Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Difficult Books

I had a professor once in graduate school who used the word "accessible" to insult a writer's work. This tendency in certain circles that books must be dense, difficult to read, complex was one of the most annoying things, in fact, about graduate school. This doesn't refer to advanced vocabulary or overly complicated plots, but to works that, in fact, may have no plot. Or that intentionally obfuscate. It used to irk me when he'd dismiss a book by simply asserting that it was "simplistic" as if complexity made for a good read. This was true of not only fiction but of literary criticism or theory. And, let's face it, a big chunk of literary theory that has been so fashionable in the last generation is simply bad writing. Perhaps the writer has some novel or fascinating idea but the idea should be clear.

Not difficult.
I am of the school of straightforwardness. I don't have any issue with books that have unusual form or where the author's ideas on a topic are integrated into the plotting. But I detest books whose soul aim is to show off how smart the author thinks he is. Or "creative." A novel should essentially be a good story in my view and that doesn't mean the author can't take risks (he should, in fact) or can't play with form or style or do something new or unusual. But that should always be in service to the story, in my view. And there certainly are "simplistic" books (the story has no dimension to it, the themes or ideas are pat or trite).

That said, certain popular critics often dismiss a writer's work as "unreadable" or a "hard read" which I often find curious. When people call Kazuo Ishiguro's "hard" I don't see it. Though some of his books (like The Unconsoled) don't really have a straightforward plot, the language is fairly clear and straightforward. Virginia Woolf is another author often put in this camp. Or Borges.

I was very surprised that some people called Jenny Erpenbeck's book Visitation "undeniably difficult" which I definitely deny. Again, if one sits down with every book and excepts a straightforward sort of plotting arc, perhaps that's where one senses the challenge. But having read enough German literature (another author called difficult is Herte Mueller, and though that word might cover one aspect of her, it doesn't cover her writing!), I guess one comes to except a certain kind of approach. Same with Argentine writers.

I wonder if the rift between what academics find "good" and what the public find "good" has to do with the breakdown of high vs low culture. When I first started my undergraduate degree, I think, the remnants of this distinction were still visible but just barely: TV was still widely treated with disdain, popular writers were totally ignored (you'd never be caught dead with any living author who'd ever had a best-seller and, in fact, "best-seller" was an insult), but slowly this distinction has blurred. That's not to say that there aren't popular writers who are ignored in academia or "respectable" literary institutions: many are. But popular success doesn't necessarily mean a work is instantly trash. In fact, I've heard many people, many serious readers, say that they read Twilight or Fifty Shades simply because they wanted to see what the buzz was all about, they wanted to understand what these books' popularity said about our culture today, etc. Yes, they ultimately trashed the books but the assumption was that even trash should be part of the conversation in understanding where we are as a society of readers today...

I guess I wouldn't go so far as to read that kind of work mainly because I have so many other books vying for my attention. Good books. And difficult ones.

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