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  • Introduction to Focus:Recovering the Big Read
  • Daniel Burns (bio)

At least in the context of print journalism, the maximalist novel’s postwar legacy begins with all the ceremony of a public nuisance. Thumbing its nose at review criticism’s deadline-driven exigencies, William Gaddis’s 956-page The Recognitions (1955) remains the exemplary case study when the innovative and the inconveniently long merge to form a new literary object at odds with the reception poised to receive it. Contemporary readers are aware of this variance thanks to the dedication of freelance critic and proto-zinester Jack Green, whose 88-page fit of pique—aptly titled Fire the Bastards! (1962)—catalogs in tweet-like bursts the then-critical establishment’s assorted sins:

William Gaddis’s The Recognitions was published in 1955 / its a great novel, as much the novel of our generation as Ulysses (1922) was of its / it only sold a few thousand copies because the critics did a lousy job

—2 critics boasted they didn’t finish the book

—one critic made 7 boners…others got wrong the number of pages, year, price, publisher, author, & title

—& other incredible boners like mistaking a diabetic for a narcotics addict

—one critic stole part of his review from the blurb, part from another review

—one critic called the book “disgusting” “evil” “foul-mouthed,” needs “to have its mouth washed out with lye soap”…others were contemptuous or condescending

—2 of 55 reviews were adequate / the others were amateurish & incompetent

failing to recognize the greatness of the book

failing to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are

counterfeiting this with stereotyped preconceptions—the standard cliches about a book that is “ambitious,” “erudite,” “long,” “negative,” etc

counterfeiting competence with inhuman jargon

—constructive suggestion: fire the bastards!

Needless to say, Green’s painstaking correction and refutation of the various errors, oversights, and outright vitriol that greeted this auspicious debut turns public nuisance into public service by canonizing The Recognitions’ cult status as a work worth fighting for. And yet, in addition to setting an appropriately defiant tone for Gaddis Studies ever after, the critic’s righteous scorn in the face of intellectual laziness might just as well anticipate the skeptical attitude toward other large-scale, usually self-reflexive novels throughout the 1960s and 1970s—with many of his most egregious charges gradually hardening into routine practice.

Put simply, extravagant length accords big novels a special status for the critical charlatan, who, in damning their capacious unreadability contrives a handy excuse for not having read. Franco Moretti’s mock-deference to this attitude at the outset of Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez (1996) speaks volumes about its unfortunate resilience among popular audiences: “Whenever anybody asks me to explain in a few words the characteristics of a world text, I found myself replying with growing irritation: ‘That’s easy—it’s very long, and very boring.’” An epithet to string interchangeably alongside boring, difficult, negative, undisciplined, and erudite, “unreadable” accordingly joins Jack Green’s list of notorious critical clichés to suggest an apparent realist bias among period reviewers, who invoke everything from glib gimmickry to willful obscurity to moral nihilism amid their populist rejections of prose experimentation.

This bias is visible in examples ranging from Gore Vidal’s blithe dismissal of John Barth in the New York Review of Books piece “American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction” (“For a dozen years I have been trying to read The Sot-Weed Factor. I have never entirely completed this astonishingly dull book but...”) to George Steiner’s attempts to codify readerly confusion in an essay entitled “On Difficulty” for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism to James Wood’s ongoing cross-generational critique of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace via Thomas Pynchon’s deleterious influence. Fresh from an attack on Gaddis’s JR (1975) in which the critic’s chief complaint was accessibility, Steiner’s proposal is easily the most thoughtful of the three, offering as practical strategies a set of critical features that inhibit the reader’s experience: “opacity,” “impenetrability,” “undecidabilities of sense,” and “resistance to immediacy and comprehension.” Unfortunately...


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