Affective Exchange: Amy Hungerford’s “Making Literature Now”

By Louise HillDecember 14, 2016

Affective Exchange: Amy Hungerford’s “Making Literature Now”

Making Literature Now by Amy Hungerford

IN MAKING LITERATURE NOW, Amy Hungerford proposes to show us “what is worth seeing in literary culture.” There is a lot at stake in that small statement: it at once promises criteria for literary “worth” and also appoints Hungerford as the authority to make such decisions. Should we, as readers, trust her judgment? Hungerford anticipates this question and indeed encourages it. She argues that whether we are recreational, scholarly, or professional readers, we are constantly told what is “worth” our attention — by friends, teachers, publishing companies. These myriad recommenders have similarly diverse motives: affective, intellectual, financial. While one might think that Hungerford, a Yale professor and literary critic, would aim for that middle motive and axe the others, her curation of contemporary literature merges and interrogates all three. While Hungerford could have fished out more for us to “see” from the vast sea of “literature now,” her study’s framework is innovative and compelling: all those who offer up their money, labor, and love (yes, you read that right: love) to consume and produce literature can also make, or unmake, that literature’s “worth.”

Taking her cue from Bruno Latour’s theorization of “the social” as active human “connections” which “change or shape the arrangements in which we live,” Hungerford argues that any account of making a literary product reveals a “rabbit hole” of human process: a “social network” that “requires not one person but dozens, hundreds.” Proceeding into these rabbit holes ethnographically, she reads their social exchanges as sometimes perpetuating and sometimes subverting the exchange of the commercial market. What I see as binding her two planes of exchange is a common currency: affect. Hungerford reveals how affect, be it authentic or manufactured, has a tripartite literary, cultural, and financial value. While she focuses most strongly on “love” and “lovemaking” (in its many manifestations, not solely carnal — although that, too!) she similarly suggests that generosity, kindness, and hatred can, do, and even should decide what is gained or lost from the contemporary canon. Moreover, Hungerford elects herself to redistribute these gains and losses. “I am to resist the relentless creative destruction of some ideas that deserve thought,” she proclaims. By placing McSweeney’s Publishing (the now nonprofit press founded by Dave Eggers in 1998) and its affectively effective network at her study’s center, Hungerford casts herself as a Robin Hood figure, robbing the canonical one percent she deems unworthy (read: David Foster Wallace) to pay the “invisible workers” — “readers, writers, editors, book distributors, and scholars” — the “thought” they “deserve.”

In her first two chapters, Hungerford demonstrates how McSweeney’s ability to “make” positive affect is quite literally the “making of” McSweeney’s. By showing “in loving detail” how their products are made (e.g., humorous cost breakdowns and mockumentary extras featured in and appended to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), the press holds itself under x-ray to its readers, who can marvel at its working muscles, structuring skeleton, and beating heart. These readers’ affective investment in the company’s creative processes leads to their financial investment as its product-purchasers and subscribers. They become the blood beating through that heart. Hungerford suggests that this affective inclusivity also prompts eager readers to become trial employees: “McSweeney’s offers itself as something like a lab or a think tank, but there is a payoff for the generosity: it allows the staff to get to know a person […] the organization needs.” Take, for instance, the virtuosic programmer and McSweeney’s subscriber Russell Quinn who had the parallel epiphany, “I love McSweeney’s, I love my iPhone,” which led to a direct call with Eli Horowitz (then McSweeney’s longest-serving editor after Eggers), and soon to McSweeney’s Small Chair iPhone application: “the first subscription-based app to be written within the publishing sector.” Since it facilitated both the initial Quinn-Horowitz connection and the eventual global exchange of their app, Hungerford posits the iPhone as a literary example of Latour’s scientific “black boxes”: laboratory “artifacts” amid “the process” of “becoming something unthought that we simply use.” Quinn, who started as an affective reader, “made” both himself and the iPhone parts of McSweeney’s.

In complement to Mark McGurl’s thesis from The Program Era (2009) — the “school” is the “increasingly hegemonic” force in contemporary creative writing — Hungerford suggests that Eggers founded McSweeney’s to create an “alternative,” affectively centered “institution” for young writers — a “school of life.” Hungerford mines her evidence from Eggers’s fictionalized memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000): his joking offer to pay readers who prove they have “absorbed” his book’s “many lessons” condemns “the classroom as the engine of sheer sales” while his protagonist’s attempt to workshop stories about grief exposes the “pact about reading particular to the institution of the creative-writing (and literature) classroom: that reading be kept separate from the ‘heart.’” In contrast, with its multiple publishing platforms for “unknown” and “oft-rejected” writers and its many affiliated initiatives (tutoring centers, the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, ScholarMatch), Hungerford sees McSweeney’s as a “social context in which to read and be read is not just to buy books or sell books but, in a more literal sense, to act with generosity, to give and feel the love.”

While Hungerford’s singular focus on McSweeney’s in these chapters certainly reinforces how “feel[ing] the love” can compel literary making, it somewhat weakens her attempt to serve as literary criticism’s Robin Hood. In her introduction, she claims that she “could have chosen many of the small-scale networks of contemporary writing” and would still be “able to make good” on the same “aim” of rescuing their “ideas” from “destruction” but I found myself wondering if McSweeney’s needs rescuing at all. As Hungerford makes clear, it operates with a lot of advantages: the well-known Eggers as its leader, a particularly devoted readership, the cultural clout to publish a major-press “making of” book (Art of McSweeney’s, 2010), and Quarterly contributions by big names like Philip Glass, Neil Gaiman, and Zadie Smith. In choosing McSweeney’s, Hungerford concentrates her intellectual capital when she could have spread it among more emphatically invisible “small-scale networks,” thus enriching them and her study. Clearly Hungerford zooms in on McSweeney’s because she considers it “worth” attention, but at times this attention reads more as praise than scholarly criticism. I was encouraged when Hungerford turned to another (somewhat) “invisible worker,” the novelist and memoirist Deb Olin Unferth, and began to suggest that McSweeney’s as a “boy’s club” didn’t “feel the love” for Unferth’s female protagonists. But Hungerford ultimately backs off, calling Eggers’s choice to publish his short story collection alongside Unferth’s “an act of kindness” and noting that Horowitz, Unferth’s McSweeney’s editor, encouraged her to expand upon her female characters. In these chapters, Hungerford feels too close to McSweeney’s.

Luckily, she takes a step back. In her third chapter, Hungerford casts her ethnographic “net” further, onto Richard Nash, who after the collapse of his print business (precipitated by the 2007 fall of Publishers Group West, distributor to 130 small presses) turned to virtual literary platforms in order to capitalize on the “love” of “the aura of literary taste.” His first website, Red Lemonade, offered comment-based workshopping and ebook publishing based on the “love” and “trust” of friend-to-friend recommendations, while his second, Small Demons, sold the aesthetic “consumption” of a book rather its reading experience: users could purchase its “catalog of living” (referenced songs, clothing, drinks, etc.) all curated by the free labor of connoisseur-users. Hungerford invokes Robert Darnton (the biggest name in book history) and his work on the 17th-century reading practice of “commonplacing” — copying favorite passages from many sources into a composite book — to suggest that the internet is “something like Massively Multireader commonplacing.” Whether it’s making a board on Pinterest or retweeting an anecdote, interneters are constantly reading, evaluating, and exchanging what they “like” and “love.”

Hungerford continues to tug at this thread of affective exchange and virtual literary production in her fourth chapter, “GPS Historicism.” She does return to the McSweeney’s network but via the independent collaboration, led by Eli Horowitz and involving Russell Quinn, of the app-based novel The Silent History (2012), and offers two critical lenses to frame its readerly exchange. The Silent History documents (quite literally, as it is told from the perspective of a government agency) a futuristic epidemic of “silents”: humans born without the ability to speak or fathom language. Its core installments were distributed regularly via its app while readers could contribute “Field Reports” — ancillary stories triggered by and incorporating the landscape of an exact GPS location. Hungerford argues that a New Historicist interpretation of the project would equate its dystopic themes and its screen-dependent readers: “Attaching the novel to the devices that render us silent even as we communicate furiously through them makes us into the very figure of the wandering silent — the person who walks staring intently down at her phone, absorbed in the wilder, more verdant fields of the virtual.” In contrast, if one focuses on how the Field Reports were first penned by Horowitz’s circle of friends but soon spread to an international network of volunteers and “subsistence writers,” then the project becomes a “gift economy” wherein “creativity is socially connective” and that “connectivity serves an aesthetic democracy.”

These chapters, fresh in their distance from McSweeney’s, are where Hungerford best balances her twin aims of revealing the conglomerate affective-intellectual-financial exchange behind literary making and of redistributing attention to underexposed makers. Her equation of Darnton’s “commonplacing” with Nash’s websites is surprisingly elegant: it pairs a critical giant with “invisible workers,” and the physically centered world of book history with its (fr)enemy the internet, while also illuminating how “love” of literature is born not only from the heart but also from the ego, a love for the “aura” of intellect. Yet, as consumers constantly share what they “love,” they still generate a kind of affect-centered network. Her study of The Silent History exposes another affective-interactive network operating on low-paid or free labor. One can sense Hungerford’s intonation that a system of unpaid or subsistence work based upon egotistical “aura” is less sustainable than one rooted in the tangible productivity of authorship. Again, the Horowitz-Quinn project gets the carrot but, in this case, it seems warranted: as she notes in her afterword, by the time she published Making Literature Now, Nash’s Small Demons was inactive. And, whether she thinks they evolved from constructive or questionable labors of “love,” Hungerford exposes the equal intellectual payoff in studying both platforms and, as such, achieves Robin Hood flair.

In her final chapters, Hungerford departs from McSweeney’s and the valuably invisible to an appraisal of what is “worth seeing” in the very well known. She starts by suggesting that commercially driven and authentically affective sources for the widespread “love” of Jonathan Safran Foer need not be mutually exclusive. She concedes that Foer followed the formula that would cause “the literary establishment to fall in love” with his first novel, Everything is Illuminated (2002): a “fresh” take on a “familiar subject” filled with “sentimental charge.” Yet while most critical fans see Foer’s freshness in his postmodern play with language (and critical foes see this “freshness” as passé), Hungerford finds something else to “love.” She argues that, in a (certainly unexpected) Poundian move, Foer “makes new” the Holocaust “plot” by constructing a sympathetic “perpetrator” story. Hungerford also checks cynicism by suggesting that Foer’s “love” of “attention” stems from his own attentive love for his favorite artist, Joseph Cornell: “Foer professes to be in love with how art is loved.” She posits that the “love” in Foer’s authentically attentive texts, which passed first from her eager students to herself, is worth passing on to us, her readers.

Hungerford, however, does not see the gain of “love” in the work of another contemporarily canonical icon, David Foster Wallace — she sees the cost of hatred. On the basis of preliminary evidence of Wallace’s “misogyny” found in selections of his short stories and in D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace (Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, 2012), Hungerford declares that she will “not read any further in Wallace’s work” and proposes: “If there was something rotten in Wallace’s relationships with women […] might there be something rotten in the writer-reader relationship, too?” She suggests that if Foer’s writer-reader ethos is “lovemaking,” then Wallace’s is “fucking.” Thus she posits — as “heretical” as it may seem — that every act of reading can be an “act of choosing.” In the case of herself and Wallace, she “refuse[s]” her consent.

In September 2016, Hungerford published a version of her Wallace chapter as an article, “On Refusing to Read,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which sparked competing cries of support and dissent. As Tom LeClair notes in his Full Stop review of her book, Hungerford’s Chronicle article has a different argumentative thrust: she refuses Wallace in order to resist the “market imperatives” which led his publishers to “dare” reviewers to read the tome-like Infinite Jest and then led those reviewers to assign it critical value as recompense for their cognitive and temporal losses. While this argument is also in Making Literature Now, it takes a backseat to Hungerford’s misogyny claim which, in turn, is absent from the article. LeClair reads this omission as a ploy on Hungerford’s part, a “defanged” teaser to her book’s melodramatic “two takedowns” of Foer and Wallace. I have to wonder instead whether the misogyny argument is absent because Hungerford had trouble placing an article about misogyny. In Making Literature Now, she notes that upon pitching an article about not reading Wallace on the grounds of misogyny, she was met with the advice to read more Wallace to find more misogyny. Hungerford sees this as an assumption “that Wallace’s work ‘about’ misogyny must somehow be revealing or smart about that subject.” This is the assumption that she wishes to interrogate.

Putting the Chronicle article aside, I think that LeClair misreads Hungerford’s final book chapters by grouping them together as “takedowns.” She does take on two contemporary literary icons, but to suggest that one is worth canonizing while the other is not. In Foer’s literary “worth,” she sees the machinations of commercialism, to be sure, but also a critical axis and a writerly-readerly attentiveness which bestow his work with affective and intellectual gain. In her survey of Wallace, she sees a market-driven canonization, the unpaid cost of misogyny, and no recompense of “insight”: empirically “negative results” which lead her to conclude that her “decision to stop reading was not unreasonably made.” But even bolder, and more valuable, than this particular rejection of “Saint Dave” is Hungerford’s broader question: what is the affective cost of reading misogyny? Coming from a female critic, this question gets personal. As a female critic myself, I will too. Looking back on my years of literary study, I can think of many instances when I have had to read texts that voice misogyny, but only of a handful of times when I’ve been offered the pedagogical reasoning behind it. Reading hatred about one’s gender takes an emotional, cognitive, and physical toll; even if one can be coolly critical, one should never wish to become desensitized. I don’t think Hungerford is suggesting, here, that literature courses should never confront misogyny — or other iterations of hatred — but that seeing as teachers hold the readerly consent of their students in hand, they should choose their texts and authors carefully. To me, Hungerford’s affective-interpretive “worth” system reads as fair: if a reader must pay the cost of imbibing hatred, the author must offer the payback of equivalently potent critical “insight.” Any less is hatred for hatred’s sake. And hatred is worthless.

I’ll conclude by asking two questions of her book that Hungerford prompts us to ask of any book: Where is the “love” in Making Literature Now? What are its gains and losses? I can’t help but account some love as lost after her title’s promise of abundance. Hungerford claims that her study “holds lightly to its choices about what to hold up out of the welter of contemporary writing and publishing,” but perhaps too lightly. With the vast “welter” of “Literature Now” to work from, her limits leave her in debt. However, where Hungerford chooses to look, she looks attentively. As a result, her study thrusts two traditionally undervalued factors to the heart of critical inquiry: affect and readers. In her scheme, the affective intent of literary producers and the affective response of readers can decide what “makes it” in contemporary literature as much as the intellectual capital of the school and the financial capital of the market. Moreover, to earn a place in the contemporary canon, a text’s intellectual gain must either mirror its affective gain or else supplement its affective cost. This is radical stuff; it teases at an ethics of reading which Hungerford could certainly parse further. I value Hungerford’s value for readers and, as her reader, I pay it forward: Making Literature Now is worth your attention.


Louise Hill is a master’s student in English at McGill University.

LARB Contributor

Louise Hill is a master’s student in English at McGill University.


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