- The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention by David Letzler
Taking on the mega-novel and its history of readership and interpretation, David Letzler carves out a new space for understanding these "door-stops." Interestingly, he opens and closes the book with meditations on the pedagogy of asking students to work through these tomes. It is, in fact, the question of boredom, as well as the more nuanced answer of engaged, close and distant attention, that makes up the argument of his text. He is careful early on to differentiate mega-novels from novels (or series) which are simply long, such as Harry Potter. After all, who could be bored waiting to see what will happen to Harry in Dumbledore's office at the end of The Goblet of Fire? However, especially when it comes to students completing assigned readings, instructors can readily imagine that the suspense inspired by Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses is rather different. The Cruft of Fiction makes the case that these books "contain a lot of text that is, basically, pointless," which, as Letzler argues, is "the characteristic feature" of all mega-novels. To summarize, what sets mega-novels apart is cruft, a term from web design that signifies poorly written, excessive, sloppy, or unnecessarily complicated code. Cruft, in other words, adds distraction and length to the whole.
Before exploring the different categories and disparate purposes of cruft, Letzler lays out existing interpretations for these novels. Though [End Page 545] many scholars allow that mega-novels can overload attention, they also claim that competent readers should be able to overcome this difficulty. At the same time, the urgency of discerning attention increases the further we move into the information age; we are surrounded by more material than we can process. This reality and consequent need inspires the second set of mega-novel beliefs, that the books are inundated with information to reflect contemporary life, and therefore, all the information within the novels works to achieve this aim. In other words, the reading experience renders the entirety of the text meaningful. Pivoting from this position, Letzler modifies the dedicated and mimetic perspectives, claiming instead that the difficulty of these novels comes into play because readers must maintain close enough attention and judgment to understand what deserves close scrutiny and what should be ignored at the same time. In his own words, "[w]hat we need to develop, then, is not the ability to pay closer attention to everything, but a sophisticated attentional modulation" (13).
The Cruft of Fiction eschews differentiating between modern and postmodern texts and instead cites novels spanning from Flaubert's unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet to David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. Though I would have been interested to see more engagement with the social and political implications of mega-novels spanning such a wide period, the breadth of selected texts complicates and opens up critical understanding both of which novels can be considered "mega" and what this wider array of texts implies. Expanding this conception, Letzler separates mega-novels into six basic categories: the dictionary, the encyclopedia, life-writing, the Menippean satire, episodic narrative, and the epic and the allegory. The critic acknowledges that different novels can inhabit multiple categories, and some reappear for additional analysis throughout the book. His use of long, specific textual examples alongside analysis of cognitive processes allows the reader to sip the mega-novel experience, sampling his or her own reading habits when it comes to cruft within text. This constructed reading environment effectively invites a wide audience of scholars and readers to redefine the function of cruft in mega-novels, which Letzler then intends to inspire a new approach to mega-novel pedagogy. Though this goal bookends the text, the clear and specific interpretations of significance for the different mega-novel types focalize around real-world applications, answering the question of what we are meant to do with these novels and how we might approach them in a new way. Speaking of cruft in...