Jack Green, Gaddis, and the Book Review Industry

After so many years of searching, I have finally read Jack Green’s Fire the Bastards! Written initially as a series of three consecutively-printed self-published zines (issues 12-14 of Jack Green’s self-published project which he simply called newspaper (the lower-case n is as important to him as it is to mathematicians but for very different reasons (though Green was known as a math prodigy))), Fire the Bastards! remains to this day the only true masterpiece in criticizing the industry of book-criticism. Green takes the chief example of the phenomenon of poor book-reviewing the “reception” which William Gaddis’ debut novel The Recognitions (1955) “received”. I use quotation marks because a huge part of Green’s point is that almost all of the initial 55 reviewers of the novel upon its release clearly hadn’t read the book. Nearly all of them made embarrassing numbers of glaring mistakes in their reviews about the most basic of details, and the later of the 55 reviews borrowed passages from previous reviews. One could say that these reviewers simply didn’t like the book and didn’t know what to write about it, but most eventually admitted to not having read the book, and others to not having finished. Prior to their admission, during Green’s investigation (he read and analyzed every one of the 55 reviews) he had found evidence of this fact everywhere in their reviews, but the one that I found most revealing of the fraudulent nature of their reviews was that all of them, as Green himself so well put it, failed to convey what it was like to read the book and what it’s essential qualities were, whether they were qualities to be appreciated or disliked. I myself, being a researcher at heart, have made my way through these initial reviews of The Recognitions and see not only that Green was absolutely right, but I saw the bigger point he was making about book-reviewing in general, and could see what problems there are when abstracted from his using The Recognitions and its “reception” only as a sample-specimen. William Gass (fellow novelist, fellow William, and eventual friend of William Gaddis) put it well in his introduction to Penguin’s reprint of The Recognitions, “It’s arrival was duly newsed in fifty-five papers and periodicals. Only fifty-three of these notices were stupid.”

What more can be said about Jack Green’s phenomenal and important indictment of the book-review industry and the state Green found it to be in, which it is still in today? What more can be said than what readers from book critic Steven Moore in his introduction to Dalkey Archive’s reprint of Green’s book, to Gilbert Sorrentino (author of Mulligan Stew (1979) ), William Gass (Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and chief observer of the metafiction phenomenon), and David Markson (Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) ), have each said about this insightful critique which made such enlightening an example out of the publication of The Recognitions (1955) and it’s initial 55 reviews?

Jack Green wasn’t just right or correct in his observations and his indictment on the state of book reviews in his time: he wrote it well. There are some criticisms I have, but those are critiques which go beyond this book and they extend to his newspaper project in general, the project from which the various parts that compose Fire the Bastards! originally came from. 

I remember the first time I read The Recognitions. It was a transitional period in my life. I was 18, had just graduated, and was leaving my home-state of Washington. For one last time before I left, I went to the bookstore I had visited virtually every week of my life with a giftcard I had been given as a graduation gift. I purchased Atlas Shrugged, a few Wheel of Time novels to replace ones I had given to a friend, and The Recognitions. By this time of my purchase, I had essentially read nothing but epic fantasy novels and some science-fiction (Frank Herbert, Vernor Vinge, Peter F. hamilton, Neal Stephenson). The only novel that didn’t fit those genre rubrics is one I had finished a year before, which was Infinite Jest, a period in my life which I’m sure most who are close to me remember well because I had spent months with my eyes glued to the book (I was a slow reader hooked on what I am pretty certain is among the longest books written in English, and I loved every page, every line on every page, each word in each line on every page). In time, I would come to recognize how much of a watershed that reading experience was for me.

But for much of my adult life I had attributed that watershed feeling and association with my reading The Recognitions, because with this came a whole new era in my reading tastes. As one novelist described her experience of reading Dave Wallace’s The Broom of the System for the first time, The Recognitions “blew the top of my head off.” I didn’t know a book, or the English language (or as John Gardner prefers to make distinct, the language of fiction) could do the things Gaddis was doing or making them do in The Recognitions. Bill Gass put it differently, and equally aptly, in his 1993 Introduction for Gaddis’ book when describing the cult-status of The Recognitions: “a cult did form, a cult in the best old sense, for it was made of readers whose consciousness had been altered by their encounter with this book.” Just as everything else in my life had changed, from my geographical experiences (the rainy, cloudy, miles-from-the-shore Seattle area to the dry-heat desert landlocked area of Phoenix) to my status as a student being absolved (put on hold, then later absolved) to the sort of work I do for a living (from landscaping, to retail work), and now what I read had changed. And this was easily the most important change in my life. Reading has always been central to my day-to-day existence on this planet.

By the time I discovered The Recognitions, I had, to my recollection, never read a book review in my life. I had discovered the novel first because of its size: as shallow as it may be, a holdover from my previous tastes was an attraction to long novels; then the intriguing title, and then the cover (Penguin’s paperback reprint repurposes a painting by a guy named Stuart Davis which reminded me of some of the first jazz albums I had gotten into the year before), and when I opened to the title-page, there above the novel’s title is a simple illustration of an ouroboros, an important symbol in mythology (my first true love before discovering literature and religious studies). Then, I finally read the synopsis on the back and my imagination went wild.

The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate what I believe is the valuable contribution to not only American literature in general, but my reading tastes in particular, that Fire the Bastards! has made. I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to discover The Recognitions if Jack Green hadn’t put his big brain to work in helping ensure Gaddis’ novel remained extent. Another tiny anecdote I have come across doing research is that it is rumored that Thomas Pynchon had been reading The Recognitions while writing V. (1961) and Joseph McElroy had been reading The Recognitions while working on A Smuggler’s Bible (1966). Dave Wallace I discovered in time was also a fan of Gaddis’. But would he have been, had word of Gaddis’ novel remained as prevalent as it did thanks to Jack Green’s dedication to making The Recognitions known?

That Green managed to contribute his effort into ensuring that people like me might eventually discover The Recognitions, even not having read Green’s book itself until just this year, after so many years of searching for a copy, I can see now was a result of his brilliant display of research combined with an articulate, coherent and water-tight argument, a passion for the book being used as its example, a love for the industry which he himself was a participant (albeit on the fringe with self-publications) and which he criticized viciously with agonizing detail. Agonizing, I am sure, to the suspects receiving the charges. To the readers looking for a text to which we can seek out an articulation of the problems present in the professional book-review world, it is powerful.

It also cannot be understated, by the way, that what Green did for Gaddis’ novel is essentially what Steven Moore did for Jack Green (though it seems Jack Green would have preferred he not be recognized for his efforts). Unfortunately, according to Steven Moore in the introduction to Dalkey Archive’s printing of Fire the Bastards!, Jack Green never wanted it reprinted. He didn’t have copyrights to anything in his newspaper project so Steven Moore was able to reproduce it, recognizing it as far too important to wait for Jack Green to come around. Dalkey Archive held on to all the royalties in an account, should Jack Green ever come to his senses and recognize his own important role he has played in the story if contemporary American literature, but it appears he passed away without ever doing so. Steven Moore’s on role however was recognizing Jack Green’s role and perpetuating his existence in the ongoing dialogue of American letters, post-war literature, contemporary fiction, book-reviewing, and critical thinking.

This blog I write itself is an incarnation of that effort: to ensure coherent understandings of great books, whether they be well-known yet misunderstood, or not well-known at all but ought to be.

The Canon of which so many of us bookish people speak is not curated by historians. It is our jobs, in the end. To put it in another fellow reader, Cinzia DuBois ( The Philosophy Project: “Don’t Be a Canon Snob” 06-19-15, 3:38-3:48) in a well-worded monologue, Jack Green is a perfect example of what it means to be “an innovative and discovering reader” and he has established himself as a contributer to the Canon due to his saving of The Recognitions from extinction. This Canon is built, added to, pruned, cared for, critiqued and analyzed, by readers who make their opinions and pronunciations heard: whether it is a book handed to someone by their trusted and well-read friend, or the fringe, self-published bibliophile evangelizing articulately on behalf of an obscure novel.

If Steven Moore had not heard Jack Green shouting, would I have read any of the excellent novels I have read up to this point? Would I even know about them? Would I have ever discovered what my true tastes were, or would my reading life lapsed into oblivion due to boredom with what I knew (which grew largely out of what I grew up with)?

I said in my initial review of Adam Levin’s recent novel Bubblegum that part of what I thought my goal to be, is to help encourage, through thorough description and analysis, readers in challenging themselves with difficult reading material. But I suppose that is beginning to seem like only part of a larger goal to help give voice to books which I firmly believe to deserve a lasting presence in the culture if Letters. To espouse anything on their behalf, let alone anything as well as Jack Green did for The Recognitions, will prove to be worth it so long as I keep a record here of my thoughts on these books, and these books continue to be read and are eventually talked about amongst their readers in the future. And copies shared between trusted friends. Gaddis once laughed while explaining an anecdote to his audience during a speech about the amount of copies purchased being less than the amount that were read, and observed that (hyperbolically (I think)) that “about twelve copies were in circulation, passed hand to hand,” one of which was a copy circulating in a Turkish prison being read among the inmates. Despite the prestige and misplaced trust bestowed upon the book-reviewers in Jack Green’s time, it is real readers like Green himself, fellow writers, or those Turkish inmates who help determine what will be passed down as the new great books. Unfortunately, still today, professional book reviewers have chosen to forgo making valuable and lasting impressions of their own reading experience and will continue to fail being innovative and discovering readers if they keep performing the same blunders they always have.

Just as Gass once wrote an Introduction for Gaddis’ debut novel, he once also delivered a 10-minute introduction before Gaddis spoke to an audience. As William Gass put it when opening for Gaddis (10-03-94), “Reviewers read no better than they ever did, but they are respectful now,” (in reference to Gaddis’ third novel Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) achieving acclaim in Germany; the only quality review of Carpenter’s Gothic was written by Cynthia Ozick) Gass than adds “Which is an improvement.” But that is a more cynical remark than it looks to be on the surface. That being more attentive and critical readers is so far outside the domain of progress for professional book reviewers that mere respect for novels like the four which Gaddis completed and published in his life is the path of improvement for them is cynical because it means the path of improvement in being better at conveying what it is like to read books like these, what their essential qualities are, and whether or not you received anything of value as a reader resulting from these experiences: to Gass that path of improvement is closed to book-reviewers. I will admit him that most professional book-reviewers today are on the whole no better than they were in 1994 when he introduced Gaddis to an audience, nor any better than they were in 1955 when The Recognitions was published. Gass is saying they never will be any better at communicating their reading experiences and so their only path of improvement is toward respecting good books when they see them. And I just simply can’t see myself agreeing with something so cynical.

Today, there are quality book reviews written. They tend, however, not usually to be written by professional book reviewers. They tend to be written by fellow novelists and other writers appreciating other practitioners of their form. Of course Cynthia Ozick wrote well of Carpenter’s Gothic since she herself is a novelist (in fact, her novels tend to be about as slim as Carpenter’s Gothic.

I have faith, however. Good reviewers of fiction who are not themselves published fiction authors may yet emerge.

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