The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention

The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention

The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention

The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention


What is the strange appeal of big books? The mega-novel, a genre of erudite tomes with encyclopedic scope, has attracted wildly varied responses, from fanatical devotion to trenchant criticism. Looking at intimidating mega-novel masterpieces from The Making of Americans to 2666, David Letzler explores reader responses to all the seemingly random, irrelevant, pointless, and derailing elements that comprise these mega-novels, elements that he labels "cruft" after the computer science term for junk code. In The Cruft of Fiction, Letzler suggests that these books are useful tools to help us understand the relationship between reading and attention.

While mega-novel text is often intricately meaningful or experimental, sometimes it is just excessive and pointless. On the other hand, mega-novels also contain text that, though appearing to be cruft, turns out to be quite important. Letzler posits that this cruft requires readers to develop a sophisticated method of attentional modulation, allowing one to subtly distinguish between text requiring focused attention and text that must be skimmed or even skipped to avoid processing failures. The Cruft of Fiction shows how the attentional maturation prompted by reading mega-novels can help manage the information overload that increasingly characterizes contemporary life.


The Agony and Ecstasy of Big Books

Why do we respond so strangely to big books?

I mean a certain type of big book: the extremely literate, erudite tomes around which one must plan one’s life for a month; the books one hesitates to approach without the assistance of a university course, a reading circle, or at least a reader’s guide; the books whose spines stare down from bookshelves, holding dominion over entire rooms; the books that inspire fanatical devotion and revulsion in equal parts, even though both seem exaggerated well beyond even the books’ own elephantine materiality. I mean the books Frederick R. Karl calls “mega-novels,” most notably including ambitious work by postwar American writers like William Gaddis, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace, but also, if we take a more catholic view, earlier behemoths like Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, as well as contemporary global novels ranging from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.

I ask this question because it seems that mega-novels’ most distinctive quality, outpacing even their inimitable heft and learnedness, is the way they prompt otherwise sensible readers into hyperbolic responses. in some readers mega-novels inspire love and reverence, exemplified by Tom LeClair’s declaration that “our big books are our big books,” because they “gather, represent, and reform the time’s excesses into fictions that exceed the time’s literary conventions and thereby master the time, the methods of fiction, and the reader.” For other readers, though, the words most often used to describe mega-novels (and their devotees) include “disgust,” “illegitimate,” and “frauds”— though such readers will also admit to feeling “deeply ashamed” at their own inability to appre-

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