By Ashlie Kontos
(Editor’s note: This long-overdue post is the third installment in an ongoing conversation, last updated just over one year ago with Nina Berman’s In Response to “One Woman, Who Loves DFW, Talks”, which is, of course, a response to “Talk about what you love”: One Woman, Who Loves DFW, Talks by Ashlie Kontos. Here, Kontos reflects on the fraught processes of canonization, the importance of cultural contexts, and the questionable practices of readerly refusal. – Diego)
Kontos diagnoses the recent cluster of anti-DFW, anti-Infinite Jest op-eds and hot takes as writers’ personal dislike of DFW’s writing; their ambient misandry posing as cultural critique. She argues that when the DFW-recommending men described in these op-eds tell the writers, “you should read Infinite Jest,” they are only trying to share something they love. For her, the op-ed writers are shrill and man-hating, when really they should be more open-minded and omnivorous readers of literature. For Kontos, these writers should be open to authors of all genders, and not seek to discriminate in their reading choices.
I do not think that the female critics I mentioned in my first essay are shrill and man-hating. I know for a fact that Hungerford, at least, is very vocal about the male authors she admires (i.e. Jonathan Safran Foer, who is a favorite of mine as well). I even stated that I totally understand not liking a particular author’s works – “I don’t prefer the work of Dickens. I cannot stand to read any of Julian Barnes’s novels.”
I do stand by my subjunctive claim that we should all try to be more open – or in other words, less closed-minded – about what we consider reading.
These feminist critics take a big swing when they dismiss DFW and Infinite Jest. But they react against DFW and Infinite Jest, they are not just reacting against one author and one text, but against a whole constellation of normative reading practices.
I agree: this is what these female critics are doing. But in the context of my essay, I addressed a hypothetical interpersonal conversation in which one person states that they hated Infinite Jest or perhaps says that they refuse to read it. The hypothetical response I shared was just one example of how a positive/proactive dialogue could start in which neither the DFW-lover’s nor the DFW-hater’s opinion is rebuked, but is instead explored. For any one individual to address the “whole constellation of normative reading practices” in a single conversation would take, not only time, but a willingness of both parties to hear one another’s perspective. Shutting down and stating “I’m not going to read DFW anymore” or “I’m not going to read any of your suggestions because you a man telling me to read another man’s work” would probably not be of service when trying to constructively address changing another person’s reading practices.
Feminist criticism is not about replacing patriarchy with matriarchy. Frankly, it has never been about that in a real way, and yet this old straw man still seems to persist.
Yes, the feminism that I uphold and strive to practice does not replace the patriarchy with a matriarchy, but the kind of feminism represented in Hungerford’s, Coyle’s, and Crispin’s articles is one of feminist blind reject: (1) they haven’t read DFW and/or Infinite Jest; (2) they make a judgment about reading IJ based on those who recommend it [i.e. lit-bros] or, in Coyle’s case, based on reading BIWHM (which is a difficult, grotesque read but is certainly not representative of DFW’s oeuvre, especially IJ); (3) they publically state and defend their choice of non-reading and encourage their readers to do the same in – what I consider – a performance of virtue signaling and supposedly an act of counter cultural resistance. If you are against the patriarchy, if you are against the “whole constellation of normative reading practices,” then you should tell us what you are for: what should we read instead? what authors are you rallying behind? if “not this” or “not DFW,” then what or whom? Hungerford recommends Foer, but his literature is just as complicated given it is just as white-heterosexual-cis-male-privileged.
The kind of feminist criticism that leads me to side with the critics against DFW is the kind that reminds me that everything we love is problematic and that we need to consciously make space for marginalized voices if we are going to expand our communal ideas about what it means to live in this world with one another. It’s less about male authors and female authors and more about looking at the systems behind what books become canonical, whose voices are amplified, and what kinds of stories we circulate.
I totally agree. But within the hypothetical interpersonal, casual dialogue I presented, I would probably not divert that conversation to the university canon and systematic oppression unless the person I’m talking to is ready, able, and willing to engage in that kind of dialogue. Or if I do decide to bring up such politically charged topics, I would want the other person to know that I’m not trying to shame them or their reading suggestions, and I certainly wouldn’t write an op-ed piece about how the suggestion to read DFW [or in my case, Juliann Barnes or Jack Kerouac ^1 ] is offensive and insufferable.
- Side note: why are so many women up in arms about reading or the suggestion to read DFW? Why aren’t we arguing to keep Kerouac out of classrooms and reading lists? If their goal is to challenge cultural reading practices, especially those that neglect or denigrate women and minorities, why aren’t they more vocal about rejecting Kerouac and Bukowski and Updike?
What Kontos sees as an issue of personal taste is really about canon
In your opinion – in Nina Berman’s opinion. In a conversation between two casual readers, I do think that suggestions and choices are a matter of personal taste, to a large degree, which is of course influenced by one’s socio-cultural circles. The socio-cultural circle that I had growing up and studying in East Texas, I assure you, is very different than of those who studied in NYC or Chicago or Berkley. I did not have to worry about the Lit-Bros insisting that I read anything because they don’t really exist where I lived. I was grateful when I found anyone to talk to about books and reading and writing. And because such individuals were so scarce [they kind of still in my current location], I am very grateful when I find someone who wants to talk about those things, and I want to hear their suggestions and their stories as much as I hope that they will hear mine.
You can like DFW. You can not like DFW. But to think that this is just an issue of personal preference in either writing style or author gender is to miss the ways in which literary tastes are embedded in systems of power and dominance (your classic race/class/gender, for starters).
Agreed – totally. But then there is also the issue of the freedom to choose. It does not matter that I grew up in a religious (Jewish), poor, Southern home in the countryside of Texas. I could not and did not read only the texts that I had been raised to appreciate and study. Those of us interested in reading and writing and ideas, typically, do not silo ourselves off 100%. College and universities certainly help broaden the literary horizon for students, especially those like me who grew up in a remote part of the country that is economically challenged and has limited cultural institutions. Once I was given a taste of the kinds of writing that I had been missing, I inhaled as much as I could – and still do, really. I do understand that I was systematically educated with certain authors/texts; however, I also know that I have the right and the ability to choose what to read, what to explore. I have Amazon, Wikipedia, the Internet, podcasts, pen-pals, friends, etc. to aid in the discovery of new authors and books to enjoy. So, yes, larger systematic structures of power and dominance do influence what I read, especially when I was in college, but now my reading list is under my care. I decide every time I pick up a book what I want to read. I think it is acceptable that at times I will want to pick up a book by a man – be it DFW or Shakespeare or Eco or Forster – or a woman or a POC or an LGBTQIA individual as long as the book gives me something as a reader, as long as the book acts as “the axe for the frozen sea” within me.
Regardless of its literary merits or my personal reaction to Infinite Jest, it is part of a long history of patriarchal literary taste-making mechanisms. Long, sprawling books written by troubled white men are published, reviewed, taught, loved, passed down. They are considered Great Books about the human condition whereas books written by people who are not white men are considered marginal or niche. These Great Books long difficult books are anthologized, excerpted and assigned in survey courses.
Agreed. Also taught and anthologized now are novels, short-stories, poems, essays, and critical theories by women and POC and gender- and sexually-diverse authors. Are they taught the same percentage amount as the traditional Great Male Authors? No, certainly not. But the last 30-40 years has seen an opening up of the canon, and I think this progress needs to be acknowledged and continued. I did not experience nor do I consider female authors to be marginal or niche. In my (under)graduate program, I read as many female as male authors in almost all of the courses I took (granted that this did not happened in Shakespeare and the Pre-Socratics). Although this is not the case in every single literature course across the U.S., to my knowledge, English departments do include women and POC in their courses. Are white men taught to a larger degree still? Yes, but we cannot act as though there has not been a concerted effort made within higher-ed to expand the literary canon.
This is not to say that feminists can’t or shouldn’t love those books; can’t find truth, solace, or companionship in their pages. But it is to say that we as critical readers need to contextualize our relationships to books in a different way.
Agreed: feminists can and do love books written by men, even white men of privilege. I am one of those feminists. As a critical reader, I do contextualize books in many ways. Usually, I contextualize books regarding how they have shaped me into the human being I’ve became today. DFW helped me with understanding addition and pleasure; Winterson helped me understand how homosexual love is a thing of beauty, that it is pure, and how religion can shape a child; Forster taught me that human connection is paramount but also complicated so we have to be careful with one another; A. Roy helped me understand how quickly a child can be shattered and how dispossession affects individuals, families, and societies – that it is not an isolated event. Sometimes I will need to contextualize each of these authors according to their gender, race/color, creed, sexual orientation, etc., but that is only only one kind of contextualization; it is the kind of external signifier contextualization. Another kind of contextualization is the content or theme(s) of the novel. If I want to talk about addiction and trauma and the connection between the two, I can’t really refer to Winterson, but I can refer to Wallace. If I want to explore dispossession, I can’t really use Wallace, but I can use Roy. And it isn’t because one is a man and the other two are women; it’s because of what they wrote about, it’s because of the context and content within their novels.
I love my fair share of big difficult books by sad, dead, white men. They have gotten me through some of the most painful moments in my life. They made me feel seen and understood. But that doesn’t somehow exempt them from the racist, sexist, classist machinations of canon-formation. Feminist criticism at its best shows readers how to hold our deep love for books in tension with their position vis-a-vis discourses of power and oppression.
I’m not sure that I or anyone who likes to read and/or write about DFW – at least those within the International DFW Society – exempt DFW from the “racist, sexist, classist machinations of canon-formation.” DFW really has no choice in the matter now; he is gone, and we are still here. We have the choice to include his works – flawed and beautiful and wretched and human as they are – or not. Some of us may include DFW’s works in our personal reading lists, in our scholarly writings, in our classrooms; others may not. I’m perfectly fine with other people choosing to not include DFW in their personal, professional, or scholarly sphere. I would like them to extend me to the same kind of tolerance without the unnecessary “we shouldn’t read him because…” much less the bitter online diatribes.
When these women writers react against Infinite Jest, are responding to a long history of marginalized readers being told who is good, who is important, who is essential. And, in the case of Infinite Jest, these women (of which I am one) have been told these things by men who see themselves as progressive, liberal, almost definitely left of center in some way or another, and not at all the enforcers of dominant, normative approaches to culture.
If this is what these women writers are actually responding to, I wonder why I don’t hear more of them protesting the continued inclusion of Jack Kerouac (Hungerford includes him in almost all of her classes), Charles Bukowski, and Hemingway? What is it about DFW specifically that so offends?
When men have recommended Infinite Jest, I wish it had felt like a free exchange of recommendations.
I wish that for you as well. This has not been my experience – meaning when I have talked with men who love literature and who subsequently recommend that I pick up something, I’ve always felt quite comfortable (or perhaps entitled?) sharing my suggestions for them, whether they wanted those suggestions or not. Also, I didn’t have anyone insist that I read DFW; I found him quite by accident.
Instead, Infinite Jest has always felt like a prerequisite to having an opinion about books. As though in order to be a serious reader and thinker about books, one has to have read and loved Infinite Jest.
I have always felt a similar way about Nietzsche and Freud. Like…maybe I’m not a true, serious literary scholar because I haven’t seriously read Nietzsche and I cannot stand Freud. For me, Nietzsche and Freud stood as the two pre-requisites that needed to be read, studied, dissected, and venerated before I could be a legitimate scholar or English major. And then I decided that this just wasn’t the case and so I decided to stop feeling that way. I admit that I once felt a bit of shame for not having seriously studied these two great Western thinkers, but then I also acknowledged that I am no less of an invested reader of books, no less of an engaged thinker, no less of a degreed person because I didn’t spend a semester or two focusing on Nietzsche and Freud. Other people may think that of me, and that’s fine, but I no longer think that of myself. So, Infinite Jest may be some people’s pre-req to being a serious reader, but it’s not your pre-req to being a serious reader. It’s not my pre-req either.
The liberal, progressive men in my life; friends, classmates, exes, and crushes, who have recommended Infinite Jest to me seem unwilling or unable to see the ways that they, DFW, and Infinite Jest are embedded in larger issues of canon, privilege, and power.
Maybe those men were unable to see how DFW and Infinite Jest are embedded in the larger issues of the literary canon, privilege, and power. Does that make DFW and Infinite Jest unworthy of my time? of their time? Does that make DFW/Infinite Jest less valuable to readers? Do these men’s blindness to the system in which they live and participate in detract from the wisdom within Infinite Jest that they have identified with/found comfort in/been opened up by?
Kontos just wants to talk about what she loves; which is powerful and important.
This is an inaccurate representation of me. Talking about what I love was the emphasis within the hypothetical conversation about DFW as a way to reach out to someone who didn’t or doesn’t like DFW as a means to (1) let the other person know why I do like Wallace –what specific elements draw me to his work – and (2) to know what authors the other person likes and why so that we could hopefully identify a common ground from which to work off of when talking about books/reading/writing/ideas, etc. I have found it much easier to engage with someone if we both know where the other is coming from and why. Dialogues, especially tense dialogues, are more likely to remain respectful and open if both parties feel as though their opinion and differences are valid and actually matter even if you cannot fully agree with them.
That’s why we find ourselves here–because we love books and talking about them. But that’s not really what we’re here to do. We are here in this space of literary criticism to dig deep, to pick apart, to find the nuance and contradictions, to look at the gaps and silences. We are here to hold in our minds multiple conflicting truths at once; that many people can genuinely love Infinite Jest and that its place in culture is inextricably bound up in oppressive hierarchies. And that if we are going to start making space for other voices and other kinds of narratives, we need to actively seek them out and make space for them on our bookshelves and in our syllabi.
Totally agreed and well said.