An Interview with Joseph Tabbi, Author of Nobody Grew But the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis
Published December 2015
Introduction: Joseph Tabbi is Professor of English and project leader in Critical Digital Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has written two groundbreaking studies of postmodern literature and culture, Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk (Cornell UP, 1996) and Cognitive Fictions (U of Minnesota P, 2002). Tabbi also edits the influential online journal Electronic Book Review.
I got in touch with Tabbi after I heard about his most recent book, Nobody Grew But the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis (Northwestern UP, 2015). The book compellingly demonstrates that Gaddis was deeply engaged with the continuing corporate reengineering of postwar American experience not just in J R, the 1976 Gaddis novel that deals most explicitly with corporations, but throughout his career. The interview which follows focuses on Gaddis’s place in literary history as well as Tabbi’s sense of the corporate culture in which Gaddis lived and worked.
Fig. 1: Cover Art for Nobody Grew But the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis
Jeff Gonzalez: Your book takes an interesting approach to the task of biography. Instead of seeing Gaddis’s books as notable events within his career, treating them as entities to be discussed critically alongside the narrative of his life, you’re presenting them as evidence of his life.
In your book, you write, “the work in itself brought out ‘more’ in him than can be accounted for by his own powers, or by the conscious powers of any author whatever his or her social, sexual, and ethnic identity” (105). This strikes me as a statement of how your project understands his fiction and his biography. Is that fair to say?
Joeseph Tabbi: Well, that’s how it was for Gaddis the lifelong modernist, who in this respect never deviated from his literary idol, T.S. Eliot. Both always posited a better self, the one that “could do more” by discovering just how and where one’s own personality went along with and diverged from what earlier authors had gone through (211). That’s what it meant to be contributing to a literary corpus that might or might not enter a “tradition”—what the “more” was all about. It’s what writing was in a way, for Gaddis. Not an accumulation, not only that but also something other, something always different every time, a realization of ever-altering potentials. That’s why I felt comfortable switching back and forth between the life and the lifework, whenever I would notice passages in the archive that resonated with scenes in the novels.
JG: It’s an unconventional approach. Has that influenced the book’s reception?
JT: Already, in pre-publication notices from Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal, reviewers are saying there's as much analysis of the novels as there is of the life, but of course this is how I structured the book. The whole point is to show that Gaddis worked the life in seamlessly. So what happens to Otto in a bar somewhere in lower Manhattan and to Wyatt in Sevilla [in Gaddis’s 1955 book The Recognitions] or to 11-year-old J R in Gaddis’s hometown Massapequa [in J R] is consistent with all we have in the letters. So it made a kind of sense, segueing from one of the letters or a memoir by someone who knew Gaddis to a description of a scene in one of the novels, because the things Gaddis was reporting home in letters to family and lifelong friends touched on the same topics he would develop over decades in the fiction. Certainly the fictions are less clenched than Gaddis tends to be in the letters.
When I researched the book, there weren't many people left who actually knew Gaddis when he was young. Those I did contact—Mike Gladstone, Arvid Friberg, Jr, Alice Denham for example—were short on gossip. But that didn't matter so much to me because I was able to see how all of these firsthand accounts tended to reinforce Gaddis’s many self-projections in the fiction—characterizations that in the end were more important than the events and fortunes of one author or the various writers, artists, actors, agents, Manhattan socialites, lawyers, and literary scholars he got to know.
JG: In the introduction, you assert that mainstream readership hasn’t noticed “the unprecedented imagination by Gaddis of the corporate state itself” (4); later, you say that “Gaddis’s signature theme in his fictions” is not “corporations and states and religions” as much as “the fictions on which they are built” (33). You present other points about corporate culture as well—its unwillingness to allow failure, its standardizing impact on medicine, its re-creation of the discipline of creative writing, its sidelining of critique. Can you talk about why corporate culture rather than the modernist/postmodernist lens is the most useful framework for discussing Gaddis?
JT: So many scholars (and most readers, I expect) don’t appreciate Gaddis’s unmatched and still relevant engagement with the corporate American lifeworld—but that's what gives him an edge regardless of periodization (traditionalist, modernist, proto-pomo) or belief systems (Christian, Quaker, Robert Graves’s paganism).
An emphasis on Gaddis as a proto-postmodernist, for example, can distract from his real literary and cultural affinities, which were as much to do with Eliot and Thornton Wilder and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as with the generations Gaddis himself would later influence—notably, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and Tom McCarthy, who pick up today right where Gaddis left off. Consider this line, for example, from Section 5.1 in Satin Island (2015): “Forget family or ethnic and religious groupings: Corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe” (40). That kind of recognition carries way more cultural insight than talk of meta-fiction and a supposed loss of “sincerity” in postmodernist narrative. Corporate culture likes nothing better than to turn all literary, aesthetic, affective, and cultural designations into passing fashions that readers can pick and choose and writers can argue about in a limited, highly professionalized way. Shills and apologists are nothing if not sincere when they advocate for the economization of everything.
But the reason Gaddis so often emphasizes the fictionality of his own work and life-world has less to do with a wholly literary self-consciousness than a recognition that our economic and cultural reality is already shot through with fictions and beliefs that sustain nation-states and corporations as much as religions. That one conference title of Donald Barthelme’s from the mid-1980s says it all: “The Literary Imagination and the Imagination of the State.” [Editor’s Note: The conference took place on January 12, 1986 at the International PEN Congress at the New York Public Library]. The two need always to be in tension and they cannot be disentangled so long as corporations reign over states as much as people. And that’s what accounts for a certain self-consciousness in Gaddis and a self-creation distributed over so many characters in all five novels. It’s not so much about literary one-upmanship or neglect of readerly pleasure. Rather, his self-conscious artistry stems from a desire to show what happened to a social and cultural imaginary that once was literary and religious and now operates mainly in [and through] corporations.
JG. Since you brought up that conference, which you discuss in your ninth chapter, I’d like to ask you two questions about that section.
You begin the chapter with a discussion of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney (specifically, his notorious “corporations are people too, my friend” line) before continuing your discussion of J R and Gaddis’s mid-career.
Fig. 2: Screenshot of “Corporations are people too, my friend.” C-Span. 11 Aug. 2011. JPEG. 19 Nov. 2015
You then make the fascinating claim that Gaddis’s characterization works “against the massive, largely unconscious, unrecognizable operations of the corporate system.” You point out how “there is in Gaddis’s fiction an achieved intersubjectivity that does away with speculation about questions of character or personal narrative trajectory” (145).
Thinking of the chapter’s structure, would it be fair to say, then, that this intersubjectivity is in some ways joined to Romney’s line of thinking? And is it also joined to the corporate mindset generally—where articulations of subjectivity are enmeshed in the same cultural logic that Gaddis’s fiction inhabits?
JT: You know, I happen to be reading Tom McCarthy just now and it strikes me how well these positions with respect to systems apply to his novel Remainder (2005). It seems to me that McCarthy is very much in the line of Pynchon and Gaddis not just because of shared themes and allusions. For instance, Remainder includes, right at the start, “something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits” (McCarthy 3), which recalls Pynchon’s V-2 rocket “screaming […] across the sky” on the first page of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). That’s close enough for postmodernist jazz, but I’m thinking of something more specific in McCarthy’s approach: that whole concoction the narrating character dreams up: he’s been given £8.5 million by the firm that caused the accident which wiped out much of his memory. He could have anything he wants, anything at all, and what does he do? He goes around London looking for a building that is as much as possible like the one he once knew when he was whole, with a sight of black cats on red tiled roofs at different levels out the window, with the neighbor who’d cooked liver on the floor below him, and with “the pianist two floors below her running through his fugues and his sonatas, practicing” (Remainder 69). The building also had
a concierge, just like the Parisian apartment buildings have. I remembered what it had been like to walk across them: how my shoes had sounded on their surface, what the banisters had felt like to the touch. I remembered how it had felt inside my apartment, moving though it: from the bathroom with the crack in its wall to the kitchen and living room, the way plants hanging in baskets from the ceiling had rustled as I passed them . . . I remember how all this had felt. (66)
He keeps returning to that same description, over and over until he comes across just the right place that will cost him several million to renovate—not with designer stuff but with the same half dead plants in the entrance way, hiring a woman with the same facial features as the concierge, a guy with the same enthusiasm for taking apart his motorcycle, cleaning the parts and then reassembling them, that sort of thing. Nothing could be more ordinary and yet nothing more defamiliarizing than the cognitive reconstruction of a post-trauma victim that is facilitated by the money he’s given from the corporate system that damaged him in the first place.
And isn’t that exactly what great fiction does? If we’re reading just to see how people who are just like us live, or because we want to know the lives of people we wish we could be or characters who for some reason we need to demonize—well, there are plenty of fictions that will satisfy. And if we’re into memoir, we can have that too, pretty much anywhere, pretty much any time now that we’ve got moment by moment life events posted online by everybody, more or less. The writers who interest me are offering something else altogether: cognitive fictions that show just how much of what we observe and experience as real is a kind of invention, right from the start.
JG: Something more than one man’s fond fading memory of Massapequa?
JT: Certainly the town of Massapequa, Long Island is recalled by Gaddis in his fiction, but it’s done in almost the same mode of cognitive reconstruction that one finds, thirty years later, in Tom McCarthy. The sounds of jackhammers each time a character in J R passes by Summer Street are sounds Gaddis certainly remembers, but he is recalling at the same time how an entire world is being reconstructed, no less than his own personal memory of that one town. And how much, also, is being destroyed. Gone forever. No longer anything we can now live through but not lost to the reconstructive imagination of future readers.
So his own memories from childhood and young manhood are not just being retold. Maybe they’re recollected in a Wordsworthian romantic tranquility and aided by Gaddis’s own alcoholic intake, though that gets us only part of the way toward what’s really happening, which is a re-situation of earlier thoughts and sensibilities in the context of a world that is itself transformed and, unless we’re lucky enough to have £8.5 mil or the talent of a major artist, isn’t coming back, not in this life or ever.
JG: But that assumes, doesn’t it, that the work will last, that an author is aiming from the start to be part of a literary canon?
JT: There’s no guarantee that even the best literary performances will go on being read, that’s for sure. Oh, and one other thing about those transitional scenes in J R: they’re none of them written in dialogue. If you go in and count the lines, which Marc Chénetier actually did, these scenes amount to 100 pages. That’s around 14% of the overall text, but still reviewers say, again and again without thinking about it, that Gaddis’s late novels are all in dialogue. Because somebody in a major review media said it once when J R came out, everybody else followed suit and now it’s so. Those easy-to-find reviews get accessed decades later and that’s that: no further reflection or reconsideration is felt to be needed. What we’re seeing more and more in purportedly scholarly writing is the working of a mass media meme, which does a pretty good job of blinding us to the real cognitive dimensions of a literary writer like Gaddis. And once those nuances are lost, then literary evaluation becomes just a matter of the identity of the author and whether what he or she’s saying is representative of identities that are taken for granted [and] not understood to be continually under construction: male, female, ambiguously gendered and of a particular race or ethnicity. That kind of identity-oriented scholarship makes it seem as if human nature is not only a given (a questionable assumption in itself) but it’s also what makes the world what it is. We want to believe that our humanity, not our animal or distributed technical nature, is what makes the world what it is. These are assumptions that the most adventurous, and in my view most important, fictions resist. And they do it uniquely because a literary author is in a unique position to know just how fictional, and how limited, our self-constructions can be.
JG: Your ninth chapter asserts that “the new reality that corporate personhood is a fiction—and that it should be so, is today for many no less plausible than any other fictional construction whereby we much too readily project human qualities onto abstract, corporate (and incorporeal) entities” (149). Can you expand on this claim? What do you see in Gaddis’s fiction, or perhaps in contemporary life, that makes you feel anthropomorphizing or personifying is becoming more intense?
JT: An early draft of one of my chapters was titled “The Posthuman Imagination,” and we can begin to see already, in the generation of Gaddis and Paul De Man [whose ideas on the ideology of anthropomorphism were part of a pre-interview discussion], formulations of the posthumanist angle. So the personifying (and economizing) of everything—that can be understood as a reaction to a felt loss of agency: the displacement of “the human” as the center of things. We certainly see it in Barthelme, who (again) formulated the PEN conference title to do with an “Imagination of the State.” Just think of how that one narrator at the opening of Barthelme’s story, “The End of the Mechanical Age,” reaches for a box of RUB or FAB or TUB or one of the other detergents on the store shelf, and finds himself holding the hand of Mrs. Davis. Gaddis doesn’t go in for that kind of explicit de-realization, but he’s no less attentive to the ways that the inhuman, technologically constructed world determines our situation—along with the all too human advertising signage and domestications of technology. In Gaddis’s day, and no doubt in his everyday life commuting into Manhattan, episodically writing J R, and watching his two adolescent children growing, he would have seen the effects of televisions that are constantly turned on not just in the home but also in classrooms and corporate offices. That’s just one of the ways that children were being redirected away from personal engagements with teachers and parents and one another and toward game-like encounters through images and interfaces with agents they’ll never know personally—personages whose data might be tracked and whose features might be seen but whose relation to us as fellow humans is unrecognizable.
(By the way, it just came back to me: FAB. I just checked and it’s on the Internet; we had it in my house, growing up. Presumably it’s still sold in small town stores. That’s hardly a literary epiphany, I know, but it’s a small example of the cognitive capacities of fictions that we’re fortunate enough to have in circulation for more than a decade or two. The love affairs of a narrator and Mrs. Davis—these come and go—but those products . . . they’re now what make up the world that’s too much with us.)
JG: You assert that audiences “in a commercial culture” expect to be in a “contractual relation” with artists (75), rather than a more open or flexible model. One of the things that happened to Wallace after his suicide was a beatification that was hugely helpful for book sales (among other consequences, of course). The contract is easier to buy into if you think you’re getting knowledge from an author who has achieved enlightenment or wisdom, as Timothy Aubry has noted in Reading as Therapy.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when you counterpose a moment in The Recognitions—Wyatt’s inability or failure to acknowledge his wife Esther through the window, so intent is he on his moment of recognition—with an incident in Sarah Gaddis’s novel Swallow Hard that’s very similar. You then warn readers against “glorifying the liberating power of ‘recognition’ in literature and arts” (83), as we can see some of Gaddis’s own personal limitations were not solved or forgiven because of his achievement of insight. Was your intent in this moment, as with some others in the book, to keep from deifying Gaddis, to keep pushing a complex relationship with the figure?
JT: Well, nobody’s perfect! And in the case of a great artist or writer, arguably the imperfections are precisely what generate meaningful deviations from a norm—failure as a condition for success precisely in the arts, as Gaddis often said. Those deviations or detournments define a literary potential among readers and authors who are not, and for Gaddis, should not be present to one another in readings or discussion groups, for example. A 1950s Greenwich Village party or two or three might give an author some usable notions and many, many words of dialogue. But enlightenment? Wisdom? These are something else altogether: the realm of religion, or therapy, which requires men and woman to be in a room together, or more formal congregations. That’s what we experience, I guess, in all those extended Village party scenes that went on much too long for many of Gaddis’s early reviewers. They were the kind of people, the reviewers, who one suspects were never invited. The Squares.
But those party scenes are nonetheless as good a way as any for an author to document the psychopathologies of a roomful of people who lived their lives in rooms, as Gaddis’s narrator says somewhere in The Recognitions: these are people who are inclined to fail, “all mentally and physically the wrong size,” but some of whom will go on to greatness (305).
JG: And Gaddis of course dismissed the courses he took at Harvard in psychology, writing that his professors were all “[t]rying to explain and form theories for personality—which I have decided is quite futile” (Tabbi Nobody Grew Note 4, 234).
JT: Basically, it was Gaddis’s goal not to reproduce or treat or critique the pathologies, his own and those of his contemporaries, but to see them as symptoms of an emerging culture—one that only later would be designated as “postmodern” or “corporate.” Interviews I had with those who were there, and letters written to Gaddis at the time, valuable, inimitable, and rare though they might be, can at most extend the documentation Gaddis himself provides in the novels. And so it is way more valuable to a literary biographer to have a passage like that one in Sarah Gaddis’s novel, some several generations later, showing an admittedly fictional father’s self-absorption that could carry him outside himself into heights of creativity, but also away from the people around him. When even a family member like Sarah Gaddis, who held her father in the highest esteem, is capable of clear sighted critique of his flaws—that too is a distinctively literary accomplishment (one that also shows, without complaint, how difficult it can be for a writer to adjust to the roles of husband and father and corporate breadwinner).
JG: So the flaws and the deviations—these are what generate an interest larger than the people and things a writer encounters in life?
JT: The flaws might not make him a better person, but as a writer he can do more than therapy or self-help. Wallace seems to have understood this too, in Infinite Jest, for example, where nobody is allowed by the author to fit into any norm whatsoever, neither primary characters like Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, nor secondary ones like the disabled Mario or the purportedly facially disfigured Joelle Van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl of All Time (PGOAT). That all-encompassing embrace of the fallen, the ones who need saving and succor, has something to do, I expect, with the apotheosis of “Saint Dave,” and the phenomenal sales. Who among us doesn’t wish to be forgiven our sins of deviancy from the corporate, corporeal norm? But when deviancy itself becomes a norm and an expectation, as it does in Infinite Jest, we’ve reached another sort of impasse. There are, after all, some good reasons for norms—the ones that arise not from legislation or contractual interaction or niche marketing but rather from families and friends and serious antagonists who live and work together and brush up against one another in communities of interest.
Wallace actually does shift his perspective toward a shared normality in The Pale King, with that one young man so like Wallace himself in his Northern Illinois suburb who puts aside his wastoid ways to become an accountant and tax assessor. And that other one, the insufferable guy who always does the right thing and respects everyone equally and is so overbearingly nice and attentive to the needs of others that only two or three people attend his assiduously planned birthday party. He too becomes a taxman, and the choice of this profession as the normative one in a projected novel might have given Wallace the space he needed to work out the financialization of everyday life in the United States, in all its surface variety and operational uniformity. That is of course what Gaddis achieved in J R, using market speculation as the norm for an otherwise entirely ordinary pre-adolescent whose energy, and a passion uninfluenced by sexual desire, helps to turn his everyday life and that of everyone around him into a business life. Gaddis’s completed work can stand, I think, as a measure of what Wallace was on the way to achieving, had he lived long enough to play out his analysis of the explicitly normalizing framework of the tax code and its IRS enforcers.
JG: One of Linda Hutcheon’s key claims about postmodern literature was its oddly necessary complicity in what it critiqued. I’m thinking specifically of how you document Martin Dworkin’s sense that his close friend and competitor, Gaddis, was being hypocritical by writing for corporations in his career and undermining them in his fiction, while you present a view of Gaddis’s complicity as essentially unavoidable. In Gaddis’s personal correspondence and interviews, did he make much note of how being part of the corporate machine enabled (or negated) his criticism of it?
JT: In the letters he’s almost uniformly dismissive, but one needs to remember that he’s writing mostly to people who care more about literary traditions and bohemian or academic life ways than corporate and technological transformations. So he can’t be expected to open up in letters about a career that had its own discipline and possibilities. Most of the time he didn’t even mention that his corporate work involved him in researching and writing. On the wider archival evidence, the ins and outs of the corporate culture may have engaged him (like his teaching at Bard during the same period) much more than people have realized.
I got a sense of his attitude early on, when I was asked by the estate to collect and introduce Gaddis’s essays and the posthumous fiction, Agapē Agape, for publication by Viking. At that time (around 2000), the papers were stored in a warehouse in Brooklyn and I was able to get my hands on just a fraction of all that was there from the corporate years—all the projects he undertook not just for his employers, Pfizer, IBM, and the rest, but also the Ford Foundation that had more to do with the use of television in classroom education. I knew that Gaddis’s corporate experience, “rather than simply depleting his literary energies,” must have “provided a technical training of sorts for J R” because of the opportunities it gave him to write in voices and jargons not his own (Tabbi 1989: 669). I'd written that already in an early essay, "The Compositional Self.” But I hadn’t realized that he had submitted at least one major project under his own name; had it been funded, he’d have been putting his reputation as an artist and novelist on the line. Of course he’d done much the same with his extensive, never completed study of mechanization and the arts that turned into the novel Agapē Agape, and a long drama that was also shelved for decades (until he recycled it as the character Oscar’s unpublished but possibly plagiarized work in A Frolic of His Own ).
JG: And you tracked down all those drafts in the archive?
JT: Fortunately for me, a decade later, when I set to work on the biography, a graduate student from the University of Michigan, Alistair Chetwynd, had worked his way through all these materials and he shared with me his draft chapters that will soon be published in Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon. Chetwynd’s original contribution—against the grain of Gaddis’s own comments published in interviews and letters—was to show just how much of himself Gaddis put into the corporate work and how far beyond “critique” he was willing to go in the direction of a positive retooling of technology for aesthetic and pedagogical ends. On one project, a film that was intended to be a positive demonstration of the educational possibilities of the televisual medium, he actually collaborated with Dworkin, who was then at Columbia’s Teachers College. So the “accuser” Dworkin, as often happens, turns out to be no less implicated than the accused.
The real lesson to be drawn—and arguably a cause of Gaddis’s greatness—was not to do with any critique he might bring to the corporate machine. He wasn’t so much about denouncing newfangled approaches like instructional TV. It was, again, a matter of exploring ways to reform the technoculture from within by discovering unrecognized potentials in its everyday details and operations. And for this, as for his experience teaching writing at the university level, Gaddis again put much more of himself into the work than scholars before Chetwynd had realized.
JG: As the book goes on, you continue to refine your claim about how Gaddis interacts with corporatizing America. In J R, the corporate influence appears in “neglect” and “nonrecognition” of other people in a market economy (124); in Carpenter’s Gothic, it’s the shifts in publication practices making creative writing more explicitly competitive and commercial; in Frolic, it’s the flattening of imperative hierarchies such as law and theatrics; in Agapē Agape, it’s the role technology has played in “an American culture of simulation” (211).
Does it feel to you like Gaddis was consciously aware of a specifically corporate model of existence at the center of these shifts? Or would he have called it something more like a culture in decline, without necessarily putting capital at the center?
JT: I always liked that one phrase that Crystal Alberts, Chris Leise, and Birger Vanwesenbeeck used for the title of their Gaddis essay collection: The End of Something. That’s really how Gaddis saw his own work, once the main work of modernism’s reformulation of pre-industrial past practices had more or less been completed. That collection, like the one I myself was co-editing around the same time with Rone Shavers, grew out of a conference organized by Joe Conte at the State University of New York, Buffalo. In my conference talk, I may have been too narrowly focused on Gaddis the “systems” novelist. In retrospect, the emphasis on ever changing, ever renewing systems may have harbored implicit, and not entirely justified, avant garde assumptions. I recall Birger Vanwesenbeeck, at the conference, questioning whether Gaddis's extensive depiction of the corporatizing of life in America necessarily aligned him with a progressive literary aesthetic. Birger and his co-editors had another notion. I guess I would now view J R and The Recognitions not so much as vanguard postmodernist fictions but instead as “the end of something,” wrapping up a history that is much longer than the idea of the avant grade in literature, education, and the arts. For a long time now, these have served as a kind of research and development wing of industrial and then post-industrial capital (as my colleague Walter Michaels said once, in an NPR interview I heard in Chicago some years ago). If “something” has come to an end, it’s the ability to assume that innovation alone can offer an aesthetic alternative to a corporate culture grounded precisely, and materially, in technical innovations and constant, continual social reconfigurations.
JG: Joanna Scott’s review in The Nation, which certainly seems favorable, groups your book together with several others about the relation between a work of literature’s value and its “difficulty.” I do find it interesting, however, that in discussing your book Scott talks primarily about the difficulty without linking that difficulty to the concerns of Gaddis’s project. To echo something you said earlier, it feels a bit like when one talks about Gaddis, one talks first and foremost about difficulty, following (unconsciously or otherwise) Jonathan Franzen.
JT: I'm of course pleased that Joanna Scott found my arguments “forceful” and the themes “expansive.” I would have liked, though, for her to expand on her own concerns beyond the “difficulty” theme she takes over from Franzen and the others she has under review. Scott engages some of my remarks on the emerging field of Creative Writing, but she doesn't really get into the ways that this practice, too, can be an example of the corporatization of creativity and society.
Scott’s the first reviewer so far to raise the issues of race and gender, but this too is indirect, and she doesn’t elaborate on her choices: Baldwin, Howard, Morrison, Ozick, Sontag, West. They don’t shy away from modernist difficulty, but is that a sufficient reason to group them with Gaddis and Pynchon? I’m left wondering, why these women and writers of color, particularly? In my own remarks in passing on Pynchon and DeLillo and Wallace, I'm hardly “lumping” them with Gaddis in a single categorization, as Scott suggests. Elsewhere, in my essays, I’ve floated the terms “world literature” and “epic” to describe a continuity among Gaddis, the writers he learned from, and the writers he influenced. A sentimental/magical realist like Tony Morrison simply doesn't go there, and neither do Sontag or West in their fictionalizations of historical figures (Lord Byron, Sir William Hamilton, Lord Nelson, and so forth).
Now that I think of it—I do cite Sontag once. She attended that same 1986 PEN conference. She was the one who came up with the argument, against the many women who showed up to protest their exclusion from the conference, that “literature is not an equal opportunity employer” (Tabbi Nobody Grew 156).
JG. So the protest movement itself, at this event, was less radical than it seems?
JT: Sontag was there along with Gaddis and Mailer, and so were Gordimer and Coetzee and Sipho Sepamla from South Africa. Salmon Rushdie attended, and he wrote about the conference twenty years later in The New York Times. These are all writers who understood how such protests can end up supporting a corporatist attitude that turns race and gender issues into matters of equity in the workplace.
I remember thinking to myself about the need for a feminist reconsideration of Gaddis, as I worked my way through the early love interests, the marriages, the failed or half realized careers—Gaddis’s own career, and those of Martin Dworkin and Sheri Martinelli and Alice Denham, for example. Gender is very much at issue in the partly professional but also emotional early exchange of letters with Katherine Anne Porter, who is un-lumpable. I discuss the nature of Porter’s influence at some length—and the reasons for Gaddis's and Porter's dis-inclination towards either Gertrude Stein at the high arty end, or the popular women writers among Gaddis’s contemporaries who go in for lots of affect. It seems to Wyatt in The Recognitions “to get sort of . . . Sharp, eager faces; acid, unpleasant odor . . .” (82). Sheri Martinelli, who never achieved much recognition as an artist, is more the model in Gaddis for an alternative, emergent femininity. His later living arrangement with the socialite Muriel Murphy brought further insights, even though Murphy’s own writings, articulate as they often are (and caustic), were published only posthumously by a vanity press. Muriel is another creative spirit who, while successful in some ways, may not have realized her potential.
Can it be that the trouble here is not to do with the exclusion of women per se but with Scott’s (and The Nation’s) narrowing of what is expected from writing by women? The ones who gain attention in mainstream media have been those who keep things focused on identity issues and affective plot lines—which is precisely what Gaddis and his cohort wanted to get beyond. When the feminist reconsideration of novelists such as Gaddis happens, it won’t be just a matter of opening a literary canon to alternative voices and multiple identities. At least, I hope it will be more than that.
Alberts, Crystal, Christopher Leise, and Birger Vanwesenbeeck, eds. William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
Barthleme, Donald. “The End of the Mechanical Age.” Sixty Stories. New York: Penguin, 1981. 269-274. Print.
Chénetier, Marc. “‘Centaur Meditating on a Saddle’: Fabric and Function of the Narrative Voice in William Gaddis’s J R.” symploke, 14.1-2 (2006): 252-270. Print.
Chetwynd, Ali. “William Gaddis’ Education Writing and his Fiction: A Fuller Archival History.” Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon, forthcoming.
Gaddis, Sarah. Swallow Hard. New York: Antheneum, 1991. Print.
Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.
McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
McCarthy, Tom. Satin Island. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. Print.
Scott, Joanna. “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.” The Nation 30 July 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015. <https://www.thenation.com/article/the-democracy-of-difficult-fiction/>
Tabbi, Joseph. “The Compositional Self in William Gaddis’ J R,” Modern Fiction Studies 35.4 (1989): 699. Print.
---. “Nobody Grew but the Business”: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 2015. Print.
Fig. 1: Cover Art for Joseph Tabbi’s Nobody Grew But the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis. Northwestern UP, 2015. JPEG. 10 Nov. 2015.
Fig. 2: Screenshot of “Corporations are people too, my friend.” C-Span. 11 Aug. 2011. JPEG. 19 Nov. 2015.
Joseph Tabbi is a Professor of English and project leader in Critical Digital Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Jeffrey Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. His research and teaching focus on the ways that society and contemporary literature inform and react to each other. His work has been published in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction and Mosaic.