Speed Reading

Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers:

No surprise there’s backlash against the inclusion of The Godfather. Academics and those who think of themselves as literary types can’t give credit to any novel that isn’t either “beautifully” written or previously endorsed by the academic/literary community. It’s easier to harp on sentences and metaphors than to talk about mythic story, plot, character, and theme.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related discussion, Ted Gioia attracted an audience with his paean to the rise of what he calls a new breed of fragmented novels:

Instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental novelists ha[ve] done in the past… the new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. … The comparison with musical polyphony is fitting because, as with the counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers.

“Instead of ‘messy cacophony,’” Gioia continues, “these novels delight with their complicated coherence.” He then names fifty-seven individual titles that fit the bill and claims that each one in some way “resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it,” giving extraordinary care to narrative sophistication but burying both the care and the sophistication beneath what is, for Gioia, an ultimately superficial facade of stylistic and structural complexity:

These novels do not simply delight us with their contrasting voices. They also send us through an enjoyable labyrinth… filled with sharp turns and apparent dead ends, yet we always reach our final destination. Their authors are… showing off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces.

But, striking a kinship with Sullivan’s reader, Gioia bemoans the waywardness of those who dare to see the style and structure of those novels as somehow more stimulating than their stories:

When I was a student of literature, my professors — who were academic literary critics, not fiction writers — almost never mentioned these [narrative-oriented] elements of craft. I remember one professor even going on a rant in class about students who paid too much attention to the plot of the novel. He had more important matters in mind when he read a book than the actual story.

Thankfully, another of Sullivan’s readers was given space on The Daily Dish to respond to the previous reader by noting the obvious flaw in that reader’s line of thinking, and in Gioia’s as well:

[T]he reader doesn’t defend Puzo’s writing. S/he just tries to pretend it doesn’t matter by diverting attention from it to what the previous posts had already readily acknowledged: that The Godfather is a great story. For my money, though, if something is going to be labeled the Great American Novel, it had better damn well be a great story and be fantastically written. No amount of story greatness can make up for shit writing, and vice versa.

The sentiments of that statement echoed those of the question that had been occupying my mind while I watched these discussions unfold. If someone reads a piece of writing solely for the story it contains, not for the quality of the writing itself, why waste time on reading it at all? Film adaptations and summarisations offer far more expedient means of ingesting the same narrative information that one would glean from reading anything lengthier for story alone. Surprisingly, the issue of expediency cropped up in the comments at The Millions when “Mr. C” chimed in:

Nice to see The Godfather on the list. Someone gave the book to me years ago, I don’t even think I knew the movie was based on a book. I was hooked in minutes and finished it over the weekend. As a heavy reader friends will ask me for a good book to read and many times I will say “The Godfather,” they will look at me with skepticism and I’ll just say give it a try. Every one of them has returned the book a week later and said that was a great read.

But why is it considered a virtue of The Godfather that one can have it all over and done with, read and appraised and appropriately admired, in only seven days? And why would Stuart Burrows, Associate Professor at Brown University and one of the nine English scholars commenting at The Millions, concede that the list of novels he and the other respondents produced was “unusual” because someone else nominated Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a novel that “very few people have the patience to make it through”? By what logic can it be possible that, on the one hand, the value of a novel lies partly in its capacity to be read at speed, and that, on the other hand, the novel should be read for story alone even though the artform of the novel is the least speedy means by which a reader can access the story? Even when readers purport to read novels for nothing more than the pleasures of story, there must be some other quality to those novels — some quality of style or structure — that induces the reader to prefer to access the story through them rather than through an adaptation or a summarisation or something else altogether. My sense is that this other quality is the sophistication of those elements of the novel that tend to be glossed over in celebrations of Puzo’s The Godfather and that Gioia acknowledges in his essay only in order to downplay their affective impact.

Literature is, by definition, abstract, and therefore complex, and therefore intensely demanding of those who choose to engage with it. Story is everywhere — in literature, yes, but also in film, on television, on stage, in opera, in pop music, in comic books, in books, on blogs, in tweets, in reportage, everywhere — and it is therefore readily available in countless venues that are far less demanding, complex, and abstract than literature. On some level, then, to turn to literature is to choose abstraction over immediacy, complexity over simplification, and demands over simple accommodations — and, moreover, to engage with literature beyond the point of turning to it is to seek stimulation from each of those choices. Those who genuinely seek out story alone probably don’t turn to literature at all, and this remains the case, I think, even if one believes that one turns to literature solely in search of story. Once we acknowledge as much, once we concede that story alone may spark an engagement with literature but cannot fuel its continuation, the primacy of the story, its value above and beyond all other elements of the literary work, disintegrates in the steady flow of the words across the pages and gradually descends like debris overawed by a flood as the pages turn. What remains afloat on the surface of our literary experience are those elements of the work that arrest our attention in the moments after the story attracts it, and these, in my experience, offer stimulation and reward enough to last much longer than a week.

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