“Not for Me” not the same as “Not Good”

I’m nearly halfway through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I’m reading along with the crowd at Infinite Summer. Along with some incisive commentary, there’s a lot of griping, which I find interesting.

One of the sites “guides”, Avery, recently wrote that she was not enjoying the book:

I resent that I’m having to work this hard, that I feel like I’m indulging the author. I resent having to read enormous blocks of text, with no paragraph breaks, for pages and pages at a time. I resent the endnotes that (more often than not) only serve to either waste my time or confuse me even further. I resent that I’m continually reaching supposed milestones (”just make it to page 100!” “get to 200!” “300 is where you get rewarded for all your effort!”) that don’t actually represent any appreciable change in tone, style or plot.

I feel like my time is being wasted with an overabundance of technical explanations of subjects – tennis, drugs – that are largely irrelevant. DFW is explaining the wrong stuff.

Many commenters suggested she put it down, but she said she’d continue, if only because she’d agreed to as one of the site’s guide. For clarification, Avery was invited as a guide to represent younger, i.e. twenty-something readers. Her opinion is not atypical; many commenters voice some of the same complaints: the text is long, uninteresting, deliberately irritating, rambling, unfocused.

These comments usually are met with other readers, often those who have read the book before, telling them to Hang In and Keep Coming Back, advice that’s echoed from the text’s AA segments. There are frequent exhortations to trust the author and assurances that he had a plan, and many of the disparate themes will come together. Even so, it’s easy to see where the criticisms are coming from. The text is a challenging one. For example:

Last spring’s airless and B-redolent section of Thode’s psycho-political offering ‘The Toothless Predator: Breast-Feeding as Sexual Assault,’ had been one of the most disorientingly fascinating experiences of Ted Schacht’s intellectual life so far, outside of the dentist’s chair, whereas this fall’s focus on pathologic double-bind-type quandaries was turning out to be not quite as compelling, but weirdly–almost intuitively–easy. (307)

I’m reminded of when I taught first-year composition a few years ago. The course was structured around non-fiction essays and one book, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Some of my classes were for “remedial” students, though a more PC term was used. Many of theses students spoke English as a second language, and most were the first of their families to attend university. Some of them boasted they’d never read an entire book. The course progressed, and the students struggled with the assigned essays and reading. A frequent theme in their papers was complaint–they didn’t like the author, they didn’t think the author did a good job.

On one hand, this was a good thing. They were actually reading it, engaging with it, and forming their own opinions. Further, they were voicing a contrary opinion, something I could see took courage for many of them. Dissent was often discouraged in their secondary schools, they told me.

On the other hand, their criticism was not supported by their experience as readers. They were not experienced readers, and while that didn’t make their emotional reaction to the texts less true, it did fail to support a reasoned, academic analysis of them. They contended that because they didn’t like an essay, or because they didn’t understand it, that it wasn’t well-written. It was my job to try to bring them beyond an emotional reaction to the text to a critical one. That I sometimes succeeded was tremendously rewarding, for both me and the student, I believe.

And but so, I see a strong similarity between my former first-year students and those who are struggling with and rejecting Infinite Jest. It’s a challenging, at times deliberately provoking text. It’s also extremely smart, funny, and the further I read in it, the more intricate, layered and connected it becomes. My husband and I are reading together; we’ll frequently share connections we find to some other, at the time seemingly throwaway, bits earlier in the book. These ties bespeak planning; the careful layering of information withheld then shared bespeaks great care and precision. I’ve been puzzled by some readers’ claims of carelessness and inaccuracy.

For example, there was a discussion about a character described as weighing 200kg. Many commenters criticized this for impossibility, or criticized the author for sloppy writing. Few noted that it was a good deployment of hyperbole. Fewer, if any noted that this exaggerated figured appeared multiple times later, drawing connection through the text.

I’m enjoying the puzzle nature of the book, but I can understand why it’s postmodern puzzley-ness alienates and even offends some readers. I wish, though, that some didn’t take their dislike as equal to IJ not being a good book. Liking a book is not an index of its quality. Ditto for “getting it”. For example, a lot of DFW’s math commentary flies over my head. I don’t, though, claim he’s inaccurate or untalented to include it. I go with it. I Hang In. I Keep Coming Back. And for that, this book rewards me.

2 Responses to ““Not for Me” not the same as “Not Good””

  1. Steph Says:

    So, first off, in reading your experience thus far with Infinite Jest it could so easily parallel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I’m slowly making my way through in an online read-along. The feeling that so many things are unconnected and random, but hearing from people that if we just make it a bit further then everything will make itself clear… I have less faith that everything will of course resolve itself given that Bolaño died before it was published and now there is news of a 6th part that will need publishing. And yet, I push on!

    But, I find the question you pose about the emotional vs objective appraisal of a book to be an interesting one. It seems to me you come from the perspective that IJ is a Good Book, even if it is difficult (sometimes purposefully so) and not always enjoyable. I guess I don’t know how one does separate the emotional from the rest of it all, how we can ever give an objective appraisal of a book and have our account of a book ring true for all other readers. I feel it comes down to what we bring to the table as readers, what we look for in our reading experience. Even if you find the book hard, you find it ultimately rewarding, which I suspect validates the reading experience for you. But for the readers that don’t enjoy it, that don’t see the connections, that feel it is a waste of their time, does it really matter that this book is Good? I suppose my question is what does it matter if a book is respected on its literary merits but not enjoyed? That is, if a book isn’t for me (and one might even say, it wasn’t a good book for me), then does it matter if there seems to be some objective measure (and I’m not convinced there is… everyone has their own biases when evaluating the worth of art, literature, music, etc.,) saying it is Important or Good? Certainly that’s not going to change the way I feel about it.

    Again, some people enjoy challenges in their reading whereas others do not, and we each need to decide the kind of readers we are and why it is that we read. I’m not sure what camp I fall in, to be honest… I like that reading expands my mind and can cause me to think about language and themes in ways I haven’t before, but I certainly want to like what I’m reading, to feel like I’m engaged with the text. I’m not sure that any of us would be happy readers if we felt every book we approached was a hard slog with little to recommend to us personally and emotionally, even if others were telling us each of said books were masterpieces (post-modern or otherwise). Reading is so intensely personal and subject, so I don’t see why objectivity is championed in this case. Challenging books can be good, of course, but we should not fall into the trap of believing that simply because something caused us difficulty it was good.

    So I guess my questions are:
    1) Who’s to say, really, which books are Good or worthwhile, and which ones aren’t? Mark Twain hated Jane Austen’s writing, and Harold Bloom thinks Toni Morrison is “supermarket fiction”…
    2) Why does the former matter?
    3) Why do so many people (and to be clear, I’m not implying that you are one of these people!) seem to place the objective merits of a book (and again, I’m not sure how we determine what these are!) over enjoyment? What’s so wrong with enjoying a book simply for enjoyment’s sake?

    (I don’t necessarily expect you to have the answers, though it would be great if you did! - but these are just things I wonder every now and again. Having read your blog for some time now, I know you’re a lover of thumping good reads as much as you enjoy really tackling something far more difficult to wrap your mind around!)

  2. girldetective Says:

    1. I think we’re all to say. On the one hand, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. On the other hand, opinions are like a-holes; everyone’s got one.

    2. Former only matters if one lets it, right? Mark Twain wasn’t wrong to say he hated Austen, and neither was Bronte. But their opinion were informed, and thus able to be disagreed with. The crit I’m talking about at IJ is sometimes incorrect, as complaining that a character at 200 kg is sloppy, when it’s actually deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.

    3. Enjoyment and goodness are related, but not equal, is my point. I am both enjoying and appreciating the merits of IJ. I don’t take issue with the readers who aren’t enjoying it, but rather when they go on to say the book isn’t well written or crafted and list reasons (or worse, don’t) that I find evidence for otherwise.

    I can enjoy something, yet know it’s not fine art, like B movies. I can also not enjoy things even while I see their merits. I put down Bolano’s Savage Detectives as not for me. I don’t think it’s bad–lots of people think it’s great and they have good reasons. I didn’t love Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, but concede her breathtaking skill at writing. I enjoyed City of Refuge, yet thought the writing and structure were at times problematic.