Fans of lengthy and complex novels often encounter the sentiment that shorter works are better because they get their points across economically, that the dreadnoughts of literature contain too much boring armature, and that to persist regularly reading books over, say, 500 pages smacks of pretension and elitism. Those charges can be true at one time or another. Sometimes it seems we’re stuck in an either/or situation where readers are either hostages or idolaters.
Here are quotations that set out opposite ends of the subject. Writing for The Millions on his experience with William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Mark O’Connell says:
“I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation.”*
Melodramatic, yet the hyperbole likely captures the psychology of O’Connell and perhaps others, judging by the online comments posted in response to his piece, and chimes in with such essays as Jonathan Franzen’s notorious “Mr. Difficult.”
Meanwhile, advocates of mega-novels, such as Steven Moore, believe that ploughing through densely written novels is rewarding in itself, and not just a cause for carving another notch in the library shelves when books like The Recognitions are completed. Here’s a passage from Moore’s 1987 review of Joseph McElroy’s weighty and dense Women and Men:
“Fifteen years ago, intellectual machismo was measured by the number of pages of Gravity’s Rainbow one had managed; in this year of big books, McElroy’s has provided the measure, even upping the stakes by writing a book longer and more difficult than Pynchon’s. Are the novel’s length and difficulty justified?… Hitting the 600-page mark, the 800-, the 1000-page mark with still 200 pages to go and McElroy’s unflagging invention still going strong, I was filled with awe and wonder as the immense epic design of the novel continued to mushroom ever higher… reading this book is a humbling experience.”**
Perverse loyalty or awe-inspiring. The implication of each position is that we aren’t thinking rationally when it comes to how we regard mega-novels. We are either brainwashed or swept up. There seems to be very little middle ground.
David Letzler’s The Cruft of Fiction provides a middle position. Cruft is “a half-slang/half-technical term from programming circles” that means poor or superseded computer code and badly written wiki entries, and it “cover[s] several digital phenomena, especially within wikiculture, where it is often applied to encyclopedic text that editors finds trivial, overwritten, redundant, or unreadable.” It is “text that is, basically, pointless,” gratuitous, excessive, “unnecessary, inelegant, or too complicated for its own good.” Letzler is the first to use this word in literary criticism (and, to my mind, makes a good case for its immediate adoption). Aside from occasional stiffness in the prose, this book of literary theory and criticism is written in accessible language that successfully communicates several ideas. It argues against those who, when confronted by lists or dialogue that last for pages, see only dullness or pointlessness, while also acknowledging and embracing the presence of passages that seem worthy of negative characterization. As Letzler puts it, “I will examine how [mega-novels] deploy cruft that challenges less society’s ills than its reader’s ability to attend a bloated representation of them. By creating a counterfeit world too expansive to process, what they satirize is the limits of their readers’ own minds.”
It’s worth noting the arrangement of the book and the breadth of literature Letzler draws on. The Cruft of Fiction is set out in the following chapters: “Introduction: Information and Attention in the Mega-Novel”; “The Dictionary”; “The Encyclopedia”; “Life-Writing”; “The Menippean Satire”; “Episodic Narrative”; “The Epic and the Allegory”; “Conclusion: The Fate of the Mega-Novel.” Endnotes, a bibliography, and an index follow. Gaddis, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Pynchon are presences throughout, with Gravity’s Rainbow deemed “the exemplary experiment in figural narrative systems, the subtlest distributor of cruft in our fiction, and the greatest of mega-novels.” There are also several pages each on, among others, Roberto Bolańo, Doris Lessing, Dorothy Richardson (for her multi-volume Pilgrimage, an almost forgotten work that is mostly talked about now in criticism), Gustave Flaubert, Don DeLillo, John Barth, Robert Coover, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William T. Vollmann (for Europe Central, not for his Seven Dreams sequence), Mark Z. Danielewski (for House of Leaves but not for his projected 27-volume series The Familiar), Haruki Murakami, and David Foster Wallace. (It is an unexpected pleasure to see translated works alongside works in English.) While some omissions may puzzle—McElroy, certainly, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and Anaïs Nin’s diaries, for instance—what’s examined illustrates well how cruft is found in various novel genres.
Literary theorists and critics are also present, in particular Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. They provide useful material for building a case or the necessary opposition Letzler has to dispose of. (Though it’s curious, and a missed step, that when discussing the importance of repetition and communication theory Letzler ignores Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s relevance theory.) Semioticians and structuralists predominate over practitioners of literary aesthetics like Moore, yet—and perhaps this comes from his status as an independent scholar—Letzler advocates that an older style of thinking needs revisiting. After discussing the inadequacy of “the poststructuralist conception of mind… [in] cognizing the information age” he brings back into view, “after decades of theoretical assault within the academy…,” the “autonomous liberal subject…” His explanation for this goes, in part: “So far as I can tell, no other model of subjectivity is capable of the attentional modulations required to make of the mind something more than a repository and replicator of memes.” Unlike much contemporary criticism emanating from “the academy” that views as “oddly taboo” the stance that “all literary reading demands judgment” when it comes to aesthetics—since, for many academic critics, texts are evidence of mores, habits, and other matters we may term historical, but are not viewed primarily as works worth evaluating on literary grounds—Letzler frequently expresses subjective opinions from an aesthetic base. Since literary theories and ideologies often batten on to novels, plays, poems, and so on and treat them as extractable resources for their own engines, it is important to stress that regard for writing as an art.
Of course, it’s not just theorists who view the careful putting together of words as less than aesthetically essential. Here’s a recent comment by critic and award-winning novelist Jorge Armenteros:
“It is now plain that any debate over who is, or is not, a better writer, or what is, or is not, a more legitimate writing is, for the most part, a surrogate social struggle. The more pertinent questions are what is the community being addressed in the writing, how does the writing participate in the constitution of this audience, and is it effective in doing so?”†
What could be drearier than viewing novels as utilities necessary in the creation of an incorporated community? What could do greater damage to literature than to circumscribe its ambit in this fashion? Those “pertinent questions” are valueless if aesthetic qualities are left aside. Experimental work, which many mega-novels qualify as, “obliges us to read experimentally—and we really have very little choice in the matter,” as Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Warren Motte phrase it. “It encourages us to put our traditional reading strategies aside in favor of new ones, limned in the text itself. Passive reading strategies will not serve; to the contrary, our reading of experimentalist texts must be active, engaged, and critical, if we hope to make sense.”‡ As Jamie Martin says in a different context, “The mind, which hates randomness, looks for causes and agency everywhere.”‡‡ For readers of mega-novels, as for other kinds, distinguishing between good and bad writing is as important as distinguishing between important and seemingly unimportant text. Both must continue if one is to determine what avenues are worth exploring.
Cruft is not a flaw. It is a valuable feature of novels that repays attention for how it is consciously used and how readers process it. (Of course, we’ve heard something about this before in Thomas LeClair’s The Art of Excess.) Useful material can be hidden under an eye-glazing accumulation of words. For example, Letzler quotes passages from Gaddis’ J R that contains endless business jargon. Beneath a surface of dividends and payment schedules that we might, as Letzler says, “skim,” lies a “train of action” that, through “extremely subtle filtering” of such minutiae, leads to a vital plot point. How many readers will pick that up, though? What does it say if items are not easy to discern, and what are the ramifications of that?
When a student classifies a particular novel as boring, a teacher’s first response is likely to find fault with the reader, not the text. However, Letzler’s countless examples illustrate that cruft is not “merely the subjective illusion of readers with insufficient attention for great writing, because it often is both ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’ at the same time.” He argues that there are many instances where “a reader with a low threshold for textual stimulation will surely be overloaded” by much of what we regularly find in mega-novels: playfulness with the layout of words and images on a page (in House of Leaves there is a long and, some might argue, worthless list connected to architectural styles irrelevant to the labyrinth that the novel is more concerned with that’s set out upside-down in a margin) and a multi-page “insult contest” (in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor). These pages strain our interest and thus seek to make us “laugh at our own inability to read the text”; in these examples, there is both saturation and comedy. Often, but not necessarily, cruft aims to help us consider the greater purpose of linguistic inventiveness. In Barth the hindrance to so-called normal reading enjoyment caused by plentiful bilingual barbs parallels the hindrances faced by his characters to understand and manage their lives. Cruft has significant purposes, as Letzler shows through a multitude of examples, and, for me, it is a term and concept that immediately takes its place alongside flashbacks, symbolism, or loiterature as a device to employ and accommodate. Letzler champions close readings as beneficial for readers—enriching the reading when excesses are taken seriously—who make the effort to decode particularly knotty or ‘out-of control’ passages in mega-novels. Coover’s The Public Burning is a book that, for Letzler, contains “stranger and more disturbing” imagery and “grotesque incongruities” than conventional satires. In times of social, cultural, and political tumult, some novelists respond by overriding our senses with aesthetically extravagant presentations and performances.
Such matters revolve around how conscious we are—the science referred to in the subtitle—and on this Letzler writes: “How we process and compress such an excess of narrative possibilities has significant cognitive implications.” Following the thinking of others, he believes that consciousness operates on “multiple levels” rather than any other model (such as a movie, a theatre stage with one spotlight picking out this or that moment or sensation, and as a discontinuous set of perceptions that allow an illusion of continuity in our thinking). This impacts what writers write (stream-of-consciousness, for example) and how readers read. Depending on the kind of model one believes in, there will be advocates of every type for “divergent prose styles.” Each example offered (works by Proust, Joyce, Woolf, and Richardson, among others) relies on the inessential—cruft—to convince a reader that what is presented is true to life. That there are so many paths taken underscores how impossible it is to reach a consensus on what constitutes the real.
To underpin his argument about consciousness and how it is represented in stream-of-consciousness writing, as well as showing how cruft can appear in various guises, Letzler brings in: Proust’s madeleine triggering memories that come out phrased in finely balanced sentences of great length and clarity; Joyce’s Leopold Bloom’s associative thinking that lurches from one item to another in fragments; and Woolf’s Peter Walsh who combines the previous two approaches while also allowing the narrative to flit between multiple characters. All pretend or assert that they accurately depict how consciousness works. Stream-of-consciousness is never pure, however, since it “requires heavy authorial selection” of details. Writers do not adhere to a neurological rulebook on how to create the illusion that they’ve captured how characters think, but whatever method they use is not haphazard, to them. Any instance of stream-of-consciousness must persuade an audience through its art and craft; the first draft may be raw, but the revision demands fine-tuning to ensure its credibility. The audience either accepts the conceit behind Molly Bloom’s extensive, excessive soliloquy or denies its validity. In the end, the question of consciousness applies to writer and reader.
Similarly, other methods, such as run-on sentences, fragmented discourse, and a wealth of historical (or quasi-historical) data can disorient the reader and alter the consciousness and the awareness of the effort it takes to read a flow of seemingly unrelated words.
Citing three instances of cruft that Letzler discusses may be useful. In the first, he takes Bolaño’s novel 2666 and subjects a portion of it, “The Part about the Crimes,” to a statistical analysis of investigations into the murders of 110 women. Using the details provided—and the information ranges from sketchy to full—he divides that number into groups and patterns, or as near to patterns as he can get. Societal elements might explain some deaths, the activities of a serial killer another, and so on. Here his action mirrors the investigations Bolaño is providing. We may not, as readers, invest the same energy as Letzler in poring over each murder report. We may become numbed by their sheer quantity and tune out, potentially inflicting a further “injustice” on the dead. In 2666 we are swamped with cruft—statistics, in this case—and even if we extract information from it we may not ever possess full knowledge, placing us in the same position as the investigators, but we have to try.
Cruft occurs in what may be the most popular example of writing that seems to contain no reason for its existence, the “Cetology” chapter in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. “What should we do when faced with this pointless encyclopedia?” Letzler asks:
“I am not sure that it contains any text worth deeply processing. It does, however, provoke a kind of boredom antithetical to that of the boring productivity required on land, one that consequently reorients Ishmael’s and the readers’ modes of attention. Only by establishing this opposed pole of cruft can the novel slow down and alter its readers’ perceptions so that they are prepared for the ruminating, philosophical essays that make up much of the novel’s middle.”
That may be a charitable interpretation, but it is one worth entertaining and exploring.
When speaking of Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Letzler refers to early critical commentary on it that, “while granting the innovative style, typically claimed it was used to excess,” and cites Katharine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf as opponents of its techniques. “What is it,” he asks, “within Pilgrimage’s style that so frustrates its critics?” Over the course of several pages he address that question by placing critical responses against each other and, through frequent quotations from this multi-volume novel, occasionally dwelling on passages like the “astonishing forty-three-page chapter that exhaustively details the daily work of a dental assistant” that would try most people’s patience. “The value of Richardson’s technique… comes in the occasional surprise of the unexpected within material that might otherwise be quite boring.” For readers, there is the lesson, albeit one that may not be immediately noticeable, that “raised consciousness can reflect on and break routine, then send whatever positive results that have been created back to be habituated again…. The work is frequently a tiresome process, and each success will work only for a while, after which we must rattle our habits up, expand our consciousness, then compress again.” It’s far from assured that most readers will assume there is definitely something to be touched on, if fleetingly, in a welter of words; it may be a mark of faith in those who persist in believing that Richardson is trying to communicate an essential ineffable. (Though Letzler doesn’t address this, off-putting obstacles posed by cruft in mega-novels would seem to indicate that novelists don’t pay much attention to the notion that they’re co-creating with even their most diehard adherents, else why design such “grueling”§ works?)
In his final pages Letzler merges the scientific and the literary aspects of his book with pragmatic reasons for studying mega-novels (distinguished from simply long books like Vanity Fair): “literary education has long been principally concerned with the training of attention… and while other literary genres have their own unusual relationships to that crucial element of cognition, the mega-novel uniquely pressures its nuances.” Teaching an entire course on Ulysses may be workable, as he suggests, but most professors I know would say that such an emphasis on one book—outside of a special course at graduate level—would take up space that several shorter novels, exposing students to multiple literary approaches, ethnic and gender backgrounds, could occupy. Letzler offers a more realizable goal when offering reasons why foregrounding the challenges of mega-novels—the “frustration and boredom” they bring out—could be integrated and highlighted in the study process as “the most vital effect mega-novels produce.” In using the “Cetology” chapter as an example, Letzler makes the point that skipping that portion both makes sense due to its purposelessness and that passing over such content means a reader will “miss how important [it is] to shaping attention.” By studying Ulysses, House of Leaves, 2666, and many other mega-novels—the type of novel that “uniquely” demands the most from readers—“students’ cognitive processes” can be examined and changed “so that they can better attend the passages that warrant attention and read other passages with less investment.”
David Letzler closes his book with the issue of interpreting the cataract of material that organizations and governments are collecting from and on everyone. The figure whose mind is best equipped to “isolate and prioritize” is the one who can spot cruft through training done by attentively reading mega-novels. It’s not that fiction will necessarily grow to look like metadata—though no possibility should be ruled out—but that society will, evidently, need minds that discern the essential from the non-essential. This is an honest admission of hope, though it seems unlikely to budge either pedagogically conservative professors who hang on to their threatened tenure or the cautious adjunct professors who more desperately agonize over the need to be included in a health plan. But these are minor quibbles. The Cruft of Fiction contains many ideas worth exploring and arguing with for writers and readers, and may come to be seen as an essential resource for personal and public libraries.
The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention, by David Letzler.
University of Nebraska Press; hardback; 318 pp.; $60 (U.S.); ISBN: 9780803299627
** My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays, Zerogram Press, 2018, 243.
† “Community Baby,” a review of Gina Frangello’s Every Kind of Wanting, in American Book Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, November-December 2016, p. 29.
‡ Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Warren Motte, “Introduction to Focus: Experimental Writing,” in American Book Review, Vol. 37, No. 5, July-August 2016, p. 3.
‡‡ “Nudged,” a review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed the World, by Michael Lewis, in London Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 15, 27 July 2017, p. 35.
§ Joseph Tabbi’s characterization of Gaddis’s J R in “Introduction to Focus: Corporate Fictions,” in American Book Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, January-February 2017, p. 3.
Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.