Paging Mr. Difficult: The Contentious Legacy of William Gaddis

Sixty years after the publication of The Recognitions, his first novel, how do we describe the literary reputation of William Gaddis? It’s hard to say. Weirdly, this may have less to do with the tug-of-war between his critics and defenders than their mutual and persistent failure to convince. It’s almost as if, paradoxically, we’ve inherited from Gaddis’ supporters an aloof, proto-postmodern graphomaniac and boarding school brat, one who later found himself drunk on entropic systems and out of touch with the democratic requirements of American fiction; on the other hand, Gaddis’ critics — Jonathan Franzen, most notably — have passed along a hardworking, sympathetic recluse whose vision of the American future appears to have been confirmed at almost every turn.

This is another way of saying that postmodernism was as much a critical pose as it was a period of novel writing — and perhaps more so. American critics of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, who pedaled a denationalized French philosophy as literary theory and criticism, desired big semiotic systems to “deconstruct,” and the novels of Gaddis and Coover and Pynchon — although wildly different in form and style — appeared to offer this as a platform extending from some postmodernist bloc. Years later, the intellectual progeny of these critics would, like all literary children, come to attack their fathers.

Enter “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen’s infamous New Yorker takedown of Gaddis from 2002. In the essay, Franzen calls Gaddis “Mr. Difficult,” but he should have just called him “Daddy” (or maybe “Grandaddy”). An exercise in critical manipulation gone amusingly awry, Franzen’s essay attempts to kill Gaddis in the Freudian sense. His strategy is to place Gaddis at the head of  the “literature of emergency” — a dumb revision of the “literature of exhaustion” — which he posits as a closet full of “systems novels” that have since become period pieces. Of course, it didn’t occur to Franzen in 2002 that, 13 years later, a writer he would champion, Nell Zink, would recast his own novels as stale, boring, and insufficiently radical. It would never occur to Franzen, in other words, that The Corrections and Freedom would come to be seen as relics of a politically retrograde era wherein ideological sameness masqueraded as ideological impasse.

Ironically, Gaddis’ novels, especially J R, would regain political favor, but not before they were repelled by the Franzen Line, which held in New York between 2002 and 2008. (Or at least it seemed that way to me when I attended panel after panel that cited Franzen’s essay as a valuable mainstay against “experimental” and “difficult” fiction.) It wasn’t until Occupy surged in the wake of the financial collapse that Gaddis began to reclaim his reputation among a somewhat wider readership. The Occupy Gaddis campaign, for example, that grew from a now-defunct Los Angeles Review of Books blog, led to the collective reading and annotation of Gaddis’ J R, a novel-in-dialogue about the inflationary state of the American dream. Though it was published 40 years in advance of the financial crisis, it became one of its best and most welcome literary responses.

More recently: nothing. Since Occupy Gaddis, there hasn’t been much aside from the stray essay or scholarly scrap — until this year. Prompted, presumably, by the double anniversaries of The Recognitions and J R, Northwestern University Press has just published Joseph Tabbi’s Nobody Grew But the Business, a welcome, sophisticated, and humanizing biography of Gaddis that takes its name from an early version of J R.

Very much against the grain of the Gaddis presented by Franzen and The New Yorker, Tabbi’s Gaddis has no interest in confounding the reader. Possibly as an effect of his close relationship to his urbane, industrious, and devoted mother, Tabbi suggests, Gaddis rather believed that he would find an audience for his novels, or at least the first two. “Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published,” Gaddis once told The Paris Review in a rare interview, “I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised.” He added: “that’s what heaven’s for.”

Of course, with the publication of The Recognitions — which was roundly panned —  it wasn’t so easy for Gaddis. Nor was it ever that hard. Even though younger postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme may have found wider, more devoted readerships, we should remember that Gaddis won two National Book Awards — for J R and A Frolic of His Own. If there is one issue I have with Tabbi’s biography, it’s that it sometimes (defensively, accidentally) perpetuates the idea that Gaddis is lost to American culture, a myth that should have been put to rest by the response to his work following the financial crash. This is, admittedly, a small complaint.

The major virtue of Tabbi’s biography is the way it weaves in and out of Gaddis’ employment history — mostly as a ghostwriter, where he saw firsthand the upbuilding dominance of corporate and financial culture — in order to show its influence on the later novels. Tabbi calls the product of this interweaving (thinking of Melville and the Transcendentalists) “the self who could do more” or “the compositional self,” and I think this understanding of Gaddis points to a major critical renovation of his work. He was, like our best contemporaries, a secular writer who identified his soul with “the real work… the thought and the rewriting and the crossing out and the attempt to get it right.”

Also, Tabbi locates the tremendous lyrical quality of Gaddis’ work — sadly its most important and overlooked feature — in his family’s long love affair with music. (They founded, at different points, a school of music and family orchestra.) He also convincingly pitches Gaddis as an exemplar of what Thoreau called “the memorable interval” between “the language heard” and “the language read,” which he describes as “a reserved and select expression” that is “too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak.” This is a beautiful reiteration of how Gaddis’ novels, which sometimes contain nothing but dialogue for pages on end, echo the idea that “America itself can be regarded as nothing more, or less, than the speech of Americans.”

In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen resuscitates a number of dead binaries so that he can murder them again, but perhaps the most grotesque of them all is his opposition between the “active” and “passive” reader. Gaddis’ J R, Franzen writes, “is written for the active reader. You’re well advised to carry a pencil with which to flag plot points and draw flow charts on the inside back cover.” This is vintage Franzen, a moment of self-aggrandizement (here he’s pitching his new style in The Corrections) cooked up in a batter of Midwestern common sense. But Gaddis, especially the Gaddis that Joseph Tabbi’s biography shows us, never chides the reader for being “active”; nor does he assume that any moment of reading anything is “passive.” For Gaddis, that would be an insult to the reader’s intelligence, to her ability to read, translate, hear for herself. And his stance against this kind of dead thought is a literary politics that is built to last.