Displaying the kind of literary hubris that David Markson once skewered in This is Not a Novel (“See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!”), the New York Times‘s Gregory Cowles claims that William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic “is not in fact all that difficult. For long stretches in this book, he was less difficult even than my sudoku puzzles.”
Gaddis may not be “that difficult” to Mr. Cowles’s perception, but its probably because Mr. Cowles lacks basic reading comprehension. You see, Cowles cites Cynthia Ozick’s “Literary Entrails” (Harper’s, April 2007), claiming that Ozick “summarized the debate and insisted that whatever the merits or demerits of experimental fiction, Gaddis himself wasn’t so tough. To prove it, she quoted a lovely passage from ‘Carpenter’s Gothic’…”
Too bad for Cowles that Ozick’s original article is available online. While Ozick did indeed offer a summary for those who were spared the literary cockfight between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, the passage that Cowles quotes is the one that Marcus quotes in his article. So not only did Ozick not cite the passage that Cowles quoted, but she didn’t even write about Carpenter’s Gothic in her essay! (The Gaddis novel under discussion was A Frolic of His Own and, specifically, the Marcus-Frazen wars over that book.) Nor did Ozick claim that Gaddis was easy or difficult. Her point in chiding “the boys in the alley” is that literature should not be judged on how difficult it may appear to be, but on the merits of the text. Any side fights involving readability indices, the speed and perspicacity of one’s faculties (and penis size), and the like were, as Ozick quite rightly pointed out unnecessary.
Never mind that one believes in diversion and the other dreams of potions. If the two of them are equally touchy and contentious and competitive, what has made them so is the one great plaint they have in common: the readers are going away.
I’m sure that reading Gaddis probably isn’t “difficult” if you can’t be bothered to read correctly. And Ozick’s point still holds. So long as illiterates like Mr. Cowles wax arrogantly and inaccurately about literature, the readers will indeed go away. Fortunately, the rest of us reading passionately still have it in us to be humbled and delighted by literature. (And for the record, The Recognitions was slow going for me when I first read it in my twenties. But it was worth every difficulty.)