Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (1)

THOUGHT-PROVOKING, CERTAINLY. Candid, audacious, a little perverse.

Hungerford is the first person I know of to write about a particular dilemma faced by people who have intellectual credentials of some sort to maintain.

The self-perception of such people (including me, since I'm a teacher) is in part defined by What One Has Read and What One Has Not Read But Ought To. (I pass over for now the What One Does Not Have to Worry About Not Having Read category, mercifully large.)

There are further important sub-divisions in the What One Has Not Read But Ought To category: As Soon as Possible, Next Summer, One of These Days, Maybe Before I Die, and so on.

The dilemma occurs when around those items in What One Has Not Read But Ought To that one realizes, or chooses, to just write off. For instance, I know I ought to read Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and I have a copy, and may actually get around to it, but Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire? No way. I got through Sister Carrie and about two-thirds of An American Tragedy, and I'm going to call it good. Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River? No.

This decision, for me, always comes with a bit of defensiveness and embarrassment. I am in a way making a bet that Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire just would not be worth my while, but I could lose that bet. What if next year Fredric Jameson puts out a book on Dreiser and the Trilogy of Desire is suddenly a big topic? So I am not actually going to make any public declaration about my Dreiser-avoidance. That's where Hungerford is different.

Hungerford, a scholar of contemporary American literature, does not want to read David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest in particular. She probably has plenty of company there; what makes her essay candid and audacious is that she wants to tell the world that she will not be reading any David Foster Wallace and, furthermore, her reasons for not reading him.Her explaining the decision, rather than passing over it in silence, seems to come from a wish to apply the brakes to the process of Wallace's canonization before the train has completely left the station.

That brings us to what makes the essay a little perverse.  Usually, criticism that makes the case for why such-and-such a writer does not merit serious attention involves reading that writer (as, Hungerford notes, the editor of the LA Review of Books pointed out to her). But that is exactly what she refuses to do. Nonetheless, she wants to take on Wallace's reputation anyway--a bit like the famous instance of Joan Acocella reviewing the Bill T. Jones dance performance that she refused to see.

I wonder if this could kick off a trend of you-can't-make-me-read-it essays: "On Not Reading The Cantos," "On Not Reading The Making of Americans," "On Not Reading Finnegans Wake." Moby-Dick. Middlemarch. Proust.

This could catch on; there is probably a lot of pent-up resentment out there.

(more tomorrow)

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