. 

These are just some filtering and sorting mechanisms visible in Thompsons’s account. Other filters–cultural, political, material–also certainly must play a role in shaping the literary and publishing fields. My interest, like Andrew’s, is in finding the points of contact between literary sociology and the sort of work that more traditionally occurs in literature departments, however we might want to define that work. Fortunately, as this post argues, I would answer Andrew’s question with a resounding “No.”

Literary critics need not confine themselves to the margins of the publishing field; instead, they should sharpen their harpoons and hunt the publishing field’s great unstudied white whale: the big book.

A short essay on “Watchmen” and platform studies at “ebr”

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I wrote a riposte to Stuart Moulthrop’s essay, “See the Strings: Watchmen and the Under-Language of Media,” in the electronic book review.

Veidt

Halfway through “Fearful Symmetry,” the fifth issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s classic graphic narrative Watchmen, an assassin tries to kill the world’s smartest man. Adrian Veidt, the Watchman formerly known as Ozymandias, is walking through the lobby of the headquarters of Veidt Enterprises with his assistant, discussing Egyptian views of death. On the thirteenth page of the issue, in the seventh panel, a man in a green trench coat appears. In the last panel, he draws a gun. “Oh, God!” Veidt’s assistant screams. “Oh, God. Look out, he’s …” (V.13.9). We anxiously flip the page and confront a dramatic scene: one of the few double-page spreads in Watchmen. On these two pages, there are seven panels: a huge vertical panel that crosses the crease and a series of three roughly square panels on each side of the central tableau. In a violent, wordless sequence, the assassin kills the assistant and is finally subdued by Veidt; the Veidt Method of body training, it turns out, works remarkably well.

If you’re hungry for more, click here (warning: it’s a bit academicish).

Review of Ben Marcus’s “The Flame Alphabet”

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I’ve written yet another LARB book review, this time on Ben Marcus’s fascinating The Flame Alphabet.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes announced the revolutionary overthrow of the writer by the reader. Building on the idea that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” Barthes argued that a ceaseless proliferation of meaning always piles around every sentence, always exceeding the intention of its particular “scriptor,” thus enthroning the reader as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. This newly empowered reader — a figure engaged in a “truly revolutionary” and “anti-theological activity” — was, Barthes thought, “that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”

Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.

For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. The Flame Alphabet is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.

Jonathan Franzen might regard this as a problem.

And yet, if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, my description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise. The Flame Alphabet deforms language in dazzling new ways, frequently surpassing Marcus’s previous books — The Age of Wire and String, The Father Costume, and Notable American Women — at the level of the sentence. Quite strangely, though, at the same time that Marcus expertly smothers the reader under a lovely barbed pillow, he whispers sweet compliments into his victim’s ear. That is, for all its gorgeous rankness, The Flame Alphabet is not quite as successful as it might be. In adopting the literary form of the post-apocalyptic thriller, a form emphasized by all of the novel’s packaging — from its blurbs to its book trailer — it concedes too much to Franzen. Better a clean death, I say. Better the dignity of silent asphyxiation.

There’s more where that came from, here.

Review of “MetaMaus” at LARB

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My review of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus is now available at LARB.

A taste:

In the 1991 second volume of his classic graphic novel Maus, published five years after the first, Art Spiegelman briefly — and dramatically — drops the conceit for which his book is so famous. For seven pages, instead of depicting himself as a humanoid mouse, he draws himself as a human being wearing a mouse mask. When we first meet this new version of Art, he is sitting at his drafting table, balanced atop a pile of dead, emaciated humanoid-mouse bodies, reflecting on the success of the first volume of Maus. In the panels that follow, journalists ask an exasperated Art what Maus means. Merchandisers approach him offering lucrative opportunities to turn his comic book about his father Vladek’s experience surviving a Nazi concentration camp into what Spiegelman has elsewhere called “Holokitsch”: grossly sentimental and commercial appropriations of survivor stories. In response to the trauma of success, Art shrinks down to a child-sized form. “I want … ABSOLUTION,” he whines. “No … No … I want … I want … my MOMMY!” Art visits his therapist, Pavel — another Holocaust survivor, whose own mouse mask bears an eerie resemblance to Vladek’s mouse face (talk about transference!) — and slowly returns to adult size. But not for long.

You can read the rest here. And if you just can’t get enough of my views on MetaMaus, here goes an interview with me and LARB managing editor Evan Kindley discussing my review.

LARB interview with Helen DeWitt

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The Los Angeles Review of Books also published my interview with Helen DeWitt (alongside my review and Scott Esposito’s review of Lightning Rods).

My favorite answer that Helen gave?

I read James Wood’s review of White Teeth, in which he introduced the term “hysterical realism,” a long while back: He complained of novels obsessed with information, novels of relentless vivacity with no real understanding of character. It seemed to me that this way of formulating the objection was only possible in ignorance of Edward Tufte’s work on information design. Tufte is a ferocious critic of what he calls “chartjunk” — charts that enliven data for a supposedly nervous reader; chaos and clutter, he argues, are not features of information, they are features of design. To achieve clarity, add detail.

It’s weirdly gratifying to imagine that Don DeLillo’s problem as a writer isn’t that he’s a novelist of information, as Wood would have it, but that he’s a novelist of chartjunk.

Read the whole interview here.

Hurricane Helen (A Review of “Lightning Rods” for the “Los Angeles Review of Books”)

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In their infinite wisdom, the Los Angeles Review of Books published my review of Helen DeWitt’s very funny second novel, Lightning Rods.

Helen DeWitt’s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published in 2000 to almost universally rapturous praise. It sold a hundred thousand copies in English. If literary publishing were a rational enterprise, even along narrowly capitalistic lines, DeWitt would have no trouble finding a permanent home at a major house. After all, whatever else we might say about her excellence as a writer, DeWitt sells.

But publishing is far from rational, and so we have had to wait eleven years for her second novel, Lightning Rods. Adding to the absurdity of this long wait, DeWitt completed a draft of this book in 1999, before she even sold The Last Samurai, but was unable to publish it until it was released from its contract with Miramax Books, which had the option to publish it, chose not to, and yet would not allow the book to be released elsewhere.

You can read the rest here.

Review of a Character: Sarah Palin in Andrew Foster Altschul’s “Deus Ex Machina” (Published in “The Believer”)

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The Believer published my review of Andrew Altschul’s Deus Ex Machina — or rather the character of Sarah Palin as she is depicted in that novel — in September.

Andrew Altschul’s second novel, Deus Ex Machina, tells the story of The Deserted, a reality-television program limping into its thirteenth season with low ratings and a deadened sense of mission. This season’s contestants—a gay hairdresser, an inner-city gangbanger, an ex-marine, and a dentist who seems completely uninterested in being on television, among other self-conscious walking clichés—vie to beat their fellow castaways in brutal contests of strength and endurance. It’s a dark fable about the depravities of contemporary life and the grotesque falsifications that undergird our reality-television culture, a familiar critique for fans of the postmodern metafictional tradition.

But near the middle of the novel, something sort of odd—something electrifying—happens: in a desperate ploy to revive viewer interest, network execs book Sarah Palin as a guest star. During the fourth week of the season, the Deserted traverse a frozen wasteland to beseech Palin for wisdom and guidance. Appearing as The High Priestess of Xim, Palin offers it: “You can’t spend your life crying over spilt milk… being a whiner. What’s already happened is the past, and only if people aren’t interested in progressing themselves, people who like to kind of complain and whine and put other people in charge to sit there worrying.”

Read the rest here!

Also, it’s not posted online, but you can read Altschul’s response letter to my review in the December 2011 issue.

Unfinished Form (A Review of “The Pale King” for the “Los Angeles Review of Books”)

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The Los Angeles Review of Books published my review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King alongside a review by Cornel Bonca.

In the three months since the publication of David Foster Wallace’s third, unfinished novel, The Pale King — an eternity in the world of professional reviews — plenty of opinions have been offered, but no consensus has yet formed about how it relates to the author’s career or aesthetic priorities. The novel, which follows a host of troubled characters that work or have recently arrived at the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center in Peoria, IL, in 1985, remains elusive. Everywhere in these fifty busy chapters, there are ominous signs of an ongoing organizational restructuring of the Service known as the “Spackman Initiative” or sometimes just “the Initiative.” One gets only a vague sense of the contours of the Initiative and the high-level plotting that gave rise to it over the course of The Pale King’s five-hundred-and-forty pages. Despite multiple dialogues about civics and shadowy background plots, what Wallace seems to care most about is describing how his characters survive the mind-numbing boredom of their IRS jobs and telling the varied, often brilliantly funny and inventive stories of how they came to work there in the first place. But what exactly was Wallace attempting to do with these characters — and more generally with this “long thing,” as he described the book to his editor, Michael Pietsch? How would The Pale King, had it been finished, have advanced the plot of Wallace’s career?

You can read the rest here.

To Norway! On Regionalism and the Reading Class

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(A conversation with Andrew Goldstone originally published on Arcade under the user name “Goldstone and Konstantinou.”)

We’ve both been very interested in the sociology of literature, and we’ve both talked about literary-sociological issues on Arcade before; but there’s nothing like coming to grips with a full-blown literary-sociological study. Herewith, then, our discussion of a recent book by a major sociologist of literature, Wendy Griswold’s Regionalism and the Reading Class (ebook).

AG and LK

Griswold’s thesis is that literary regionalism is an emergent formation, nourished and sustained by the elite stratum of regular readers she calls the “reading class.” Though this elite is seen as (and really is) geographically mobile, even cosmopolitan, its mobility does not, she argues, contribute to the bleaching-out of distinctive local cultures (“place” as opposed to “space”). Instead, regionalism, far from being a residual element of dying local cultures, is thriving in the global age, thanks to highly mobile reading elites. The core of her argument comes in a triad of case studies in literary regionalism. Her third chapter investigates what she calls “cowbirds” in the United States—people who move to a new region only to adapt to their new home by learning about and consuming regional literature. Her fascinating fourth chapter argues that literary regionalism is lacking in contemporary Italy because of the country’s distinctive social history. Chapter 5 compares the effects of state funding on literary regionalism in the U.S. and Norway. The conclusion, passing by way of fascinating anecdotes about the contemporary importance of regional labeling by the Library of Congress, speculates that regionalism will continue to thrive thanks to the cultural prestige of the reading class, even though “reading culture” is vanishing and reading for entertainment is increasingly the province of the “between one-quarter and one-third of the population…in developing countries…perhaps around 15 percent” (167) who make up the reading class.

Reading Class and Reading Culture 

LK and AG, in chorus: We agree on what constitutes the most important part of the book: the description of Norwegian state support for literature! Norway buys 1000 copies of every book a Norwegian author publishes. It provides a $19,000 annual subsidy to every author who is a member of the Authors’ Union. The Association of Bookstores is allowed to have a monopoly on the sale of books—but is prohibited by law from engaging in price competition. It requires, by law, that bookstores keep books in stock for two years regardless of sales. And it exempts books from its very steep sales tax. Not surprisingly, Griswold finds, “Norwegians everywhere read, and they read a lot; Norway has one of the world’s highest reading rates” (137).

LK & AG: Wow. Let’s move there.

LK: My first reaction to the book was that its argument is relatively straightforward but has the virtue of being right. A former sociology major friend of mine complained that sociology reports what you already know, either using really elaborate terminology or a blizzard of data. One counterargument to this complaint would be, yes, that’s exactly what sociology is all about.

AG: Griswold’s concept of the “reading class” is really useful (as already discussed in LK’s earlier post on an article-length version of Griswold’s argument). For me, it represents a first analytic step beyond speculation about the “reading public” and whether it exists. It’s also an antidote to the idealization of the reader in literary studies, which so often assumes that whatever the critic herself sees, “the reader” must see. (But as Anne DeWitt wrote in her post on Victorian reading, modern critical readings can diverge even from the critical readings of another time.) For Griswold, the reading class consists of “those people who read for entertainment constantly,” “modest in size but immense in cultural influence”; it can be characterized in terms of education, economic capital, social capital, demographics, cultural practices (37). The complementary concept is Griswold’s idea of a “reading culture,” a place in which “most people, over and above the demands of their job or schooling, routinely read printed materials for entertainment and information” (164). The practice of decrying the decline of reading misses, Griswold shows, that the reading class continues to read ever more. It is reading cultures, she says, which “are rare and becoming rarer” (164).

LK: She also debunks a dystopian view of reading culture—the sort of claim one finds in Gary Shteyngardt’s Super Sad True Love Story, which depicts a near future in which literally no one is reading (except the novel’s protagonist). Griswold shows that a small group of us are reading more than ever before. Most of us are reading far less, of course, which is why the dystopian story can seem plausible. Still, I’m not ready to fully endorse her story about the decline of reading culture. That is, it may well be true, but where’s the data about the early 20th century? Or the 19th century for that matter? Griswold refers to the age of mass reading as an “anomaly” in history, but it’s hard to compare periods without comparable data.

AG: And the explanation is not bulletproof either. Basically the idea is that reading culture declines because reading, as a source of entertainment and information, loses out to other media: radio, film, TV, Internet. But why is it so certain that reading always loses? What guarantees this?

Regionalism?

AG, LK: There’s a strange non-relation between the two pieces of the book, regionalism and the reading class. Her thesis about regionalism depends on the existence of the reading class. But beyond its existence it doesn’t matter to her story about literary regionalism. Her account of the reading class, meanwhile, could very well stand alone—and could have been developed at greater length.

LK: I wanted more from her findings. Griswold shows that literary regionalism exists. She wants to claim that this regionalism is emergent (in Raymond Williams’s sense). But it could just as well be that regionalism is residual. Or, a hypothesis she doesn’t even consider, that regionalism was always and remains dominant.

AG: If anything Griswold is stronger on the residual quality of reading culture, not the emergent quality of regionalism. Have there been qualitative shifts in the status of regionalism over the twentieth century, for example? Some of Griswold’s key examples are murder mysteries with regional settings—an immediately recognizable contemporary genre. Are there early-century equivalents? (On the other hand, I do see the logic of Griswold’s claim for the emergence of regionalism: if a reading class is now again an emergent formation, and regionalism is closely tied to that class, that regionalism will have been shown to be emergent too.)

LK: For me the big takeaways, apart from Norway, are (1) the roles that state institutions can play in developing literature and reading and (2) the concept of reading class. What further research could be done? How about looking at inequality in this connection? Even crude measures, like Gini coefficient vs. book-publication / book-sales per capita.

AG: What about those weird author lists used in chapter 3’s survey of regionalism? Pretty arbitrary:

NEW ENGLAND:

Connecticut: Rose Terry Cooke; Wallace Stevens Maine: R. P. T. Coffin; Sarah Orne Jewett; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Edwin Arlington Robinson; Tim Sample

Massachusetts: Henry Adams; Anne Bradstreet; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Robert B. Parker; Henry David Thoreau

New Hampshire: Alice Brown; Robert Frost; Celia Thaxter

Rhode Island: Avi; A. J. Liebling; H. P. Lovecraft; Roger Williams

Vermont: Robert Newton Peck; Rowland Evans Robinson. (177)

LK: The list of authors in the survey is indeed weird, a mix of high-school canons, middlebrow writers, and bestsellers.

AG: Yet the middlebrow as a concept is missing from this book, whereas it seems like it’s right at the heart of the reading class vs. reading culture question. Because the “middlebrow” designates some kind of general culture that is widely known, whereas “highbrow” is by definition an elite niche. Another kind of further work that builds on Griswold would try to be more exact about the kinds of literature that have special regional audiences. Perhaps it would turn out that canonical vs. non-, high-prestige vs. low-, etc. just don’t matter to regionalism, and these weird lists are fine. But maybe not.

LK: I think the US cowbirds chapter’s claims are not as well supported as the rest of the book. Yes, it debunks the “Globalization Kills Local Culture” thesis—which needed to be killed—but what about the positive part? What, say, does the relatively higher profile of Garrison Keillor to Minnesotans say about regionalism’s changing status?

AG: Right, and the other chapters have a negative thrust too. The Norway chapter really disproves the claim that state patronage is a sufficient condition for regionalism to emerge. Maybe it’s necessary. Griswold isn’t too clear about what would be sufficient.

LK: Maybe (1) state patronage (2) reading class (3) no aspiration to nationwide hegemony in the region in question.

Life After Griswold

AG: So how do we use this book? What does it change about what we do?

LK: Like I said, I think this book can help as a specific intervention in the globalization debate. I was reading Bruce Robbins’s Feeling Global while reading Griswold. Robbins’s book is really good in a lot of ways, but it’s notable how many intellectuals who participate in globalization debates don’t make many reference to empirical evidence or data-driven sociology.

LK: All of this research, even sociology research, is clearly a mix of qualitative and quantitative, but often the literary side of the equation is all qualitative. We need to investigate further how valid our claims are. And we should certainly be supportive of literary scholarship that looks for data, empirical claims, etc.

LK: Actually admitting that we don’t know something is a good thing. I am a great fan of speculative criticism but I think it has its limitations. For example, rather than claim to have an opinion on whether globalization eradicates locality, we could say, “More research needs to be done on that question before we can make a small claim.” Even if we don’t want to be the ones to do the research! Not all of us want to be creating surveys.

AG: Because we could study it and we could try to find out.

AG: What about models of how readers actually use books? I always want that from sociology of reading.

LK: I guess it’s complicated. In the agent-structure debate, for example, Griswold seems to be a structure person. But we have to have that debate in literary studies too. It’s not like we just import findings from sociology, point to our hard-won facts and say to our fellow humanists “Look! Facts!” We should treat sociological methods and results critically—but critical out of respect and from a serious desire to think about the claims being made.

AG: I’m right with you there. But I’d go even further and say we should import not just the findings but the methods. If we ask sociological questions, we should be prepared to give sociological answers (quantitative and qualitative).

AG: Anyway, there’s a lot of further work to be done on either or both sides of the disciplinary divide. I’m particularly keen to know what would happen if we expanded beyond this book’s near-exclusive focus on fiction. A lot of the argument is premised on a kind of absorptive, solitary reading that seems prototypically novelistic. Indeed laments about the death of reading in the age of TV often seem to fixate on the threat to long-attention-span activity. But fifty years ago this cultural battle was fought in different terms. For Practical Critics and New Critics, it was intensity, not extension, that mattered most about reading. And the key genre for intense reading, for defeating “stock responses” and embracing ironic complexity, was lyric. Is there a “poetry-reading class” that has a distinctive trajectory from the reading class in general?

LK: For me, the big open question is about inequality. Also, we need more detailed studies of individual reading practices. Griswold cites a few of these in her discussion of “How People Read” in chapter 2.

AG: I was particularly intrigued by the ethnography of reading she mentions, David Barton and Mary Hamilton’s Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community.

Is Reading Culture Good?

AG: Is there a normative claim in favor of reading culture? Griswold is pretty careful not to make one.

LK: I think we should value reading culture. And if reading culture depends on state support or subsidies or non-state institutional arrangements, we need to think about what that means about the “politics” of literature departments.

AG: On the other hand, as Griswold points out, mass literacy is not the same as reading culture. What if we had just the former? How bad would it be if everyone could read for information and for work, but reading for entertainment became a minority pastime?

LK: It depends on what you want to say about the transferability of reading skills from one domain to another. There is a set of claims of dubious merit that recur. Reading long-form literary texts enable democracy. A reading culture is about more than mere entertaining. I think we should admit that replacing a reading culture centered on detective novels with a television culture centered on CSI won’t have much to do with democracy-promotion. If we’re talking about long-form attention-intensive reading, then there are arguments like Steven Johnson’s that modern media is increasingly sophisticated and requires complex forms of engagement. So Lost might be as good for democracy as Conrad by that theory.

AG: To me the debate sounds like a retread of Q.D. Leavis-style attacks on the fiction enjoyed by the reading public. Before television and the Internet became the villains, it was popular fictional genres that were held to be stultifying, anaesthetizing, inauthentic, bad for you. Yet 1920s Britain is a close as you could possibly get to a full-on “reading culture.” I wonder whether there isn’t, submerged in the argument about entertainment genres, in any medium, an argument about the genres of information and debate: is this really about looking for a viable public sphere in mass-mediated modernity?

AG: Anyway, Griswold keeps her hands off. The funny thing is that sociology books often make policy recommendations, and this book does tell you how to support reading culture. Look at Norway! But that’s not what Griswold says.

LK: The simplest version of the argument would be: I like books, I like reading them. I want other people to read and like them too. If we all agree that reading culture is good, this is what we have to do make it real.

LK: Another possibly useful finding from this book is about the prestige of reading for all, even non-readers.

AG: Even in a non-reading culture. 

LK: The ubiquitous prestige of reading teaches something about where support for investment in reading might come from. Everyone says they support reading and desire reading culture. Fewer people seem to be living up to their hopes and ideals. Which might either be a form of mass hypocrisy or, more likely, a sign of how bad our institutions are at helping us live our desires. Again, Norway will lead us!

LK: The most persuasive argument, I think, is that the preconditions that enable reading culture—leisure time, disposable income, the capacity and space to focus, engage critically, form memories, deliberate—also facilitate political democracy. By that theory, a healthy reading culture is more symptom than cause of political health. And yet the “politics of the literature department” remain more or less the same. We fight for those preconditions.

AG (wearing “Non-tenured Radical” t-shirt): Agreed! As long as the reading class commands its material and symbolic resources, people who are committed to justice should want to see those resources fairly distributed. A fair distribution of the reading class’s forms of capital would probably be the utopian version of reading culture. And we are not being somehow extrinsically “politicized” if we fight for those preconditions: we are intervening in the name of the integrity of what we do.