Individual Temporalities and Reading Communities: Structures of Temporality and Anglophone Long Novels from the 1970s to the Present
Complex long novels have consolidated as a genre in modernism by offering a cultural vantage point on time and world in their entirety. In the wake of authors like Proust, Joyce and Mann, writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace created voluminous, intertextually as well as interdiscursively dense novels. It is hardly surprising that many of these works were interpreted as epochal signatures and diagnoses of the present; what is surprising is the fact that they have generated semiprofessional and nonacademic reading communities – despite the massive difficulties involved in reading these long novels. The reading communities around long novels are not simply interpretive communities but cultivate performative and collective, temporally reflexive forms of reading: Examples are the public nonstop readings of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow popular in the 1980s, and the three-monthly reading projects around Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (2008-09) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Infinite Summer, 2009) (both documented online).
We argue that these reading projects respond chiefly to the excessive demands long novels make on the time budget and the cognitive capacities of readers: They organise reading time, render it intersubjectively observable and thus open to modification. Reading time is structured with reference to the vocabulary, the aesthetic structures, and the problematic of temporality as expressed in long novels (from scientific to philosophical concepts of time to social modes of configuring time and history). In order to elaborate this hypothesis, a combination of different methodological approaches is required: a formal aesthetics of temporal structures in long novels, a discourse analytical investigation into its distinction in academic and non-academic contexts, and a literary sociology of interpretive and reading communities. This approach will highlight reading communities of long novels as exemplary sites of negotiation for transitions but also for discrepancies between the novels’ individual aesthetic time (‘Eigenzeit’) and socially configured temporalities.