Writing workshops have been an invaluable part of my development as a writer. Probably the best two years of my life were spent in grad school, where my fiction was alternately attacked and devoured by a ravenous pack of wild intellectuals; I still wear their scars with pride. So, as part of a self-imposed campaign not to drown myself in the Central Park reservoir before I turn thirty, pockets weighed down with candy corn, craft beer caps, and zip drives containing my unpublished oeuvre, I recently decided to sign up for an extracurricular writing class conveniently located in my nabe. I lucked out big time: it's an excellent group, and the reads on my work have been generous and thorough. But returning to that Conference Table of Broken Dreams (because that's what a flawed story is, isn't it? a broken dream?) after three years' absence has gotten me thinking about difficulty again, and the way it's addressed in the academic environment where so much debut fiction starts.
The writing workshop is, by its nature, biased in favor of the short story. A short story can be submitted in a lone chunk, read in one sitting, and discussed in its entirety during a single session. Although the draft of a story may be rough and the reading experience may involve an overtly critical approach (line-editing, etc.), the experience of reading and talking about a short story in a workshop is basically pretty similar to the way students would read and talk about a short story anywhere else. To workshop a novel or novella, on the other hand, requires a bigger leap. Split into twenty or thirty page chunks, the story is automatically digested differently than if it were presented in whole. A major factor in my experience of a novel, for example, is, "How fast did I feel compelled to read this?" The speed with which I'm propelled through a book isn't necessarily proportional to my enthusiasm for it (I read Room and The Magicians each in under two days), but it is a major part of the experience for me, something I nearly always mention when describing a book. Yet this large-scale momentum isn't something that can even be considered in the workshopping of a novel. And neither are other "macro" factors, like themes, image patterns, arc, or -- perhaps most important for our discussion here -- formal structure.
Because that's where the question about difficulty comes in. Like the Philistine who stands too close to a pointillist painting and then complains about seeing nothing but dots, a workshop student may find himself stymied by excerpted sections of a novel that, viewed in the context of the entire work, might serve an obvious structural purpose. Then again, they might not. But given simply an isolated span of pages, he has no way to know. So novels, regardless of the extent to which they're innovative, are frequently perceived in workshop as more "difficult" -- more mysterious, unknowable, tougher to judge -- than even experimental short fiction.
This is of course a fascinating contrast to the perception of difficulty by consumers of books, who (as the publishing industry knows all too well) seem to regard short stories with the same enthusiasm they normally reserve for spam email, but who occasionally deign to set aside their magic glowing Etch-a-Sketches for tomes like Freedom. (Those who aren't reading it on the Etch-a-Sketch, that is.) Maybe the reason for short stories' unpopularity isn't difficulty per se, but it's certainly something akin to it. Short stories, as a form, are characterized by qualities like compression and elision. For them to hold together, every element, sometimes even every word, has to serve a function. Stories, in other words, present a conundrum for many modern readers, in that their "blink-and-you-miss-it" aesthetic requires intense concentration. Although stories take much less time to read than novels do, they demand a different kind of time, ideally uninterrupted and sustained, and a reading style that hones in on detail and language over plot. And when you add formal experimentation into the mix, many readers will panic, thinking they've picked up a book of contemporary poetry by mistake.
Don't let this be you.
But I don't mean to make fun. Reading a short story is an intellectual sprint, and not every jogger is good at sprinting. (I can enjoy a nice leisurely power walk, myself.) What I find interesting, though, is the fact that many readers, who are not writers themselves, who would never pick up a short story anthology or collection or a literary journal, or even flip to the fiction section in the New Yorker -- let alone formulate impassioned opinions about what was printed there -- manage to tackle and (in book clubs and other forums) actively discuss contemporary, formally complex novels like The Time Traveler's Wife or Middlesex. By keeping their focus on the big picture, these non-writer readers glide over and see beyond the smaller stumbling blocks that become the exclusive and intensely debated focus of so many workshop discussions...and that sometimes derail authors midway through a manuscript.
Difficulty certainly is in the eye of the beholder -- that's an obvious enough point and one that I made in my previous post about this subject. But difficulty is also in the means of transmission (short sections versus the complete manuscript) and the speed at which the work is consumed. Plus, there are doubtless other factors, too. So tell me, kind readers, what adds to your perception of difficulty in a piece of writing? What takes away from it? And if you could either fly or be invisible, would you still bother with reading at all?