Thursday, August 26, 2010

Being Difficult

Back in 2002, Jonathan Franzen took a lot of flak for an essay he wrote for the New Yorker, entitled "Mr. Difficult."  It was, in part, about the works of William Gaddis and the changing relationship Franzen had to those works over the course of his life – and about the conclusion he ultimately arrived at, that at heart Gaddis's writing (after The Recognitions) coldly and unrealistically demands that readers "renounce the sinful pleasures of Realism and cultivate a selfless and pure love of Art."  Franzen writes that he believes there is no person in the world, not even Gaddis himself, who would rather read JR than watch The Simpsons, and concludes, "To serve the reader a fruitcake that you wouldn't eat yourself... this violates what seems to me to be the categorical imperative for any fiction writer." 

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.

12 comments:

John said...

I'd like to read an entire post on difficulty from you. You talked around difficulty this time, including the valid complaint that nobody discusses it. Why don't we talk the conversation on difficulty by having one?

One aversion to difficulty is that it often indicates bad writing. If it's difficult because of inaccessibility, or dullness, or because an author keeps throwing something we don't want at us without giving us any reasonable compulsion to go through it, that author is asking to have his or her work put down. If the book is difficult but enticing, we don't even remark on it - we're just so thrilled we had such a rich experience, and go straight to praising richness.

I'm always thinking about difficulty in terms of what will be difficult for me to plot out or write. The last short story I did was a challenge to myself. I seldom think about what will be difficult for my readers - most frequently I see it as my job to make something easier for them, even if the fiction itself is essentially difficult.

The Chawmonger said...

Hi John, thanks so much for commenting here (and on my previous post, which I'll respond to ASAP).

You're definitely right that I'm writing around the question of what actually makes a piece of fiction difficult -- a question I'm hoping to at least begin to answer in my next post. (Perhaps in part with the help of the WSJ article you mention -- I need to check that out.)

But I'm not sure I agree with you that "if the book is difficult but enticing, we don't even remark on it -- we're just so thrilled we had such a rich experience." Maybe I'm just not that smart, but when I read a difficult book that I love, I'm not able to overlook or ignore the difficulty; it's still very much a part of the experience for me. Reading Gravity's Rainbow, for example, blew my mind and transformed the way I think about literature -- but it was incredibly slow going, necessitating note-taking on things like character names and multiple re-reads of many sections. Maybe that isn't true for every reader of the book, but it certainly was for me, and I think I'd be remiss to write or talk about the book without addressing the demands it makes on the reader -- and the reasons why, in my opinion, they were worth it.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting. And check back soon -- I'm going to write another follow-up post to these last two in the next few days :-)

Emily Sue said...

Wow, Franzen doesn't want it either way - disdain for the intellectuals and disdain for the popular audience - I'm thinking of his famous Oprah snub - he was too good for a "female" audience. The guy's an ass, which doesn't necessarily discredit his argument about difficult writing, but a side note.

Ok, forgive me, going slightly off topic now.
Strike me dead, I detest Oprah but I have a deep respect for her book club. I still can't believe "The Road" was a selection - despite the fact I heard hundreds of copies were returned after disovering how unconventional it was stylistically.
She also did a "Summer of Faulkner" series - on the book club website there is an article about how to read/approach Faulkner. I find it highly encouraging - individuals who may never have read Faulker are doing it with "Oprah's" assistance, for better or worse. I still don't think it's going to help everyone not feel stupid in their attempts to read difficult works, but it may help some.

The Chawmonger said...

I don't know enough about the whole Franzen/Oprah debacle to really weigh in on this, but I would argue that (unless there's some part of the story I haven't heard) it's unfair to say his snub was intended to exclude female readers. Lots of women -- like you and me and probably most of the chicks Franzen knows -- dislike Oprah in the extreme, to the point that her endorsement can set off alarm bells (oh no, not another book about "spirit"), despite the fact she often selects worthy, substantial titles for her club (The Road rules). I've often thought about how harrowingly bizarre it must be for the serious writers that do go on her show, sandwiched between episodes about the "epidemic" of tweenage blowjobs and Dr. Phil pseudo-epiphanies, and although I don't think Franzen was right to turn her down, I can see where he was coming from: it's tough to write critically about a culture while taking payouts (in the form of book sales and celebrity) from it at the same time.

I do think you're right, though, that he wants to have it both ways. The Mr. Difficult article is infuriating for that very reason -- the way he thinks about fiction is clearly a very particular writer's perspective, shaped by years of serious reading and the tidal pulls of his own developing aesthetic, yet he wants to claim that it's universal. At the beginning of the article, he quotes a letter from a woman who struggled with his vocabulary in The Corrections -- her issues with the difficulty of his work are pretty summarily dismissed, but somehow his problems with Gaddis are different: everyone prefers the Simpsons, we're "hard-wired" to agree.

But despite all its contradictions (or maybe because of them) his essay still seems to me to be a peculiarly, maybe even embarrassingly intimate and honest look at a reader's encounter with one author's work. Which is something I think we could use more of in our discussion of fiction nowadays.

Emily Sue said...

This quote, from an interview with Franzen on Fresh Air is what I'm referring to - I just find it SO off putting: "So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.”

The Chawmonger said...

Wow. OK, yeah, I definitely had not heard that quote -- that's yucky and horrifying. Dude needs an elbow to the face. Nuff said.

V. Wetlaufer said...

Well, I still think poetry reviews are different, because so few people read poetry at all anyway. I personally don't feel any need to write a negative review or a poetry book. It's hard enough to get poetry published, let alone get someone to buy it...also, poetry is such a small world, to me writing a negative review is just plain mean. Why do it?

The only people who read poetry reviews are people who read poetry already. Most poetry (not Billy Collins or other populist crap) is considered so "difficult" that most people don't bother trying to read it. I'm constantly told that I should be more like Billy Collins so that my poems aren't so difficult and I think that's just because many people want poems to be simple. Oh, a nice poem about a bird. Or a tree. Or love. The issue of difficult poems is completely different than difficult fiction because I think poetry is generally considered difficult simply because it's poetry. So that's a separate issue. Excluding Billy Collins and whoever happens to be poet laureate at that given time, there is no popular audience for poetry anyway, so it's a moot point.

The Chawmonger said...

I agree, V., there is almost no popular audience for poetry -- and I won't be surprised if the same is true for serious fiction in the not-so-distant future (see my previous post for some ominous portents). And one of the reasons I see for this decline in popular interest with both literary forms is that uninitiated readers -- readers who aren't writers, critics, or academics themselves -- feel confused, and isolated and stupid in their confusion.

Difficulty itself isn't good or bad. But sidestepping the issue of difficulty entirely when discussing one's experience of a book, especially to a wide audience of potential readers, seems counterproductive to me. As I said in my post, the result isn't 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," because they feel unqualified to participate in the conversation. Which seems like a crying shame.

I don't think it's too late, though, to draw readers back to literature by making our discussion of it straightforward, honest and entertaining. Of course, as someone who blogs about this stuff, maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Jeff said...

Chawmonger, hi.

I read the Franzen article. One of its many disagreeable aspects is his division of writing between Status and Contract writers (or, intellectuals, and those who write for everyone). As if that captures everyone. He does do a lot of thinking on this issue, as is clear; but his thinking, to me, seems to come from an either/or mindset that is set up to be exclusionary. He isn't that great a writer, and the fact that his essays are viewed as serious is indicative not of the level of discourse in the republic of letters, but of who gets the air time.

Others have written good responses to your post, but I'd like to say that as a book reviewer (primarily of fiction) I do try and indicate if a book is challenging, dry, intricate or whatever the case may be. If I find a book that doesn't make me enthusiastic, it doesn't mean that I can't find something salient in it that others might like. Despite my coolness to this or that novel, there may be some people who would find its aspects attractive. A reviewer can tell of those things without pretending to be better than the book. A review can (though this is rare) admit to being defeated, too, though editors
prefer a tone mingling confidence and authority.

It's good if a reviewer can honestly admit to the existence of problems in the text, or his own limits. For instance, Gaddis is not so difficult, to me. That doesn't mean I catch all the allusions.

Joseph McElroy's _Women and Men_, though, was very difficult, on the level of the sentence even. But I learned, as I read it over one year, and as it came back to mind when reading his more recent _Actress in the House_, that his way of thinking and writing were changing how I read.

This may not be the immersion you speak of; I think you mean that white-hot crucible of emotion, whereas I'm referring to an intellectual stretching beyond my abilities at the time. (And probably still beyond them, only not as far.) McElroy's evident humanity and compassion for the characters he created provided the emotional charge that kept me going; if the characters were arid abstracts, then it may not have been possible for me to continue reading _Women and Men_.

It's no shame, I think, to say a work is hard. But to explain how it strikes one as that, without seeming like the one idiot who didn't understand what others do, is tough to get past. Perhaps the most difficult books only get four or five reviews in total. Maybe people just walk away from them, afraid to commit a word--an error--to paper.

Thanks for your thoughtful post. It was enjoyable to read.

Jeff said...

Chawmonger, hi.

I read the Franzen article. One of its many disagreeable aspects is his division of writing between Status and Contract writers (or, intellectuals, and those who write for everyone). As if that captures everyone. He does do a lot of thinking on this issue, as is clear; but his thinking, to me, seems to come from an either/or mindset that is set up to be exclusionary.

As a book reviewer (primarily of fiction) I do try and indicate if a book is challenging, dry, intricate or whatever the case may be. If I find a book that doesn't make me enthusiastic, it doesn't mean that I can't find something salient in it that others might like. A reviewer can tell of those things without pretending to be better than the book. A review can (though this is rare) admit to being defeated, too, though editors
prefer a tone mingling confidence and authority.

Joseph McElroy's _Women and Men_ was very difficult, on the level of the sentence even. But I learned, as I read it over one year, and as it came back to mind when reading his more recent _Actress in the House_, that his way of thinking and writing were changing how I read.

This may not be the immersion you speak of; I think you mean that white-hot crucible of emotion, whereas I'm referring to an intellectual stretching beyond my abilities at the time. (And probably still beyond them, only not as far.) McElroy's evident humanity and compassion for the characters he created provided the emotional charge that kept me going; if the characters were arid abstracts, then it may not have been possible for me to continue reading _Women and Men_.

It's no shame, I think, to say a work is hard. But to explain how it strikes one as that, without seeming like the one idiot who didn't understand what others do, is tough to get past. Perhaps the most difficult books only get four or five reviews in total. Maybe people just walk away from them, afraid to commit a word--an error--to paper.

Thanks for your thoughtful post. It was enjoyable to read.

Jeff said...

Apologies for leaving two almost identical comments, Chawmonger. Google kept telling me there were problems with the length.

The Chawmonger said...

Jeff, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I definitely agree that "It's no shame, I think, to say a work is hard. But to explain how it strikes one as that, without seeming like the one idiot who didn't understand what others do, is tough to get past... Maybe people just walk away from [difficult books], afraid to commit a word--an error--to paper." I think that fear of being wrong, of looking stupid, though totally understandable, is really at the heart of the dumbing-down of contemporary literary culture. Because if readers can't admit they're confused, how can they ever get to the heart of that confusion?

When I was talking about "immersion," I *was* referring to the book's immediate emotional impact -- the way that the world of a novel can seem to materialize around me as I read. But I wasn't trying to say that intellectual stretching doesn't have value. To the contrary, I think the "difficult" aspects of a novel, while they might hold off that feeling of total immersion on the first read, can often make the book even more potent and moving when the reader returns to it again.