Numerous writers, perhaps most notably Ben Marcus in a lengthy Harper's take-down, weighed in on this piece, many denouncing what they perceived to be Franzen's weird anti-intellectualism (an anti-intellectualism that was expressed in an impassioned and pages-long discussion of the entire oeuvre of a notoriously challenging and cerebral author, addressed to the readers of the New Yorker). Had I been blogging at the time, I no doubt would have joined their chorus: there's something off-putting about Franzen's tone throughout the piece, something uncomfortable about the assumptions he makes of his reader, as if on a first date some dude reached across the coffee shop table to straighten the strap of your bra. "The work of reading Gaddis makes me wonder if our brains might even be hard-wired for conventional storytelling, structurally eager to form pictures from sentences as featureless as 'She stood up,'" he offers in an aside. To which I'd be inclined to reply, "You don't know the first thing about my brain, 'Mr. Chomsky' – and I'd advise you to keep your hands to yourself."
And yet, I've thought about that essay many, many times over the years, because in a certain way, I know he's right. Not about Gaddis, necessarily (I've only read A Frolic of His Own, which I actually thought was a hoot), but about the subjective experience of difficulty, which few critics or essayists really ever discuss.
Part of what makes reading fiction intense and passionate for me is the fact that it's personal, immersive, one-on-one: that when I am deep inside a book, it's as though I have the author all to myself. The observations he makes feel almost like they come from inside my own consciousness; the characters' faces and mannerisms, their inflection, are supplied by me from the storehouse of my own experience. Yet the flip side of that is that when I'm reading and I get confused, lost, I'm in that all alone too.
In the time I've lived in New York, I've become adept at noticing the exact moment in my interaction with another person when I realize she's insane – actually, certifiably insane. It happens more often than you'd think. Once I was at the post office, waiting in an epic line, and the woman behind me and I were commiserating.
"But you're shipping that domestically," I suddenly observed, noticing she held a Priority Mail envelope. "You can just use one of the automated machines for that, you don't have to wait here."
"Oh, I can't do that," she explained. "Then the government would have my credit card information and they'd track everything I do."
Shields go up when I realize I'm speaking to someone I don't, can't understand. When I'm reading a book, and it becomes difficult – really thwartingly, incomprehensibly difficult – shields go up, albeit slightly different ones. Because the thing is, no matter how daunting and impenetrable I find a text, I basically assume that the person writing it is capable of communicating in a straightforward human way. The fact that they're not, that they're choosing to be opaque, to talk crazy without being it, generally summons in me some knee-jerk feelings of resentment: feelings that are often dispelled by some purpose revealed later in the work, but that well up nevertheless.
"There is nothing like the headache you get from working harder on deciphering a text than the author, by all appearances, has worked on assembling it," Franzen writes. I've had that headache quite a few times myself. And yet only rarely do you see that experience acknowledged or talked about in the (rare) reviews of serious avant-garde fiction. In large part, people prefer to vaguely praise, vaguely criticize, or simply avoid writing about these books at all. The difficulty – which might be the first (and last) thing many readers take away from their experience of the work – is ignored, making anyone who attempted to read the book feel even stupider, even more resentful, even more alone in his experience of what seemed like the writer's hostility to him, the wall going up on every page.
There's a Kids in the Hall sketch where Kevin McDonald and Dave Foley play two businessmen meeting for the first time at an office party. A coworker introduces them, then leaves them alone together. McDonald tries again and again to engage Dave Foley in conversation, but Foley simply stands there and smiles (the man has an eerie, Cheshire-cat like smile). When the coworker returns, Foley immediately speaks up and tells him horrible lies about McDonald – I think he calls him a bedwetter. For many readers who are not writers themselves, this must be the experience, in a nutshell, of taking on one of the more "difficult" writers working today. You try to engage with this author, you work hard to connect with him, and then as soon as someone else shows up, he makes you feel like an idiot.
The face of contemporary difficult fiction?
But why is it that we seldom talk about difficulty – that we so frequently exclude it from the conversations we have about books? One reason, the most obvious, is that no one wants to sound like an idiot, even if he feels like one. But another, equally strong reason is that there's a perception (and not an unfounded one) in the contemporary writing community that our art form is dying, and that it's time to circle the wagons to protect our own. The very worst thing to say is that a book is so tough to get through that even another professional writer had to struggle mightily to keep turning the pages.
I have a friend who occasionally writes poetry reviews for an online journal. The editor of this journal told my friend, in so many words, that they do not publish negative reviews, not of any book, ever. The Believer takes a similar tack, and I'm sure they're not alone. The idea behind this behavior is of course that negative reviews discourage book sales, and no one wants that – better that readers should approach a work with inflated expectations than not approach it at all. But I would imagine that the actual result of this is not that "average" (i.e., not professional) readers read more literary books – it's that they don't read literary books or the publications that review them. They feel excluded from the conversation, and so they leave it entirely.
To a certain extent, this can't be helped. The fact is, some people eventually lose interest in reading anything with more substance than an InStyle article. I call these people "Philistines," but to each his own. (There are plenty of art forms I know fuck all about myself – architecture, modern dance – so clearly I'm throwing stones from the roof of a greenhouse.) But what makes me sad are the people who still have a craving for fiction, but seek out and read only kids' books or trash.
Which brings me back, in a long way, to the subject of my last post. I think there's something to what Lev Grossman said in in the otherwise heinous Pamela Paul NY Times article "The Kids' Books Are All Right," about the way that YA fiction allows plot to thrive, and I'm going to ponder that more when I write on here next. But one thing that I feel sure YA fiction offers people is the feeling that they are qualified to take part in a conversation about it, that they won't embarrass themselves like poor Kevin McDonald. And to me, the fact that things have come to that pass is something that should make all of us feel pretty stupid.