At parties, people would ask Dexter Palmer, “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” he’d reply.
They’d ask the inevitable follow-up, “What are you working on?”
“Well, this book about a woman who gives birth to rabbits that’s based on a true story,” he’d say, which was the truth at the time.
Strangers weren’t quite sure what to make of that, so Palmer would talk about his research: lots of texts from the 18th century, including obsolete articles about women’s anatomy, or the history of the “royal touch”—the idea that kings could heal anyone’s ailments with a little bit of monarchical contact. In the context of Palmer’s library dives, the notion of a woman birthing rabbits didn’t sound so ridiculous.
The book, Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, is Palmer’s third work of fiction and will be published by Pantheon in November. Its genesis goes back to 1996, when he was getting his PhD in English from Princeton University. In a class titled Representations of the Improbable, Palmer had to give a presentation on fraud. So he uncovered the story about the woman who claimed to give birth to rabbits and tried to understand the most obvious question: Why the hell did anyone believe her?
Over the course of two decades, Palmer returned to that idea. He kept clips of articles that were somewhat associated with the rabbit case and books about the 18th century, never sure what he would make of all this material, until it became the novel concept he sold to Pantheon and the recurring subject of polite cocktail conversation.
Palmer says that because he still lives in Princeton, N.J., a town of Ivy League academics, those same party guests often asked whether the book would include a bibliography—which would be unusual for a novel. Mary Toft does include a list of sources at the end, with Palmer’s caveat that he’d “taken a novelist’s liberties with its subject matter,” and following that, an itemization of those liberties. All his lies, basically. Palmer laughs when he tells me, “As an academic, there’s that bit of me that wants to prove that I did the work.”
The work is the research, but of course, it’s also the writing, which is getting easier for Palmer. Or at least, it’s getting faster. His first book, The Dream of Perpetual Motion (2010), which is like Kafka meets steampunk, took 14 years to finish. Version Control (2016) is a tome of speculative fiction that warps into a time-travel tale. That one took about five years of work (and a lot of cutting—40,000 words, a short novel’s worth). Mary Toft was done in just two years, written bit by bit after the workday and on the weekends.
Ask Palmer “what do you do?” somewhere other than a Princeton party and he’ll tell you about his day job: He works for the College Board, writing test questions for the SAT. He can’t talk much about the job itself—he signed an NDA—but he’s been on the test-writing circuit for the better part of 13 years, having also worked on the GRE and AP exams.
Palmer’s workdays are filled with a different kind of creative writing. Testing someone’s reading comprehension requires a mind-set that’s “precise and, at the same time, elliptical.” Good test-question writers need to figure out all the ways students might possibly misread a sentence. To write a good multiple-choice question, they have to write one correct answer and three plausibly wrong ones.
Is understanding how people might misinterpret something helpful when writing fiction? “It’s different, because if someone misreads a novel, it’s not really high stakes,” Palmer says. “The worst thing that’s going to happen is that someone posts a one-star review on Amazon or something like that.”
Which is to say, Palmer is okay with his writing being misunderstood—not a bad way to approach a novel about a big lie.
Mary Toft isn’t really about the character of Mary Toft. She gets two short chapters from her point of view, but the book is ultimately about the men who surround her who have all, for various reasons, taken on the curious case to understand what’s going on with the rabbits. It’s a conspiracy of self-delusion but also a tale of four dudes talking about a woman’s body.
It’s a tricky proposition: “Mary Toft has to be a book about women,” Palmer says. “But it also has to be a book about men talking about women.” Those men who populate the book, because of their status and because of their gender, become the arbiters of how Toft is perceived. It’s a book about what happens when we ignore expertise and decide to instead reinforce each other’s misthinking. “Why would a number of people, many of whom are very smart and educated, collude to believe a thing that seems self-evidently, materially false, to the point of being ridiculous?” Palmer asks.
In that way, Mary Toft gestures at our current political situation, in which a lot of reasonable people have decided to take at his word a president who is constantly lying. (Palmer began writing the book in 2016, naturally.) Trump is, after all, an authority figure—one of the highest in the world, depending on whom you ask.
Palmer says, “Expertise is why people feel obligated to go get vaccines, for example. Expertise tells us that the climate is changing. And yet, just because of the way the society is, who gets designated an expert is largely a class issue.”
When elites fancy themselves experts, isn’t it then subversive for the public to disown expertise and reclaim that power? The problem is that expertise is also often condescending, and it might behoove towns like Princeton to be more self-aware about that.
Modern education approaches pupils as blank slates who must be taught the right thing. But we live in the age of misinformation, of dishonesty, of YouTube—and students now come to class already believing all kinds of horrible things: the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, the misogynistic views of Jordan Peterson, the conspiracy theories and misogynistic views of the president. The role of a teacher is no longer to teach but to first help a student unlearn. Disproving a lie in 2019—and in 1726—is more complicated than just pointing out that something is false. It’s even more difficult when a lot of people believe in the lie.
“People can collude in believing something,” Palmer says. “That is resistant to education.”
But this is not the lesson Palmer set out to teach readers when he first endeavored on Mary Toft. He started writing in spring 2016, when the moment was uncertain. “I can’t claim that I somehow foresaw our situation when I started to write about it,” he concedes.
Mary Toft really just started out as a book about a woman giving birth to rabbits. Like Palmer’s other two novels, the idea emerged as he was writing and researching. Palmer recalls something his editor told him once during a conference call: “Nobody ever writes an important book on purpose. It’s always by accident.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.