Gregory Cowles Says Gaddis “Not Difficult,” But Doesn’t Know How to Read Properly

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.)

More Fun with Amazon

Amazon has recently instituted “text stats,” which measures a book by Fleish-Kincaid index (the higher you go, the more difficult it is to read), percentage of complex words and words per dollar. Now if this is the basis for why one should read, let’s see how the thickass literary heavy-hitters stand up:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.3
Complex Words: 11%
Words Per Dollar: 25,287

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 7.3
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 24,553

The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.4
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 25,458

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.5
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 24,086

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.6
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 31,532

Ulysses by James Joyce
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.8
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 16,777

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.5
Complex Words: 14%
Words Per Dollar: 20,944

And here are the winners.

Best Words Per Dollar Value: William T. Vollmann
Author You’ll Need Your Dictionary For: Richard Powers
Most Difficult to Read: Thomas Pynchon (w/ David Foster Wallace a close second)
Easiest to Read: William T. Vollmann (w/ James Joyce a close second)

Gone Fishing

I’d initially posted some ballyhoo about taking a break. But announcing yet another hiatus strikes me as not only repetitious, but vaguely dishonest. This blog has always served as a beacon for truth. A skewered truth, a truth restricted by my own blinders, sometimes a downright ugly honesty. But truth nonetheless. I’d be doing my readers a disservice if I didn’t explain why my appearances here will be less frequent.

William Gaddis once described it as “the rush for second place” and composed an essay on the subject in 1981. He dared to chart how a certain spirit of rebellion in American culture was often spawned by a gnawing sense of failure, a long and frustrated nose cantilevered against a morose and pockmarked face that frowned long into the deepest shadows of yesteryear. The feeling that one’s efforts weren’t worth much in the long run. The successful person in our society, the hard-liner who plays by the rules and makes partner or vice president after a decade or two of thankless labor, is in so deep that it would never occur to him that there are others who starve and scrape for an altogether different success. These lower-end feeders are often derided as failures. Their needs don’t meet the basic burden. But what would our world be without these non-conformists who perform unspoken deeds in the dead of night?

Whatever measure of success one finds, there are hard choices. Passion flaring over common sense. And when a bottom-end straggler reaches a certain age, when the hair falls out and the crow’s feet form around the eyes, there comes a point where one wonders why it continues. Because persistence pays off? Sometimes. Because no man is an island? Definitely.

The duty remains, the steadfast flow follows. But it requires rumination and rest and unseen labor and barely any sleep. I’ll be back, but right now I’m reoiling the wheels. And I’m smiling as I dance in the dark.

[UPDATE: In response to certain socipathic nitwits who clearly have more time than I do (and whose currency is so inflated that they feel the need to goad some A-1 folks), I quote Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”]

[UPDATE THE SECOND: Publisher’s Lunch reports this item: “Separately, the NYT Book Review has announced that next Sunday’s issue will present a considerably slimmed-down 100 Notable Books of the Year. They will publish their list of top 10 books of the year on December 12. Editor Sam Tanenhaus says of the ‘more selective’ list, ‘In general, we favored strong narratives. This happens to be a year when some of the best books, fiction and nonfiction, were about or set in the past.'”

[I can’t tell you how sad this makes me feel. One of the great annual joys is seeing the NYTBR present a crazed list that backs up their credentials as a book review source for one of the nation’s major newspapers. It essentially communicates to the reader that, love or hate their selections, the NYTBR is doing its job. But more importantly, much like the recent joys of the IMPAC longlist, the sheer number of books is something to cheer about, an annual occurrence that offers a friendly nod to reading. The reader finds the morsels he may have forgotten about and a few titles he didn’t know about. It’s a win-win situation between reader and listmaker.

[That Tanenhaus would scale this down to a piddly selection of ten (no doubt with Leon “Scummy Little Reviewer” Wieseltier’s involvement) proves that, despite his recent poetry issue and the inclusion of James Wood prominently on his pages, he still remains an asshat who is, in all likelihood, Bill Keller’s corporate handmaiden. That he would dispense with such a proud tradition in favor of audience-friendly “10 Sexiest Books Alive” homages to People convinces me that, unless he offers a compelling alternative, he’s not going to get any brownies on my watch.


[UPDATE TO SECOND UPDATE: The good Dr. Jones, fresh from his excavations in Nepal, informs me that we can’t withhold baked goods until the final tally. To uphold the brownie fairness doctrine, I renege on my brownie decision until we see what happens over the next two weeks. Tanenhaus shall salivate at his own peril.]

Gaddis Was The Man

Today, Wood S Lot reminded me that eighty-one years ago, one of the most underappreciated American novelists was born.

I first came across Gaddis when I was 25, stumbling through a bookstore and coming across some book called The Recognitions that had an incredible Hugo van der Goes painting on the cover. Something that looked like an anguished Neanderthal, but could have easily been a tortured wrestler. Plus, the book was thick. And instinctively, I’ve always been drawn to anything huge.

It took me three weeks to finish the sucker.

Gaddis wasn’t your fly-by-night novelist. He demanded that you work. One minute, he’d be drowning you in remarkable descriptions, placing you in fascinating tableaus that would never end. The next minute, he’d be giving you sentences like, “The door was opened to the length of a finger,” or “He got up and lit an American cigarette,” always reinforcing precise absurdities. (Why should the nationality of a cigarette matter so much? Why measure a door by a finger when a hand isn’t there?) The thing that kept his books worthwhile was Gaddis’s presence as a relentless imp. He’d skewer anything, whether it was Dale Carnegie’s disciples, bizarre organizations like the Use-Me Society, or the chronic counterfeiters who riffed throughout his books. His dialogue of debutantes and dilletantes always came across to me as astutely observed. The spoken lines were prefaced only by dashes, immersed within the pages as if to imply that the dialogue itself was inseparable from the tragic vapidity of human behavior.

Without Gaddis, there would not have been a Thomas Pynchon, nor a David Foster Wallace, nor a John Barth. He ushered in a postmodern wave where anything was fair game, where Balzacian observation could dance hand-in-hand with Mencken and the Marx Brothers. And that’s why I was particularly sad the day he died not long later.

Related Link: William Gaddis video interview with Malcolm Bradbury.