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Straw Poll

I started reading next week’s assignment last night and found myself coming back again and again to the question of why we read the super-hard books like Ulysses. I had Gaddis’s JR in mind as well, thanks to some comments on my post of yesterday about composition (and some notes I took for next week’s reading about mechanization, which was a concern of Gaddis’s). Both books proved challenges for me to get into. Gaddis’s book I actually made it through on my first attempt, but it took me about 1/3 of the book’s (long) length to figure out how to orient myself within the text. It’s the kind of book you have to learn to read as you’re reading it. I think Ulysses is the same sort of book, and I find that (so far) I’m having an easier time the further in I get. I’m getting oriented at last. (Which doesn’t mean I necessarily like what I’m reading, though episode ten is probably my favorite so far.) But back to my question.

Why do we read these things? I understand why we read something like Moby-Dick. For all its bad rap, it is not an especially difficult book. It’s ambitious and encyclopedic, sure, but the act of reading it isn’t terribly challenging. It is written in a familiar mode according (mostly) to rules and boundaries that make it simple enough to follow. If Moby-Dick is a hard book, it is hard by virtue of its content rather than of its form. Ulysses and JR are hard by virtue of their form more than their content (though they’re also so full of everything in more concrete ways than the way in which Moby-Dick is full of everything in the sort of philosophical abstract). Reading these books is like trying to pat your tummy and rub your head at the same time (without the sustained giggling).

So why do it? My theory is that writerly types are the most interested in these books. Maybe that’s true of most books, but I suspect it’s true more of these really technically hard books than of others. We read them to crack them open and try to understand why what works in them works (and why what doesn’t doesn’t). That theory is the basis of the straw poll I advertise in this post’s title.

Do you have an abortive novel stuck in a drawer somewhere, some poems on an editor’s desk awaiting a rejection slip? Do you count yourself a writerly type or more a readerly type? Is it a meaningful difference? Do you think that writerly types are likely to be more drawn to these really formally hard books than other readers are?

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  1. July 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    wow, you struck a nerve. my abortive novels date back almost 20 years, but yeah, they’re there. i went to writing workshops as a teen & i think my earliest yearnings to write sprang from altruistic motives: i loved the feeling i got from reading & wanted to make it happen for other people. there may be a meaningful difference between “readerly” & “writerly” types, but they do seem to me to go hand-in-hand. i do think reading is easier than writing, as i think learning is easier than teaching, but i may be over-simplifying there. i totally agree with your theory on why writerly types are drawn to these technically difficult texts; i don’t even think i could add much to it. it’s spot on, imho.

  2. July 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Daryl, I think you are spot-on. I have a theory that no book or story can be too experimental or difficult. However “difficult” something might be, labeling it that puts a target on it that attracts strong readers. I’m thinking of Gary Lutz or Ben Marcus or Oulipo stuff or even philosophy texts like Kant, Heidegger, and Derrida. If you write something extremely complex, it will likely be wildly popular. Because I think many readers also feel like writers, I hate it when writing advice tells you not to make one of your characters a writer. Maybe it’s a copout, but I think many people love to read about writers, fictional or otherwise.

  3. Kimberly Reed
    July 27, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    I love the complexity and puzzle of a really complicated novel, especially a maze-like one like Ulysses. I purchased my Ulysses 30 years ago, was too intimidated at that time – I am not an English major or writer – to try it, but now I can’t stop reading and rereading the “chapters” (my 1943 edition isn’t broken into chapters, but I even enjoy figuring that out). B/T/W I am definitely a “readerly type” – but wonder if other “readerly types” read as I do – tending to be immersed in all of the works of a particular writer at a stretch as I am. For example, when I accidentally discovered David Foster Wallace, I spent a year and a half reading everything I could find by him. I also wonder if other “readerly types” find their thoughts, dreams, actions, and unconscious permeated by by their current author’s works, as I do…

  4. July 27, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    I think the question of “Why read something so challenging?” is indeed a crucial one (the crucial one?). To play fair I should probably admit to, as a much younger man, have Dedalian aspirations to being an “artist” (hence my early reluctance to consider the possibility of an ironic reading of Portrait).

    I wonder, however, if the more interesting question (the question of modernism itself and its legacy) is a literary historical one. Works like Ulysses or The Waste Land or The Cantos have a massive ambition. But they all emerged at roughly the same moment from a deep interrogation about the very character and function of art itself. And it seems to me (and here I am echoing Frederic Jameson, pardon my academizing) all of these works have a rather enormous ambition that both continues and complicates a Matthew Arnold sort of hope that art/literature/culture can help take up the slack of meaning left by the eclipse of religion in an increasingly secularizing world.

    That may seem to be an answer that simply derails the question. But I wonder to what extent people who read Ulysses (taking that, as you suggest, as a sot of token for what we’re trying to talk about here) are not simply writerly types, or folks with literary ambitions, but are folks who continue to fantasize that literature can provide meaning (in the broadest possible sense). This goes, perhaps, to the very way in which they (we?) imagine the “artist” as a figure of quasi-religious stature. I mean, all those folks with novels in their drawers—those novels are more likely to be attempts to be Ulysses than they are to be The Da Vinci Code, no?

  5. July 27, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Chris: that’s why they’re in drawers! #snarkyresponsesarefun

  6. Cathy Hand
    July 28, 2010 at 2:10 am

    I am a readerly type who writes for myself. I have kept a journal since I was 9 years old (several decades ago). I’ve also written some book reviews and small articles that were published in very, very minor publications, but I don’t think of that as writing – like what I’m writing here is not “writing”.

    Like you, Kimberly, I do tend to immerse myself in whatever writer I’m currently interested in. I’m already planning to read Finnegans Wake after Ulysses. Also like you, I accidentally discovered DFW and then had to read all his books – even the one he co-authored on rap; the only one I didn’t finish was the one on physics. In a way, Ulysses is part of my ongoing immersion in DFW, since (1) I found this site, and the inspiration to read Ulysses, through the Wallace mailing list, and (2) because DFW’s parents supposedly read Ulysses to each other in bed (!).

    I’m mildly interested in what works in a literary sense, and I do like complexity, but as you suggested, Chris, the search for meaning is a major component of my reading motivation. I want to understand the inner workings of other beings and literature is an inexhaustible source for furthering that understanding. If it can also provide religious ephiphanies, all the better. As for the big, hard books, I’m willing to wade through a lot of pages of tedium for the occasional luminous moment of clarity.

    Finally, a lot of things I read just because I want to know what all the fuss is about. Ulysses falls in this category. As did Shakespeare – I read every last one of his plays trying to understand why all the accolades.

    Infinite Jest, on the other hand, I read just for the sheer delight of it. I laughed out loud nearly every page. For this, no further motivation required!

  7. Lianhua
    July 28, 2010 at 2:34 am

    I’ve never had anything but the most fleeting of desires to write anything creative whatsoever. I know I just don’t have that talent. However I love to read. When it comes to “difficult books”, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is a certain sense of self-satisfaction that I’m not particularly proud of. As a child, I was always reading books above my level to impress adults. But at a certain point I found that I actually enjoyed reading all these books that were supposed to be dull and a lot of work. I find myself drawn to more intricate books, especially if they have something meaningful to say about life or humanity. What Chris said is absolutely true in my case, the potential for “meaning” is a big part of why I read. I tend not to enjoy modern literature as much, partially because it doesn’t seem to speak to the big themes of life as much as older literature (this is no doubt a gross generalization).

    Although Ulysses would drive me crazy if I needed to understand exactly what was going on, I’m taking others’ advice to just let it flow over me. Reading “The New Bloomsbury Book” in conjunction helps to make sure I’m not missing anything important.

  8. July 28, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Thanks to all who’ve responded so far. I’m glad to hear from a couple who don’t consider themselves writerly types, even if that blows my theory out of the water. 🙂

    Chris, I don’t think that reading/art is a stand-in for religion or meaning for me, though it seems reasonable enough that for many it is. I’m not really on any search for meaning. I don’t think there really is any. We’re here; let’s make the best of it. I guess I read because I’m curious and because I’m delighted by neat ideas, new expressions, and well-crafted work. I suppose that’s why I can admire a book like Ulysses while not entirely enjoying it. As frustrating a book as it is, it’s very clear that there’s craft here, and ambition. The wannabe-writer in me tries to learn something from that craft; the reader in me simply admires it as a well-wrought thing.

    Cathy, the search for meaning aside, I think my approach to literature is a lot like yours, both in general and in some of its particulars.

  9. July 28, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    This has been a really fun discussion to read and think about. Like you, Cathy, I don’t tend to think of my blogging as “writing”–even though I’m certainly proud and excited when I knock one out that I think I’ve written well. (Related to why I read certain authors: My writing and blogging and talking all change shape under the influence of whatever and whomever I’m reading and thinking about. With some authors, I find I really like the changes they instigate.)

    I like to read difficult, complicated things for a few reasons, I guess. Firstly, because I find them generally more faithful to the world that is the case. The world is complex and often difficult. Also, more than a “writerly” type, I see myself as a critical type. I’ve certainly done creative writing, but the most satisfying kind for me is when I’m able to see into the workings of a piece of art and explain how it does something, and why, and make connections between things that enrich the experience of that piece of art. I’m an editor by trade; surely you can see the connection.

    And on top of all that, I just enjoy the cognitive (and, in the best cases, emotional) challenge of enfolding these large loose baggy monsters into my own life and internalizing the new ways of reading and seeing and thinking that they help me find.

    • July 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      Just to clarify my own position, I should say that I don’t consider blogging here to be evidence that I’m a writerly type. Ill-equipped as I figure I am for it, I consider what I write here to be more in the critical or readerly modes. It’s the half-done novels and bits of doggerel scattered here and there that I figure qualify me to call myself a writerly type (though not a writer: inclination and ability are different things). I just didn’t want to come off as if I thought writing for a little blog made me some sort of capital-W Writer or something. You didn’t suggest as much, Jeff, but your comment exposed for me the possibility that I had seemed to suggest as much.

  10. July 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    both of you guys expressed feelings i’ve had better than i think i would have (does that make you writerly types?)
    Daryl: “I guess I read because I’m curious and because I’m delighted by neat ideas, new expressions, and well-crafted work.” very true of me & probably the reason for most of what i do.
    Jeff: “My writing and blogging and talking all change shape under the influence of whatever and whomever I’m reading and thinking about.” do you think this happens to everybody?

  11. August 1, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I usually like tough books and very much enjoyed Moby Dick, whaling lore and philosophy and all. After challenging myself to finish Ulysses, I do wonder if it was worth the effort. Is Joyce giving us a literary experience or just showing off? Both, actually, but the showing off got in the way of the experience for me.

    http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2010/08/01/wanderers-three/

  12. Ezekiel Crago
    August 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Fuentes once said that all great writers are great readers. I wonder if the reverse may be true. Vonnegut once wrote that we write to “grow our souls.” I would argue that we read for much the same purpose and we read challenging texts because they push us to grow past our preconceived boundaries.

  13. August 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I’m not a writer; I’m a linguist. My academic interests involve the ways people use language in various social settings (particularly in education) to create and share meaning, which is a deep and complex question. I think that reading difficult literature taps into a similar impulse, that is, the desire to unpack the behind-the-scenes complexity of human communication. Difficult writers create complex works in order to address this question, and nerds like us enjoy the task of deciphering their answer.

    As an undergrad, before I discovered linguistics, I was a comparative literature major. My thesis was on Oulipo, specifically, Life: A User’s Manual and If on a winter’s night a traveler. I haven’t even attempted to write fiction since I was 15.

  1. August 8, 2010 at 8:32 pm

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