Welcome to more TOEFL reading practice! In our last series, we took a look at two of the most common TOEFL reading question types, vocabulary and detail questions. To put those questions in context, each TOEFL reading passage has between 12 and 14 questions, of which 4-6 will be vocabulary questions and 2-6 detail questions. If you’d like to practice those, take a look at our Paul Revere passage.
Today, though, we’ll be turning to the second most common questions, “except” and inference questions. You can expect to see up to 2 “except” questions per passage and up to 4 inference questions per passage, so these are also important to getting those top scores! As with the Paul Revere passage, this series of posts will provide five questions, each followed by its answer and explanation, wrapping up with all the questions together in a convenient PDF for you to review.
Let’s take a look at our passage, and then go on to the answer from our previous question, #2: an inference question.
The Legacy of Edmund Wilson
The novelists of the “Lost Generation” are well remembered and well loved, even nearly a century after the height of their fame: Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. However, one of the most talented Lost Generation writers, while well-known in his day, has been nearly forgotten: Edmund Wilson. An essayist, literary, and social critic, Wilson played a vital role both in promoting his fellow writers and in instituting social change in the United States.
A classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s at Princeton, graduating in 1916, Wilson served in the military before he made his name in literary circles. It is therefore stunning that he became managing editor of the venerable magazine Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, within five years of his graduation. After his stint there, he would hold various positions for other publications, including The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. Wilson began to become known for his insightful, sometimes sharp, criticism of contemporary writing. His books included work on the literary movement Symbolism and, as he got older, commentary on the course of European socialism.
In his day, Wilson was known best for his assessment of his peers. While Wilson did make some enemies in his time (for example, for his comments that H.P. Lovecraft’s stories were “hackwork” or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books were “juvenile trash”), he had a larger circle of friends. Still, he didn’t hesitate to criticize his friends’ work when he thought it deserved it; he was an outspoken critic of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, and the latter broke off their friendship for good after Wilson publicly criticized what he thought was a strange translation of Pushkin by Nabokov. Nevertheless, he didn’t hesitate to reward his friends with favorable reviews, either —when they were merited. Fitzgerald, for example, referred to Wilson as his “intellectual conscience.” Moreover, Wilson was intelligent, and self-confident, enough to admit when he didn’t understand some of the complex, sometimes indecipherable, prose of his time. Of Modernist poet Wallace Stevens, he wrote “even when you don’t know what he is saying, you know he is saying it well.” Similarly, he reviewed James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake with an understanding of its complexity, remarking that it was “for all its excesses…a great work of literature.”
Wilson’s writings were important in establishing what would become the twentieth-century canon of English language literature, including works from the nineteenth century. For example, he brought works by Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling back into the public eye, emphasizing their worth and importance. However, his most important work was undoubtedly on behalf of fiction writers of his own generation, which included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, and Vladimir Nabokov.
In terms of politics, Wilson became more politically active from the 1940s onward. He was a critic of the United States’ Cold War policies at a time when it was dangerous to be one. In fact, in protest of these policies, he refused to pay his income taxes for almost a decade. This led, eventually, to an IRS investigation that ended with a $25,000 fine; that, in turn, led Wilson to write another book, The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, in 1963. Wilson would eventually be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom under President John F. Kennedy, which he accepted in absentia; however, when invited to the White House under President Johnson, of whom he did not approve, Wilson apparently issued a brusque rejection.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Wilson is not widely remembered for them today. Instead, readers know his work—if they know his work at all—only as an editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous work. As executor of Fitzgerald’s literary estate, Wilson had the herculean task of preserving and presenting his friend’s work for future generations. He did so in exceptional style, editing and finding a publisher for the unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, as well as sorting through hundreds of Fitzgerald’s papers, letters, notebooks, and essays to create the lauded collection The Crack-Up.
2. Which of the following can be inferred about Wilson’s view of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake?
a. Wilson found it intellectual, but lacking a conscience.
b. Wilson could not understand it, and so was impressed.
c. Wilson found the writing wordy but important.
d. Wilson believed the length of the book to be excessive.
c. Wilson found the writing wordy but important.
Why this answer?
The first step in solving an inference question is to locate the context of the subject it’s referring to. Here, that comes at the end of paragraph 3, where the author tells us that Wilson referred to James’s work as “for all its excesses…a great work of literature.” Interpret this in your own words: how could a book be excessive? It could be too long, but then “excesses” wouldn’t be plural. Instead, it is most likely wordy. Still, Wilson found the book “great.”
Why not the other answers?
The other answers here either make the error in interpreting “excesses” as described above, or they misunderstand or confuse Wilson’s quotes on other authors’ works (or other authors’ comments about Wilson, in the case of A).
How can I use this practice in my test-day strategy?
To select the correct answer for TOEFL inference questions, make sure that the inference you’re making is text-based. It should not be too different from what is directly stated, but will still require you to take the argument to its logical conclusion or next step. If the answer choice is too extreme, refers to something not mentioned in the passage, or refers to something mentioned in the passage but unrelated to the subject of the question, eliminate it!