tl;dr – the possibilities of an illegitimate critical practice

#OccupyGaddis, a movement led by Lee Konstantinou at the Los Angeles Review of Books, is one of the many big summer reads that have taken place over blogs and websites since the big summer read in 2009: Infinite Summer. The two projects are markedly different, Infinite Summer is essentially fan-driven, its website contains a trove of essays, guides, glossaries, and commentary on Infinite Jest. #OccupyGaddis is a more critically motivated conversation. The ostensible end-point of Konstantinou’s collective read is his review of the new Dalkey Archive edition of J. R. In starting up a big read before he has his final say on the novel, Konstantinou has pre-emptively opened up the discussion, rendering his critical practice a little more communal and a little less lonesome. I think it’s a great idea but I think any kind of big read is a good idea.

I am about to finish – a little behind schedule – Conversational Reading’s big novel of the summer: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava. It’s a book I would never have picked up otherwise and it has me fully entertained. For those who don’t know or haven’t done one of these things, the idea is to spend the summer with a Big American Novel, making headway at the manageable rate of about ten pages a day. As you read, you discuss your reading on the Internet. These discussions tend toward the detailed, the prolix, the feverish: long plot summaries follow scouring character analysis and the background noise sounds a little like scrutinized minutiae. It’s immersive. It’s good, honest, pretentious fun but there’s something about it that makes me hesitate. It’s too good to be true. The immediacy of the reading that fuels these conversations must contribute to the detail and the urgency of the discussion but the level of detail just seems unrealistic. In this series, I want to talk about long books but I want to talk about them in a less anxious and more honest way. To do this, I have to start with a difficult admission: after a summer with 2666, an autumn with Bleak House, a winter with Infinite Jest and a decade In Search of Lost Time, I barely remember a thing. I associate big books with embarrassment. I wreck what I read.


One morning in July I got obsessed with a recording of Frank O’Hara reading ‘September 14 1959 (Moon)’. I read the poem; then read it again; then again, while I listened to the recording:

Serenity lopes along like exhaustion
only windier and silver-eyed
where fragments of distress in hunks
lay like the plaster in the bedroom
when the bed fell down, greenly
murmuring a phrase from the Jacksonville
Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific
yes no, yes no, yes, yes, yes

an agate breeze pours through the gate
of reddish hair there is a summer
of silence and inquiry waiting there
it is full of wildness and tension
like a gare, the warmly running trains
of the South escape to sweet brooks
and grassy roadbeds underneath the
thankful and enlightening Russian moon

‘September 14, 1959 (Moon)’ had me at silver-eyed. Then the vocalic loops in ‘lay like the plaster’ uncurled into the bumblebee plosives of ‘in the bedroom when the bed fell down’ and I was hooked. When I got to the end of ‘yes no, yes no, yes, yes, yes’ I answered the final, affirmative triplet with assent of my own, an excited, exasperated, a loaded, ‘Yes!’ Eat your heart out Molly Bloom: I was transported. And only halfway through. I still had ‘reddish hair’ tangled up in ‘a summer/ of silence and inquiry waiting there’. It wasn’t until last week that I looked up the date September 14th, 1959 and saw what I had since suspected. On September 14th, 1959, a Soviet cosmic rocket called Lunik 2, reached the surface of the moon. It was the first day in history that a cosmic flight had been made from the earth to another celestial body.

When I spoke to someone about this poem later, on that first day, I had already done horrible things to it. The exchange went something like: ‘Frank O’Hara is just amazing. I read this poem this morning. I can’t really remember the title. It’s about the moon. I can’t remember how it all goes but there’s a line about “distress hanging in chunks from the ceiling like the plaster in the bedroom when the bed fell down.”’ I was dismayed. The line still sounded good but not that good. My friend smiled and nodded encouragingly but I think we both knew that, in my enthusiasm, I’d torn this delicate pair of octaves into a jagged little ribbon: ‘the plaster in the bedroom when the bed fell down’ was all I had. The wincing memory of the inept recitation is, of course, still with me and perverse with clarity.


What I want to know is, if ‘September 14 1959 (Moon)’ can be decimated over lunch then what happens to J. R. by William Gaddis over a whole summer? The half-life of literature is unreal. Before I’m finished with a page, the rot has started. It’s embarrassing. Daniel Mendelsohn picks out the roots of this shame quite cleanly in his recent article for The New Yorker, ‘A Critical Manifesto’. The pleasure that Mendelsohn takes in good critical writing is easy to recognize. I take it too. Reading his article, and thinking about it later, I decided that what he was describing as criticism, what he thought made criticism valid and what made judgment sound was something approaching critical omniscience. For instance:

If [Helen] Vendler was writing about the latest volume of poetry by, say, James Merrill, it was clear from her references that she’d read and thought about everything else Merrill had ever written; what you were getting in the review wasn’t just an opinion about the book under review, but a way of seeing that book against all of the poet’s other work.

Great critical writing then, should – and does – square the circle; it seems as effortless as it seems operose. It is a nourishing fantasy of the perfect reading practice. According to Mendelsohn’s manifesto, as I understand it, perfect criticism appears to be the work of a mind blessed with total and perfect recall as well as flawless and fearless taste. These rhetorical qualities are essential to the omniscient critic, the writer whose end is rhetorical invincibility. In Mendelsohn’s essay the desirability of these rhetorical qualities is not up for question but what seems to be their root cause is an anxious desire for legitimacy.

The shadiest question about the professional study of literature is simple and it never goes away: ‘How can you justify this?’ The privilege of literary pursuit is obvious, the point: less. If you have an arsenal of facts, quotations, and a complete recollection of an entire writer’s output then your work feels convincing. Its worth is obvious; its legitimacy is not up for question. It speaks for itself. If you can’t remember what you are talking about the assumption is that your point of view is unconvincing, worthless, illegitimate. This is why I find the big read discussions so strange. In debates surrounding big summer reads, I think the desire for critical legitimacy gets in the way of honest discussion. What would happen if we could renounce our desire for critical legitimacy and if we could admit that sometimes we can’t remember what we are talking about? What if we weren’t trying to justify ourselves? What are the possibilities of an illegitimate critical practice? And what would it look like?


At the moment I can’t remember the name of the protagonist in Infinite Jest. It’s embarrassing. I spent four months reading that book. But I find myself drawn to this blank precisely because it makes my opinion illegitimate. What is there to be learned in my enjoyment of not knowing the name of that hulking character that ends up in the hospital? (Is he even the protagonist? Is he called Gately?) What is the point of me refusing to look that name up? Why sustain this outright rhetorical failure? I suppose part of the reason is that, although I like it, although I admire it, although I realize that it is the best way of doing things I instinctively recoil a little from the kind of writing that Mendelsohn describes. It’s the same feeling I get glancing over the message boards and comments sections of big seasonal reads. If we’re all in this together, why spend so much time bolstering rhetorical security, why spend so much time saving face? In the coming months I’ll be discussing some of the long reads I’ve undertaken but I want to use the soapbox that I have in the Water Closet to give what feels like a more honest account of the long reading ordeal. If we can’t admit that we do forget then we can’t try to make sense of how we forget and what it might mean to forget. And that might be important: it doesn’t just happen all the time; it’s always happening.

So I have a character, written by David Foster Wallace, in my mind that I cannot name. He is familiar and foreign, I know him but I can’t name him. He is a symptom of my forgetfulness. This localized amnesia is an aspect of my literary experience that is more than ubiquitous. It is always present and almost uncharted. It defines me as a reader and disenfranchises me as a critic. In this series I want to talk about what has happened to the long books I have read but I also want to find out what happens when an illegitimate critical practice is pursued. What happens when that illegitimacy is scrupulously cultivated? What happens when a rhetorically disastrous practice is pursued? My commitment to this form of academic delinquency means that I won’t be able to quote in any real way from the long books I want to discuss. This means that my reference system is my memory. The long books I talk about will be made up of fragments, stumps, single words, woolly strands, fuzzy tableaux, and the crucial impression. I will be sedulously faithful to a shameful memory. I will be wrong. My references will be vague. Everything will be up for question and – of course – for correction.


The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.

Frank O’Hara, ‘Personism: A Manifesto’, September 3rd 1959.


The first instalment of the series: In Search of Lost Time.

  • Alexandra Manglis

    For those interested in participating in a big read while Angus begins his series, it looks like Lee Konstantin has just begun another one. This time it’s Samuel Delaney’s post-apocalyptic epic Dhalgren and the twitter hashtag to follow is #AutumnalCity.  

  • Alexandra Manglis says:

    For those interested in participating in a big read while Angus begins his series, it looks like Lee Konstantin has just begun another one. This time it’s Samuel Delaney’s post-apocalyptic epic Dhalgren and the twitter hashtag to follow is #AutumnalCity.