The De-democratization of Reading: Amy Hungerford’s Objection to Reading DFW

Written by Ashlie M. Kontos

DISCLAIMER: This essay will in no way defend the misogynistic thoughts, attitudes, and/or behaviors exhibited by David Foster Wallace or any other male author.  Though such actions are offensive and repugnant, the personal life of an author should not be the predominating factor when determining if we should or should not read that author.

I am going to discuss Amy Hungerford’s recent publications (“On Not Reading” featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September 2016 and the extended argument in her latest book Making Literature Now) on why she believes the reading public should not read the works of David Foster Wallace.  Her argument centers on three major premises: firstly, she presumes that an author’s Real Life (inter)actions determines the kind of relationship (s)he has with the reader.  In Wallace’s case, as is noted through D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story Wallace had less than respectable or healthy interactions and comments about women in his younger years.  Hungerford notes a similar chauvinistic relationship between the writer and reader portrayed in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” via Mark Nechtr’s use of sexual term to describe that relationship: “Mark postulates that Steelritter is only half-right.  The story does not love, but this is precisely because it is not cruel.  A story, just maybe, should treat the reader like it wants to…well, fuck him” (original emphasis 331).  Because of Wallace’s youthful misogyny and the authorial fucking that the fictional Mark Nechtr imagines the writer could do to the reader, Hungerford bridges Nechtr’s (fictional) contemplation to reflect Wallace’s actual view of his Real Life readers.  Secondly, she calls attention to the literary overproduction that is, according to her, overwhelming academia and the public readership.  Because of the masses of new novels published every year—“to date, over 60,000 new novels are published in the US alone”—how can scholars possibly read all those novels and thereby appropriately develop the Post-45 or 20th/21st Century or Contemporary Literature cannon (143)?   Her solution to this dilemma is that we must be more discerning in what we choose to read because there simply is not time to read everything.  And so, thirdly, knowing that we cannot read everything allows Hungerford a space to talk about the Academic facing the shame of having not read whichever certain text(s) she has not gotten around to reading.  She admits that “[t]he activity of nonreading is something that scholars rarely discuss.  When they—or others whole identities are bound up with books—do so, the discussions tend to have a shamefaced quality” (n. pag.).  She attempts to overturn this academic faux pas by masking it as an act of defiance: “[m]y small act of countercultural scholarly agency has been to refuse to continue reading or assigning the work of David Foster Wallace” (n. pag.).  In examining Hungerford’s propositions, I found a factually inadequate argument with a false, or at the very least limited, presentation of DFW’s work and projected relationship to the reader as well as a false dilemma regarding this nature of reading in the 21st century.

In an effort to make her argument factually sound, Hungerford concedes to having read a few of Wallace’s works: “The Depressed Person,” some pieces from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (150).  Despite her limited knowledge of DFW’s oeuvre, she portrays Mark Nechtr’s conception of the writer::reader dynamic as Wallace’s own.  The fact that Hungerford tries to equate the writer-reader relationship to a sexual engagement is concerning especially because she couches it in terms of a kind of prudish morality—making love versus fucking—as if the latter is only ever cruel, harmful, and perverse.  Hungerford tries to deflect this rebuttal by claiming “we should care about how Wallace treated women because what is at stake in the relationship between misogyny is not sexual morality—about which we all might differ—but the quality of the art Wallace produced” (147).  Yet how can she speak to the quality of Wallace’s art, specifically his magnum opus Infinite Jest, if she has not read it?  Her knowledge of the quality of Wallace’s works is limited, and secondhand knowledge presented in his biography is just that: derivative.  Hungerford does not call into question the misogyny of other male writers, but given this line of reasoning, perhaps we should also stop reading Dickens, Rushdie, Hemingway, Kerouac, etc.  She seems to believe and does insinuate that Wallace’s relationship to the reader is unchanging from what is presented in the 1989 short story.  She does not point out that “Westward…” is one of Wallace’s earliest works nor does she mention that the scope, quality, and tone of his literature greatly matured and expanded within the next decade, but how could she know this when she admits to not having read the majority of Wallace’s work and none of his novels?  She does not mention that in “Octet” from Brief Interviews… that Wallace’s first-person narrator notes the analogous nature of the writer and reader:

“[T]his will be the risk run, the honesty-tactic’s possible price…it’s going to make you [i.e. the writer] look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do…more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.” (original emphasis 159-160)

Hungerford may not have included this divergent regard for the reader, but then, she may not have read “Octet.”  If she has read it, she neglects to acknowledge that Wallace’s conception of the reader and the writer::reader relationship is more empathetic and complex than her limited textual analysis of Wallace’s works suggests.  Hungerford instead emphasizes Wallace’s personal transgressions by honing in on phrases from D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, in which Wallace is documented as having an abundance of promiscuous sexual engagements with women.  Hungerford claims that “the very idea of ‘audience pussy’ on a book tour suggests that the logic of Wallace’s relationships with women in his life practice might in fact have a structure similar to the logic of the writer-reader relationship invoked, and formally embodied, in Wallace’s work [i.e. referring back to Mark Nechtr] and the reading practice it imagines [i.e. one in which the reader is fucked]” (142).  However, Hungerford neglects to mention that this phrase is not one used by Wallace himself nor in his literature.  The phrase “audience pussy” was coined and used by Mary Karr, a poet Wallace had a tumultuous relationship with in the 1990s, to describe Wallace’s sexual antics on the Infinite Jest book tour.  And so, Hungerford’s rendition of Wallace’s writer::reader relationship does not account for Wallace’s striving towards mutual recognition and connection, which he described to David Lipsky as an effort of “capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell ‘Another sensibility like mine exists.’ Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader feels less lonely” (original emphasis 38).  The conflation of Wallace’s personal, sexual relationships with his authorial relationship to the reader are conflated by Hungerford, yet in order for her to make this conflation seem natural and logical, she must leave out much of Wallace’s reflections about writing and reading as well as his later literary works in which the reader is not “fucked” but entreated to engage with the author and the text as a means to feel less alone.

If Wallace’s authorial- and sexual-affairs are not evidence enough to cease reading his literature, Hungerford amplifies the semblance of urgency by discussing the issue of literary overproduction.  She does accurately note that our reading-time is limited, thus the number of texts we can possibly consume is finite.  This is and has always been true of the reading condition.  This is not a 21st century problem; however, in the 21st century we are fortunate to have a larger reading audience than we did, say, in the 18th or 19th century.  So while there may be more books published each year in 2017 than there was in 1865, there are more readers who can buy can read these works now than in 1865.  Hungerford fails to mention the simultaneous increase in readers in the U.S. as literacy rose quickly during the 20th century.  Regardless of the moderately proportionate increase in publications to readers, we must consider Hungerford’s charge: with the fixed amount of time we that have to read, scholars of contemporary literature must become ever more judicious about which texts we take the time to read.  Hungerford insists that the choice of not-reading certain texts—like Wallace’s—“holds tight to the dream that our literary scholarship should be based on the activity of reading as much as humanly or inhumanly possible” (n. pag.).   We should neglect reading a single 1,079 page novel so that we can instead read 3-4 novels of 200-300 pages; we would make the utilitarian sacrifice: the one for the several.  Hungerford claims that we must decide which texts are worth reading, and vice versa, without reading them because there is too much to read, so “a decision not to read must be defended, and received, on the basis of this different standard of evidence” (n. pag.).  She is correct: we must decide what to read and what to refrain from reading, and this decision will often be made even though we have not read either of the texts before.  What we should not do—and Hungerford does it here—is to defend the choice of not-reading Infinite Jest or any other lengthy text because of its size.  Hungerford does not know the quality of Infinite Jest as a novel and as a work of art—she assumes it is written in the same style, content, theme, etc. as “Westward”—yet she speaks with a voice of authority and knowledge of the material without actually possessing them.  One can legitimately say, “I don’t read Wallace because the external cues I got about it made it seem like crap.”  What we should not do is present a seemingly well-reasoned, solid claim to what the novel is and its worth when we have not read it.  Although we must receive Hungerford’s reasoning behind why she no longer reads Wallace’s works—this is her opinion and modus operandi, which she is entitled to—we should not place faith or trust in her appraisal of Infinite Jest because her un-researched opinion is worth as much as mine would be on, say, black holes or microeconomics.  The fact that she masquerades her non-reader opinion as scholarly because she has a Ph.D. and teaches at Yale is the literary equivalent to pseudo-science.  Moreover, Hungerford’s unrealistic, perfectionist aspiration—to read as much as (in)humanly possible—is not necessarily what is required of any/all Post-45 scholars.  The abundance of U.S. fiction published each year should provide room for more creativity in the Post-45 syllabi.  Contemporary U.S. scholars, like Hungerford, are not solely responsible for studying, teaching, and writing on the Beats, Fredric Jameson and Richard Rorty, all the feminists writers, the gothic, African-American fiction, Asian-American, Native-American fiction, Jewish-American fiction, etc.  No, we have comparative lit., lit. theory, and minority lit. scholars and programs to—not only share the literary load—but also to provide the time and educational space in which students and scholars can concentrate on marginalized writers and literature.  The freedom that a contemporary scholar has that a Victorian scholar does not is that the contemporary cannon is still so very fluid, and a syllabus used one semester may not necessarily be subsequently used because there are so many texts to explore from one academic year to the next.  Though the 21st century cannon maybe more cohesive in one hundred years from now, we could consider the present literary abundance not as a problem but as a gift—a gift of the ability to act as literary surveyors of literature new to all readers.

Yet with the ability—or freedom—to choose what to read comes with the realization that there will also be the not-read list.  We will all have to admit that we haven’t read all the newly published novels, and maybe we will also have to confess to not reading some of the great books that have been with us for centuries.  I, for one, have not read Don Quixote, Moby Dick, or even The Pale King, and I say this without shame; it’s a reality that I accept and can live with quite easily.  The shame that Hungerford speaks of when scholars must admit to not having read a work that other scholars deem necessary of reading must now be addressed.  Feelings of shame are experienced when the individual feels less-than, or, as Brené Brown observes, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy” (n. pag.).  Though Hungerford and other academics may experience such shame because they personally believe that they have failed, it is more likely that shame from not-reading is stoked by osmosis, whereby academics perpetuate a kind of adversarial, disparaging relationship with their peers who have not read whatever work is currently being discussed.  Instead of acknowledging shame in a healthy way—i.e. recognizing and saying, “I feel shame when I have to admit that I haven’t read x, yet I understand that I am not perfect, nor do I have limitless amounts of time and reading-energy, so this feeling, though discomforting, does not have to be a part of my feeling-reality.  Instead of focusing on what I have not read, I will feel grateful and proud of what I have read and what I will read”—she deflects her shame by taking up a stance that calls for other readers to take up the banner of non-reading and wear it was a badge of pride.  But she does so in the negative—“I won’t read this, and you shouldn’t read it either”—not a positive—“I know there isn’t a lot of time to read, so with my time, these are the author’s I’m rallying behind.”  What makes this argument potentially dangerous is that Hungerford calls for not reading Wallace specifically and long(er) novels generally.  She defends this audacious proclamation by referring to Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (2003) and summarizes Zaid’s proposal thusly: “Zaid argues that excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others (i.e. other books)” (n. pag.).  This statement begs the questions: what defines ‘excessively long? and, if we should now refrain from reading and teaching long(er) novels, should we cease from reading and teaching Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Melville’s Moby Dick and Proust and Dickens and Dostoevsky?  There is nothing inherently undemocratic about writing a lengthy text and offering it up to the reading public, who can freely choose to pick it up or not.  It is no more undemocratic than the fact that some paintings will be larger and more detailed than others and sonatas will naturally consist of more movements and are therefore longer and more complex than a minuet.  Literary and artistic expression does not necessarily need to minimize itself to get closer to the 140 character-limit the U.S. public has become engrossed in consuming on a daily if not hourly basis.  Some activities, especially reading novels, takes time, patience, and the willingness to slow down and sit still with the words and world unfolding before the reader.  The act of taking the time to slow down, read thoroughly, and reflect is certainly not made easy in the current cultural climate, particularly within certain higher education institutions where capitalistic interests instigate a kind of anxiety where professors and adjuncts are expected to plow through or skim texts and adlib the rest.  Thus, the act of reading whatever texts we choose—long and short works; 1,079 pages and 112 pages—and reading them thoroughly and passionately is still a revolutionary act.  It is an act of self-determination and cultural engagement.

Works Cited

Brown, Brené.  “shame vs. guilt.”  Brené Brown, 14 Jan. 2013,  Accessed 13 June 2017.

Hungerford, Amy. Making Literature Now.  Redwood City: Stanford UP, 2016.  Print.

—-.  “On Not Reading.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 Sept. 2016,  Accessed 13 June 2017.

Lipsky, David.  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.  New York: Broadway Books, 2010.  Print.

Wallace, David Foster.  “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”  Girl With Curious Hair.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.  Print.

—-.  “Octet.”  Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.  Boston: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.

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