How does David Foster Wallace pass the time during a 1600-mile trip across America? With a Dean Koontz novel, of course. The Rumpus, a site for literary commentary, recently published an unsettling little article on “The Comfort of Bad Books”, exploring the attraction and validity of bad books. Way more of us than we’d care to admit have spent hours upon hours with supposedly lowbrow or ‘pop’ books, along the lines of Koontz or Danielle Steel or James Patterson, and all of us are secretly thrilled by the plots, ashamed at how quickly and wholly we absorb ourselves in them, and perhaps a little embarrassed that we tend to enjoy these thrillers far more than the ‘right’ kind of books to read. As the piece’s author points out, David Foster Wallace, perhaps the most acclaimed author of our generation, embraced this kind of ‘junk’ literature in a way that gives the snobs pause:
“[Wallace] seemed to think there was something else there. In his syllabi, which are all over the web, it turns out he assigned these books to his students. He assigned Joan Collins and Mary Higgins Clark and Thomas Harris. And he cautioned students: “Don’t let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking this is a blow-off type class. These ‘popular’ texts will end up being harder than more conventionally ‘literary’ works to unpack and read critically.”
…I understand why, among writers, who are usually endless-appetite readers as well, the reading of books other than Real Books is a vaguely shameful activity. We all live on borrowed time, and there’s DeLillo and Nabokov and Pynchon I’ll never get to because of the hours I’ve spent reading… well, I’m even afraid to tell you their names. You can and will judge. But I do it anyway because sometimes I just need the comfort of falling into something that is ready to catch me. I need it to hold me.
From the above image of Wallace’s own copy of The Silence of the Lambs (from University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center), it’s evident that Wallace saw a profound depth in this sort of pop thriller literature, beyond just viewing them as a model for commercial success. Perhaps there’s some academic quality in these books that everyone else has overlooked, perhaps the Great Literature playing field is simply more level than most people thought, or – less likely – DFW just had a quirky predilection towards bad writing.
In any case, the internal identity politics that enter into these discussions are complex. It’s great for someone like Wallace to give us some freedom and soothe our inveterately snobbish literary consciences. At the same time, though, it exposes much of our criticism (literally: ‘distinguishing good work from bad work’) to be tinted by self-justification: we exaggerate the gap between Finnegan’s Wake and Twilight because the former is inaccessible but to a few, esoteric, gnostic and mysterious. Per Wallace’s warning to his students, lightweight books may be even more difficult, precisely because we take their ease for granted.
At the same time, the observer of snob culture can easily see something like Wallace’s syllabi fueling a nightmare scenario in which bad books become trendy, or Dean Koontz becomes a new author for snobs, their loudly proclaimed appreciation for him implying an esoteric taste to which neither the common reader nor the elite have access. If such supposedly lowbrow books became objects of snobbery, this would defeat the whole joy of reading them – the warmth of the easy thriller, the “holding” referenced in the article, lies precisely in the fact that we don’t have to ‘get it’ or ‘appreciate it.’ Simple books offer a temporary escape from the performance-continuum of more highbrow works, and our experience of another world is simply given. I once gave a Dean Koontz fan a McCarthy book (All the Pretty Horses) and he loved it; as soon as I told him it was critically acclaimed, however, he never finished out the trilogy. This simple pleasure Western book suddenly became something esoteric to him, intimidating, fraught with layers of meaning he saw himself as too lowbrow to pick up on. The demand to find meaning in a previously ‘fun’ book killed its enjoyment for him.
Rich or poor, Americans have a bias towards viewing themselves as middle-class, and the volatile world of criticism is no different: those who are less well-read than I are missing out, and those who are more well-read are pretentious eggheads. We all inhabit this sphere, and the pride someone can take in their ability to un-snobbishly enjoy Counting Crows is no less insidious than the pride of a Rachmaninoff devotee. We all want to be perfectly positioned between highbrow and lowbrow, and everyone tends to see themselves as getting the balance somehow right. And yet it’s the authors who can cater to different ends of the spectrum that are often the most successful who, apparently, are the Koontzes and Harrises of the world. Con-descending to this taste may be a horrible betrayal of Great Art but, equally plausible, it offers a sort of grace to the reader:
[Wallace once said,] ‘The crux, for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his(her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily…war.’
…if you want books to be the grail, the thing that makes us feel less alone, and you have to want that, I think, as a writer: you have to be okay with letting people come to books themselves. You have to realize that the crucial part is not the leading to water. It’s the drinking. If they don’t drink in the first place, we’re already gone.
Last week I was at the New Yorker panel on Wallace, and in the Q&A a young woman stepped up to the mic and asked whether one really needed to love the reader at all.
Mary Karr fixed her gaze firmly on the questioner and said something like, “Well, tell me: what’s the Plan B then? Help me to understand.”
And the woman looked at Karr, and opened her mouth, and left her jaw hanging.