To the Editor:
Amy Hungerford’s "On Not Reading" (September 16) comes under the category of poseur-lit, from the pen of the anti-intellectual intellectual yearning to be a pop star. To teach literature, which generally manifests itself in books, but advocate not reading them is asinine and grandstanding. It would have been more to the point if the author had provided some criteria for what is worth reading, rather than advocated illiteracy.
I have read many, many books; and I now read a number of manuscripts for literary journals on a regular basis — many of which come from aspiring graduates of M.F.A. programs (many an English department’s cash cow). They are dull, sometimes well written, but terminally shallow. I can’t tell you how many I read that begin, "When my boyfriend/girlfriend and I broke up. … " A majority of U.S. writing has been irrelevant and uninteresting for some time — no context except the bruised ego of the author, no serious engagement with the world, usually the self-involved worries of the bourgeoisie, etc.
Many years ago I read an article that pointed out how U.S. fiction ignores the political context of the worlds in which authors situate their characters. This complaint was to note an exception, a novel set in California during World War II when German subs (Japanese?) were offshore and the tenor of the times was a leaden fear, sublimated but still raising its ugly head. It was more than just "atmosphere," but an acknowledgment of a genuine sense of the precariousness of life instead of an adolescent plea for the impossible — certainty.
In contrast to Hungerford’s remark about the scholar who hadn’t read Moby-Dick, I have. In lieu of a panoply of silly "devices," selfies, and a screen addiction — tools not toys, dammit! — when all that was absent, writers had to create a world to fill the reader’s imagination. Melville does that skillfully and quite wonderfully. So did the authors of many a fat Russian novel; so did Cervantes in Don Quixote. Perhaps Hungerford should turn off her TV, her iPhone, yea, even her computer, and read a book or two — a good one, If she has any idea of what that means.
To the Editor:
Hungerford says she refused to read Wallace’s lengthy and difficult Infinite Jest because she wanted to use the time to read other, shorter works that had not been imposed on her by the hype machine of commercial publishing. This is a reasonable position for just about anyone who doesn’t, like Hungerford, teach contemporary American fiction, but it seems to me irresponsible for her. Infinite Jest is one of the novels most read outside of college classes. Whatever its flaws, it has become the closest to a cult book we now have. How will Hungerford explain to students her resistance to and critique of the novel without reading it?
As the author of six small-press novels, I’m sympathetic to Hungerford’s desire to resist being dictated to by the relationship between commercial presses and mainstream review media. Her resistance would have been much more persuasive if she had mentioned some of the noncommercial works that she did read in the month when she set herself free from Infinite Jest, or, at least, some of the nonprofit presses or internet sites where one can find fiction that has (usually) been found unpublishable by the conglomerates.
Interested in what noncommercial works Hungerford taught in her open Yale course in contemporary American fiction, I checked a recent syllabus. It’s a very traditional survey, mostly short works, no encyclopedic novels such as Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow or Gaddis’s J R, and not a single work published by a noncommercial press. Hungerford does allow students to choose the last book in her syllabus. They chose Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. I wonder what would happen in the future if they chose Infinite Jest.
Emeritus Professor of English
University of Cincinnati
To the Editor:
Amy Hungerford’s piece reminds me of what Descartes wrote in 1642 in a letter to Father Dinet: "It is impossible for each individual to examine the vast numbers of new books that are published every day." The situation has not improved since then. (Descartes, a genius, publicized his own Meditations very effectively by soliciting and arranging for the publication of six — eventually seven — sets of objections to his Meditations by leading scholars. These were published with the Meditations and his replies to the objections.)
Professor of Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin