Avery Edison Is My Hero — Seriously
You might try to just simply sit down at meetings and relax and take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth and shut the fuck up and just listen, for the first time perhaps in your life really listen, and maybe you’ll end up OK.
There tends to be a lot of talk over at Infinite Summer and environs that’s kind of like meta-talk about the process of reading Infinite Jest, how goddamn long the book is, how a lot of it can be difficult and not particularly engaging, the mind games people play with themselves to make it through a section they’re having trouble with, &c. God knows I’ve done my share.
A certain amount of this type of talk is healthy and even necessary, right? But it seems like there’s an awful lot of it.*
Avery’s post over at IS may have — inadvertently? — become the apotheosis of this type of meta-thinking about Infinite Jest, judging by all the feedback it’s generated. But — I’m not trying to villainize her, and I’ll get back to her words in a sec. What’s troubling to me is the volume of comments Avery’s received along the lines of “Fuck it — not enjoying the book? Quit. Do something else.”
This line of reasoning is essentially an appeal to taste, right? The idea that there are certain things in life that will just not be to your taste, and nothing will change that, so spend your time doing something else. But here’s the thing — is it ever really enough to dismiss a work of art on the grounds of taste-incompatibility? I’m going to say no, because look — there are certain things in life that transcend personal taste, and yes, goddamn it, art is one of them.
Let me give an example. I kind of hate Thomas Pynchon. I find his writing glib and moronic, and I can’t make heads or tails of Gravity’s Rainbow. But I’ve come to recognize that this is my failure, not Pynchon’s. That there is a large group of reasonably intelligent people out there who have the highest opinion of Pynchon’s writing, and that rather than convincing myself that these people are all full of shit, my position is that I am somehow failing to do the work necessary to arrive at a robust understanding of Pynchon’s work. In short, that I’m going to sub-contract out the portion of my personal judgment that deals with Thomas Pynchon to others who know way more about him than I do until such time as I can sit down with these people (literally or figuratively) and listen to what they have to say and arrive at some sort of mutual understanding re: Pynchon.
A lot of the discussion around whether or not to ditch IJ is slouching toward a sort of anarchy of personal taste, where if it ain’t fun don’t bother and who’s to say what’s good literature and not, because it’s all a matter of personal preference. The danger is that this de-values art to the point where if taste is king then what’s wrong with ditching the concept of art entirely and vegging out to Dancing With the Stars 24/7?
This is an old, weary argument and I’m not going to get into it all here. The crowning irony of this entire discussion is that this notion of personal taste — personal happiness, if you will — elevated above all else is pretty much the intellectual crux of Infinite Jest. And so we have people using personal happiness as the primary criterium for deciding whether or not to read a book about the dangers of using personal happiness as a primary criterium for deciding things.
But I want to wrap this up by returning to Avery’s original post and explaining why she’s the hero, seriously, of this here post. It all boils down to one line she wrote: “Don’t get me wrong — I’m not going to quit. I’m going to read the whole thing and talk about it over the summer because I said I would.” I’m not going to quit. How important is this? How crucial is this that she’s setting aside her own will and her own likes/dislikes in order to engage with what is probably one of the more important works of art of the late 20th-century? On some level this is what Infinite Jest is all about, and quite frankly it’s what needs to continue to happen if the arts are to have any prayer in this country. Because it’s real easy to engage with and enthuse over a work of art that your personal taste pre-disposes you to, but it’s another kettle of fish entirely to do this with a work that your gut instinct is to not give a shit about. So rock on, Avery. I’m rooting for you.
* Isn’t this like a characteristically 21st-century American way of approaching a difficult work of art, where instead of dealing with the work qua art we end up spending all this time talking about the process of dealing with the work and how it makes us feel and blah blah blah, and by the end of it all the amazing and difficult work of art gets boiled down to an object that’s discussed basically as a kind of onerous accessory to our lives that has such-and-such a word count and so many pounds Amazon shipping weight, and Christ almighty have you even tried lugging this thing around on a day at the beach?