“OK it’s party time.
I think your first paragraph hits on what I’ve found to be the biggest issue in teaching English so I can see why it would resonate into research/reading too, how we have this divide between what we like to read and what we think we are supposed to read. I think my biggest struggle is that when I’m working 4 days a week not doing my PhD or anything academic but I’m in the shop it’s really hard to come back home and have the energy to focus on my PhD. It’s why when I eventually finish it I want to have a couple of years of not working on academic stuff and just fucking about in my charity shop, but maybe I’ll feel too old for it then. Who knows. I think staying in academia this long has blown out of the water any idea of a ‘life plan’, but moving to London does that as well — so many of my friends aren’t in jobs that are in any way permanent or in long-term relationships, and that’s quite comforting!
Anyway, back to the point. I find it hard to focus on the things I’m supposed to be researching/enjoy. Like I mentioned elsewhere, I feel my research has changed a lot to the point where what I’m studying isn’t what I ‘enjoy’ anymore but I have been altering my PhD a bit, like bringing in more contemporary lit stuff and focusing on issues to do with how we align ourselves to literary culture and decide what is important for us. And also how David Foster Wallace is an amazing writer who I think resolves the issue of enjoyment/challenge, but the biggest enjoyment I got out of Infinite Jest wasn’t how much it ‘challenged’ me but the sheer enjoyment of reading it. The escapism you refer to when reading Chabon/Franzen. I’m not sure if I ‘trained’ or forced myself to enjoy this or if it’s where my interests were naturally leading, but I think that there’s definitely a weird ‘shame’ attached to escapism or pure pleasure of the text. Being lost in a narrative isn’t something that should feel unnatural which is what I can sense you thinking you have to think about your experience?
I find it interesting that you’re trying to force yourself to read new stuff. I don’t have an opinion really on whether it’s a right or wrong thing because generally my opinion on most things lately has been ‘if it’s happening then it’s meant to happen’ which I’ve not formalised with any philosophy or anything but I think would be counted as Zen? I dunno. But the gist of it is not to really try and change anyone/anything and just take whatever is there as it is and run with it, you interpret the fact of the situation rather than trying to think your way out of it. It’s a staple of religious parallels like some guy is stranded in the desert and prays to god to save him then a guy on a horse comes by and later he complains that god didn’t save him and his friend is like but wait you prayed to be saved and you were saved. (How this lets you achieve anything is a problem I’ve yet to deal with.) So if you are trying to read different literature then there is something inside you that is interested and engaged with it – if it’s to arrive at the answer that you don’t like it and it doesn’t benefit you then that’ll be OK! This also sounds stream of consciousness and I’m trying to make it not sound patronising so apologies if it comes off like that as I’m just trying to talk so much that I might get to some agreement between what I think I’m trying to say and what my words are trying to say.
If you can get hold of the David Foster Wallace short story collection Oblivion read the story ‘Good Old Neon’ in it as a prospective next step in our reading group, it’s a better immediate introduction to a lot of what he does in his other writing and has a nice comment on his view of why all literature is experimental but more specifically on the way he tries to push his writing to subvert/exploit this at the same time. This ‘at the same time’ thing of literature is sort of what I’m trying to get at above with my discussion of Infinite Jest — that the best literature for me is something that is saying ‘OK, remember that you are reading words that I have made up and are not really real in any sense’ but is also saying ‘even though this is all fake I can still make you care about something because really isn’t everything made up and how do you know anything else is real’ so once you accept both these things then the book can be effective and make you care about things in a way that is rendered possibly more meaningful than it would otherwise have been because with these added sort of metatextual tags they amplify maybe any emotional/sentimental effect of the text? I’m trying to think of an analogy, but it’s like you’re told that it’s fake and and anything subsequent isn’t powerful ‘in spite of you knowing it’s fake’ but ‘because you know it’s fake’. Am I going too far?
Oh I just realised I answered that question you asked about reading what you feel you should/feel you want to. Sort of. Um, my tastes have become quite uniform lately and I feel more ‘confident’ that what I’m reading is what I want to read but there’s also a sense of pretentiousness here that I want to be seen to read certain writers like I love the name ‘Lydia Davis’ and I love ‘Lorre Moore’ so that was part of why I was attracted to these writers but then I realised how much I got into them and ran from there. And to go back to the above, when I read their stuff I get a lot of the ‘this is really fun and I am enjoying it and I am not thinking about form or technique and I want to read the next page’ that we’ve (I think) mutally assigned under ‘escapism’ but when I think about their texts in a ‘literary’ sense there is more there than I realise and so I like to think I’m intuitively reading in a ‘literary’ way but I could just be imposing this narrative on my own life so this is here for you to consider.
‘Contemporary’ recommendations…well ‘Oblivion’ is probably my first tip for the reasons above. If you’re talking about what would I recommend to someone who wants to read modern stuff rather than specifically what should you read, then Tao Lin ‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’ is one of the most ‘modern’ things around just now and some people hate him but he has a good style that is like James Ellroy but more repetitive and is good for thinking about his position in literary culture and what his activities say about literary culture. Then I think we discussed Shane Jones ‘Light Boxes’ but it’s only OK I think his prose poetry collection ‘A Cake Appeared’ is better at showing the mix of fable/new irony he is illustrating. Other writers I’ve read recently and liked: Evie Wyld, David Vann, Deb Olin Unferth, John Brandon, Chris Killen.
I’m going to interject here and say that although a project of reading ‘contemporary’ stuff is useful and interesting I think a more appropriate path for you might be to just widen your reading around the people you are interested in without feeling like you’re forcing yourself. My recommendations on this path would start with Richard Yates – he’s a weird midcentury writer whose work is all about postmodern themes like the subjectivity of experience and the performance and theatricality of all ‘individuality’ and his stories are really great and there was the film Revolutionary Road but the novel is better. Then I’d say Lorrie Moore, Frederick Barthelme, these are the successors to his style. These are less about ‘style’ than they are about what it is that fiction takes as its object. Which is what I’m coming around (perhaps because of my PhD) to thinking about as the basis of separating literature. Because style can be so fickle and you have good writers who write traditionally and etc and the reason I think I dislike Franzen is how he chooses and the filters he puts on the world are things that I think don’t need to be represented whereas these writers show things that are (to me) different and strange and weird but also comforting in that because often I feel my life is different and strange and weird. And none of this is meant to say ‘I am so special and interesting’ but it is hard to make it not sound like that.
My ‘leisure’ reading takes a hit when I teach, for sure, and I’m reading a lot of short fiction/poetry lately, but let’s say I’d like to get through a novel every couple of months. Can get really into one and finish in a week, but lately I’ve been more dipping all over the place. I share the difficulty in reading at home, so I take myself to the library when trying to get serious reading done. And yeah TV/films danger. But the TV stuff can be useful. For me, anyway, I think about the way the current popularity of long-form storytelling on TV is useful for thinking about how culture shifts the locus for this to whatever medium it’s most in vogue with. Like novels > films > TV over the last century. And how that has an effect on everything else. That films should really be more popular than TV for this but the financing of films being tied to marketing/concessions/merchandise that so many films are sequels/reboots these days (there’s some good stats about Hollywood somewhere). The effect of this on literature is sort of tangential but it’s the way technology affects our perception/relation to art/culture and DFW argues that this is the central duty of the artist (and therefore writer) to engage with the way we perceive/understand our world and if TV is the biggest place for stories to be told then we should be interrogating/observing/participating in this. Oh if you like Mad Men you’ll definitely like Richard Yates btw.”