#OccupyGaddis begins today. Time to pull that neglected Penguin Classics edition of J R off the shelf, or pick up the handsome new edition from Dalkey Archive, or, if you’re lucky enough, gently reread your first edition (jacket pictured). However you must join us for LARB’s summer reading challenge of J R, winner of the 1976 National Book Award. Follow #OccupyGaddis, and read regular musings here at the LARBlog, from #OccupyGaddis creator and host, Lee Konstantinou.
In a New York Times review of Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Cynthia Ozick described William Gaddis as “famous for not being famous enough.”
Indeed, more than twenty-five years since Ozick wrote her review, Gaddis may still be our most important unread novelist. He’s widely considered a master of American fiction (he won two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant”), is frequently namechecked as a foundational postmodernist writer, but is rarely discussed at length. Even literary scholars, those lovers of the abstruse and the difficult, hardly talk about him. A 2007 edited collection on Gaddis, Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, has only been cited a few times since its publication, and the number of hits Gaddis’s name brings up on the MLA International Database is an order of magnitude lower than what one finds when searching for his peers, like Thomas Pynchon.
Gaddis was born in 1922, the year both Ulysses and The Waste Land came screaming into the world, and published his 976-page first novel, The Recognitions, in 1955, at the age of 33. A full discussion of The Recognitions is impossible in a blog post. The blurb describes the book as
a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.
Widely regarded as a masterpiece of 20th Century U.S. fiction, The Recognitions was a monumental, colossal flop when it came out. Its commercial and critical failure derailed Gaddis’s ambitions as a writer, forcing him to work for twenty years before completing his second book. In a recent essay on Gaddis’s struggle with failure, Steven Moore writes:
The Recognitions appeared in 1955 to overwhelmingly negative reviews; deprived of the success he expected (and fully deserved), Gaddis spent the next decade working at a variety of jobs in industry, starting then abandoning a second novel, failing to find a backer for a play he had written, enduring a divorce in the mid–1960s, and living off a series of advances and part-time teaching jobs to resume and finish that second novel.
As I mentioned in my first post, we decided to dedicate #OccupyGaddis to J R instead of The Recognitions because of its likely resonance with contemporary political-economic concerns related to Wall Street, finance capital, and our allegedly increasingly fragmented attention-spans, but the long shadow of The Recognitions is going to be hard to avoid as we read.
Indeed, the theme of failure seems as if it ought to be highly relevant to any novel dealing with Wall Street, let alone an encyclopedic novel that–it is alleged–asks so much of its readers. Gaddis was reportedly uncompromising in the artistic demands he made of his readers, a lack of compromise some praise him for, others deride. Making tremendous demands of a reader can, I think, paradoxically turn the failure of a book in the marketplace into a kind of success, or rather can turn the unappreciated artistic success of a book into the failure of readers who failed to recognize that achievement. If a masterpiece falls in the forest, but no one’s there to hear it… Why weren’t you there to hear it? What’s wrong with you?
Anyway, as John Lingan writes in The Quarterly Conversation:
The Recognitions and J R are roaring, howling affronts to […] laziness. These are not books that function as the literary equivalent of a player piano. They are not “hot media,” to borrow one buzz term that Gaddis quoted in his National Book Award acceptance speech for A Frolic of His Own. Rather, they require effort, metaphorical reading between the lines, and ideally a little research, as evidenced by the encyclopedic website The Gaddis Annotations, devoted to annotations of the novels. They require, in other words, the readerly equivalent of a Protestant work ethic.
If Lingan is right, Gaddis is deeply invested in the power of hard work to make us more human; he fears that we somehow lose our humanity when we let laziness overcome us, when we let our media do our thinking for us. Whether such hard work is worth it in the case of J R will be one of the major questions driving our collective reading project. After all, sometimes books fail not because the reading public is corrupt but because those books stink. How can we tell the difference? Who decides? Is the market the sole legitimate arbiter of success? Awards and prizes? What, then?
I’m obviously biased in such a way as to be inclined to agree with Gaddis. I think reading hard novels has the potential to ennoble us–in some literal way to improve us–and that, contrariwise, doing the easy thing–passively accepting art that is familiar and pre-digested–can degrade us if taken to an extreme. But that’s just my opinion. I want #OccupyGaddis to be a fun and exciting and community-forming event for everyone involved, but as we commit to reading all 726 pages of J R–to giving it our full attention–I think all questions should be on the virtual table we’re gathered around, including the question of the value of the exercise itself.
Gaddis would want nothing less, I suspect.