VIEWSrnStorytellers and FakersrnHas Anyone Read Infinite Jest?rnby Tony OuthwaiternAv riter, asked during a litcran’ part)’ what her new novel wasrnabout, tnrned on the questioner with an expression combiningrnirritation, indignation, and pit’, and replied, “My novelsrnaren’t about things!” Some time later, this same writer wouldrndenounce Stephen King in print for hogging the marketplacernand for his alleged role in censoring her work, since his worksrnwere widely displayed in bookstores while hers were not.rnA publisher, when told that an agreement had been madernwhereby Barnes & Noble would help to promote, on an annualrnbasis and free of charge, a certain fype of generally difficultrnbook, twisted her face into a sneer and proclaimed, ‘”I’hat is notrna neutral act!” Not long after, this publisher would be heardrnsinging the praises of an independent bookstore whose managerrnwas known to denounce certain customers as unworthy of hisrnattenhon.rnAn editor, queried about his range of interests, replied,rn”Well, I’m not interested in books perse; I’m more interested inrnthe metaphysics of thought, in the gray areas of language, andrnparticularly in the flow of the cosmic.”rnWhile this third incident is not, like the first two, literallyrntrue, the mindset that it illustrates does represent a problem forrnfiction and for those writers, critics, editors, and academics whornseek to advance its cause: the struggle between the elitist, standofiFishrnsupporters of a self-consciously literary and often pretentious,rnboring, and even worthless literature, and those for whomrna more accessible and traditional t)’pe of book, a stor’ well writtenrnand well told, shll is something to be nurtured, published,rnand respected.rnJust before Christmas, Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Obsenerrnnominated Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire as the best novelrnof the ceutim’, citing its Shakespearean qualiries. Some inrnTmiv Outhwaite is a literarv asent in New York Citv.rnthe literar)’ community will froth at the mouth over this suggestion,rnconvinced that such a choice, personal and unverifiable asrnit is, should better be accorded to a more worthy work, ideallyrnone selected by a ]\y of all their best chums and cronies. Therernare certainly other possible nominees, some more appropriaternbut others infinitely worse, which are probably the ones manyrnliterarv’ tv-pes have in mind: something long and difficult, possiblyrnimpenetrable and unreadable, such as Thomas Pynchon’srnGravity’s Rainbow or Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul. Ifrnsome jokesters suggested that the latter might better have beenrntitled The Runaway Novel, for its interminable and claustrophobicrnself-absorption, it is easy to forget that, a century and arnhalf ago, the books of Charles Dickens, almost none of themrnshort, were regarded as both literary and popular and told compellingrnstories to boot; indeed, it is one reason why such novelsrnas Bleak House and Great Expectations are still read today inrnsensible college courses as examples of great literature. In today’srnpublishing world, editors have come to separate the literar}-rnfrom the commercial, and in various eases this makes perfectrnsense. The hooter alarms should go off, however, everyrntime a self-anointed judge of all that is good lapses into elitist jargonrnsignitying what Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians,rnback in the 1870’s, might have stated much more simply in hisrnbroken English: “Literature good; telling stories bad.”rnIn an ideal world, literary novels and commercial novelsrnwould be equally excellent, albeit in different ways. Many of today’srnbest commercial novelists are very good at what they do:rnStephen King has a marvelous imagination and, in the traditionrnof Foe and Lovecraft, can channel this into strange and gri|>rnping stories told in evocative prose, while a writer such as PatriciarnCornwell, with her intricate plots and brisk narrative sfye,rnturns out a good effort almost every time, usually showcasingrnher favorite heroine, Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta.rnAPRIL 2000/1 5rnrnrn