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Re-Learning to Read: Gary Shteyngart and the Commodification of Reading Practices

Clemens Spahr

Pages 549 - 565



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This essay argues that Gary Shteyngart’s "Super Sad True Love Story" is an allegory of contemporary reading practices, and as such a critical intervention on par with, and coincident to, the postcritical reframing of the act of literary criticism. In "Super Sad True Love Story", Shteyngart paints a picture of a world that perpetually reads but hates books, sending his two protagonists on a quest for literacy. This period is also implicitly named by the postcritical intervention into reading for depth and its replacement by reading on the surface. The novel stresses the epistemological function of literature in an illiterate period. Shteyngart demands that we attend closely to the nuances of contemporary reading and writing practices, thereby emphasizing that literature needs to stress its status as literature if it wants to remain relevant. In addition to arguing that "Super Sad True Love Story" is a novel about relearning to read in a time hostile to reading, this essay establishes how the book runs into a number of contradictions. The novel’s discursive versatility and the marketing campaign that accompanied it perpetually threaten to undermine the novel’s aspiration to re-establish an immersive mode of reading, as it allows readers to isolate its appearance as a commodity from its critique of reading practices. Shteyngart’s novel offers an important critique of the contemporary literary situation; but its formal and economic strategies also call into question its ability to cognitively map the contemporary cultural moment.

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