Difficult Fiction

Difficult FictionI really dislike this whole quasi-argument about “difficult fiction”:

“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

“…Appiah defends the idea – which, nearly a century after modernism really kicked off, probably shouldn’t need defending – that ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.”

Should fiction be “difficult”? Deliberately difficult? Unnecessarily difficult? Gratuitously difficult?

Whilst regretting the whole debate, this author nonetheless jumps straight in, throwing fuel on the fire:

“The question isn’t how difficult a book is, but why it’s difficult. What is it doing with its difficulty? What is it asking of the reader? Does that difficulty reward the reader’s investment of time?”

Sam Leith goes on…

“Books can be “difficult” in all sorts of different ways. Late Henry James is difficult in a wholly different way than Finnegans Wake is difficult, and Moby-Dick is difficult in a different way to either of those (mostly because of all that sodding scrimshaw). Sometimes the difficulty is a surface difficulty, to do with vocabulary. A Clockwork Orange, for instance, is a challenge to start with – but once you get the hang of Nadsat, it’s easy as pie. Sometimes it’s a formal difficulty. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child is written in very clear and easy (though very careful) language; but it jumps in time and point of view so that the reader spends the beginning of each section wondering, for a page or two, where and when and who the hell they are. Sometimes, as with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, it’s a bit of both. Sometimes it’s a thematic difficulty: Marilynne Robinson asks her readers to engage with theology as well as psychology; Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick has a literary-theoretical element. The Great Gatsby is easy-difficult: it presents the reader with no problem paragraph by paragraph, but to appreciate its thematic architecture takes steady attention.”

…so one may well wonder at how the word “difficult” is adding, or even detracting, from any debate. Indeed, what is the debate? Is this just one of those confected debates, an argument generated because of the dearth of arguments about modern fiction? Is it merely the prejudice against popular fiction manifesting itself in a slightly different guise? Is “unpopular fiction” really just “difficult fiction”, so too hard for the average consumer of printed material?

Why doesn’t anyone read late Henry James? Why have more people read the biography of a minor celebrity than the whole oeuvre of James this year, and every other year since poor old Henry finally stopped being a genius and breathed his last?

“Nicola Barker, a novelist who is herself from time to time accused of being difficult, says: “I see fiction as being divided into two categories. Work that confirms and celebrates and panders and work that confounds and perplexes and challenges. My work challenges – as I’m sure Anna Burns’s does – but this is because we are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. Sometimes the form or style of a book needs to mirror the complexity of life. Sometimes we need to try and describe the indescribable. Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.”

It’s not clear here if this is the failure on the part of the writer or a failure on the part of the reader.

“She adds that, since experimental writers don’t make much money and don’t attract much glamour, “it’s doubly strange that we get so much stick for trying to innovate and challenge and experiment. Experimental fiction is something you write for the love of it. It is rarefied. But it is important because it often forms the foundation of our creative ecosystem. Other artists (musicians, painters, architects etc) higher up the food chain read us and engage with our ideas and translate what we do.”

Getting “stick” is surely a good thing though? Or is it the case that in this country, unlike say in Italy or Spain, that literary / hard / good fiction just isn’t read much. If that’s the problem, are authors themselves to blame? I’d say not.

“You want the book to go round the world,” says Gaby Wood, the Man Booker’s literary director. “You want it to reach people. But you can’t work with a patronising idea that normal people won’t be able to understand this. I put the question to a previous panel: ‘Are you trying to reward the book that pushes literature forward the most; or are you wanting to select the book that you most want to push into the hands of people all round the world?’ The difficulty comes when, for a panel, the answers to those questions are different books. That has happened, and it can be agonising. This year though, Anna Burns was felt to be the answer to both.”

Hmmmm. I have lost faith in the Booker some time ago. It seems to me that publishing, like politics, in trying to give the reader what it wants, has failed in its primary duty: publishing good fiction. Politicians should lead – not wait for the wind to change and follow the polls. Publishers should do their job. Have convictions. Have a spine. The decline of literature in our society is as much

This journalist goes on:

“Easy good books will, with a bit of luck, find their audiences; easy bad books will do so too, because they are often fun in spite of or because of their badness. Difficult bad books will tend to die in a ditch; and difficult good books, without a helping hand, are likely to do so too.”

Are the pillars of the publishing industry so utterly without a clue that they are just throwing books blindly into the void on the off chance that one of them might be good? Hells bells!

And here we go again on the “literary fiction” dabate:

“Think of prizes like the Folio, Man Booker and next week’s Goldsmiths as that helping hand. Having a panel of serious and thoughtful critics giving a lot of time to noticing something that might otherwise not be widely noticed can’t, surely, be a bad thing. These prizes are set up to reward the best literary fiction. Here, though, something of a definitional abyss opens. What the hell is “literary fiction”?

“I’ve heard it said, and it’s an attractive position, that “literary fiction needs to recognise that it’s just another genre and get over itself”. Fair enough. Let’s explore that. I think it’s a pious cop-out to declare, as some do: “There aren’t literary books and popular books: there are just good books and bad books.” If we’re going wilfully to retreat from analysis, we may as well fold our tents as critics. There are indeed good and bad books but books also succeed and fail – and are responded to by readers – in relation to the genres they fit into or escape from.

“Like it or not, literary fiction is a category that we use. And if it is just another genre and needs to get over itself, fine. Let’s work with that. We can identify features of other genres. Aliens and nanobots? SF, more often than not. Guns and hats and dead bodies? Crime. Dossiers and dead drops? Spy novels. So we ought to be able to make some, if necessarily vague, stabs at identifying what the features of “literary fiction” are. Let’s leave aside cultural value judgments about “importance” or “seriousness”. Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

“It’s sometimes fuzzily said that literary fiction gives you more on rereading, or that it stays with you, or that it’s “more profound”. That may be true, some of the time – but these things are more likely to be symptoms than necessary features. I’d suggest that the main identifying feature – and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres – is to do with complexity and depth of attention. That can be moral or psychological complexity – crudely, the goodies and baddies are less clearly delineated – but it can also be, and tends to be in the best work, allied to a greater attention to the form and to the sentence-by-sentence language itself. And where I say that it mingles with other genres, the point I mean to make is that (just like hats, or nanobots) its features can be found in any genre. You could make the case that Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are literary SF, that Sarah Waters has written literary historical thrillers, that Joseph Kanon or John le Carré write literary spy novels, that the metafictional quality of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a literary quality, and so on. The examples are numberless.

“A publishing acquaintance suggests an analogy with music: jazz is more complex than blues. It’s harder to play and harder to appreciate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of good blues and lots of bad jazz. It doesn’t mean that jazz is an innately superior artform. It simply describes a formal difference between the two. Likewise, when we talk about a “literary novel” we usually mean something that demands and rewards close attention – though, as ever, there will be exceptions. The quality of that attention isn’t uniform from novel to novel. You don’t, for instance, read the torrential riffings of a Thomas Pynchon or even a Karl Ove Knausgaard the same way as you do the crystalline exactness of Nabokov. And those qualities will, for reasons that should be obvious, sometimes but not always issue in “difficulty”.


Whatever happened to “good” and “bad”? We will soon regret the loss of these words.

Mr A


War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 2nd Volume – one great bit

Is Tolstoy in any way an experimental writer? Does he, in any way, push the boundaries of prose fiction? Considering his is writing in the 1860s? In Russian?

Frankly, I don’t know. But there is a section in the middle of the second volume that is staggering in how Tolstoy uses the form in a way to really challenge the reader, but also to engender a kind of wonder, a confounding defamiliarizaion, that every author must surely want to engender.

This is when Natasha attends the opera. Consider how the narrator describes the scene. This kind of description is utterly at odds with what has gone before, and what follows after. Natasha’s bewilderment, how she is ill at ease, her discomfort and her astonishment, are all at play here, encoded in the style:



…it is the manner in which Tolstoy begins to describe the scene and how Natasha sees it – however, not telling the reader that that’s just what he’s doing – that generates for the reader the disconcerting sense they are flooded with. The reader is on edge, just as Natasha is.

Tolstoy continues later in the chapter…


…this is interspersed with the central problem of the volume – the intrusion of Anatole Kuragin – of which the reader now has a deepening dread. Natasha’s discombobulation continues…



…this is after the intercession of Countess Bezukhova – Anatole’s sister and co-conspirator. The way Natasha is charmed, either side of her disconcertment with the opera on stage, has the reader in quite a state of anguish.

And within a few pages all is lost. All is thrown up. Everything is changed utterly.



This little bit alone is reason enough, i would argue, for reading War & Peace. Amazing stuff.

And just what does Tolstoy do here? What has he achieved?

He has given the reader a good shake and pointed a dread finger: this is the precarious nature and scale of human life.

Mr A

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 1st Volume – isn’t that good?

45Tolstoy uses the pace of his narrative to great effect. In one paragraph you’re swooping through great political events, the next you’re pausing before the querulous look of a peasant or the shape of a dilapidated building against the darkening sky. But it’s the almost jarring occurrence of the odd intimate moments, so artfully selected, which Tolstoy uses to make this novel of real people caught up in history, that more often than not, catch the reader on the hop and make them re-evaluate the sweep of history they had assumed they were caught up in.

And then with the observation “…having once seen this he could not help being aware of it, just as we cannot renew an illusion we have once seen through” Tolstoy makes compelling what he had up to this point drawn us so artfully into – the dangerous charm of Helene and the perilous situation that Pierre is in. Tolstoy’s prose slows to be acutely evocative, ensuring our empathy, then he nails us with the iron length of a syllogism. We read on with dread and wonder, utterly in awe of the danger only a moment before revealed.

Tolstoy’s reasoning is undeniable – the reader would never second guess this narrator: “It seemed to him that everyone knew what had happened to him as he knew himself.” This is both an overwhelming observation and an irrefutable conclusion. Tolstoy makes us think like his characters, like him: the reader is thinking thoughts she thinks are her own; well, they are now. This is what it feels like to be wise. To be Tolstoy. To be Count Pierre Bezukhov.

Mr A

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 1st Volume – what can beautiful prose do?



One cannot separate form from content; and similarly, one cannot take the thing, the text, the extract, out of context; yet, in an attempt to do so, I would say that this extract is, in and of itself, an example of beautiful prose doing what prose can do. In a word, defamiliarisation.

I suppose Prince Andrew’s insight at this point is pretty clichéd – an all-is-vanity kind of realisation meets a wonder at the world itself and one’s own existence in it – but Tolstoy gives it weight, involves us in it emotionally, and twists it just enough to make it strike us as fresh and new, making it feel like a revelation, so we think of it as such. And though it isn’t – nothing has been revealed – we nonetheless feel blessed for the profound insight gifted to us at this point. The reader is wise, is content, is filled with awe: our empathy with Prince Andrew, by this point, has been so expertly gathered together by Tolstoy, that we are at one with the character in his mystical moment: quite a thing to get across, quite an achievement, in prose.

This is especially praiseworthy when one considers how god-damn awful so many over-sentimental and meaningless passages of prose have been turned out with the same avowed intention: oh isn’t life wonderful. To convince the reader, for the reader to buy into the profundity of the moment – which is or can be a genuine aspect of human experience – is Tolstoy’s achievement.

Tolstoy’s prose is weighted down with real life, true experience, and deep feeling: the art is in Tolstoy’s use of the sky as both a symbol and an image; he at once defamiliarises the sky as he does the potentially trite understanding of the character, rendering them both new and real.

Seeing the world anew. Sharing in a wonder at the world. Making us think, and feel, again. These are a few things beautiful prose can do.

Mr A


War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 1st Volume

So what’s going on here…




What Tolstoy is great at is stage management: this character goes here, this character there; then the reader is here; there’s the narrator all of a sudden, doing something unexpected, but glorious; there’s the hundred other characters; then the nurse is to pipe up; now we close in on this character’s face and a quick forgiving glance at her figure; back now to the crowd, who are assembled to watch what has now become a magnificent scene; then to the child who is in love with this scene; flick briefly to the crowd again who remain in awe; and then the pace of the action picks up once the magnificence is firmly established in the eyes of a hundred characters, and in the reader’s mind too; and picked up so lightly, the reader enjoys being carried, smiling, to the end of each paragraph, and falling into the next, carried to the end of the chapter, where they can take a breath after what has been a most charming of interludes; just as the whole assembled cast have been carried away with what is happening in a ballroom in Russia in 1805, and who, set down at the same point, may well be marvelling at the prose style of the writer who rendered this scene they partook in just so.

He’s directing things with such grace and skill. Tolstoy’s prose, so often, is just beautiful to read. I often come across such accolades: a master of prose style; every two-bit novel has such phrases on its back cover. They are, for the most part, lies. It’s the kind of thing seemingly anyone can say about anyone’s writing: ok, we need to say something seemingly specific and meaningful, but at the same time not obviously effusive and fawning, yet making the reader of this rather humdrum piece of forgettable prose think that they’re about to embark on the most profound of intellectual journeys: what can we say? Well this isn’t quite right, that can’t be true, something else just beggars belief, so let’s just say this: Mrs Something has one hell of a beautiful prose style, maybe even the most beautiful since x, y, or z: a grossly dishonest association with any author the reviewer may fancy. What not Tolstoy himself!

We have magicians: “The emotional rollercoaster that author Jimmy Santiago Baca is able to conjure on the page is so vivid you’ll think he’s writing about your own relationships.”

We have artisans: “Weaving her own coming-of-age story into the story of her mother’s illness, her parents’ experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, and her own discoveries about what it means to be a black woman and a woman writer in America, Smith’s memoir is not only written beautifully, but tells a beautiful (though sometimes painful) story as well”

We have more artisans: “Braiding each of the narratives together with entirely beautiful prose”.

And all the time we have a range of synonyms for beauty: “harsh, gorgeous language”.

And soon we descend into a forgiving kind of nonsense so that we can say whatever we want without having to worry about reality: “a quiet storm of prose so thoughtful and filled with symbolism”.

(randomly selected from just one webpage: https://www.bustle.com/articles/105231-12-books-to-read-if-you-just-like-really-beautiful-writing-because-sometimes-a-little-dose)

But I’m saying that Tolstoy is all of the above (though I feel I must declare just a hint of self-interest here: I’m good friends with the author, and he’ll be reviewing my latest novel in The Guardian next week.)

Mr A

Five Hundred & Eighty-Seven Thousand, Two-Hundred & Eighty-Seven Words

big bookIn all the best-novels-ever-written lists Tolstoy’s Beast always features. Yes – that’s War & Peace – three volumes, four books, and a cast of characters bigger than the number of people with whom one can claim to be really familiar.

For it is a beast: five-hundred and eighty-seven thousand words according to this very interesting table:

Alice Walker The Color Purple 66,556
Amy Tan The Kitchen God’s Wife 159,276
Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged 561,996
Ayn Rand The Fountainhead 311,596
Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 135,420
Daniel Defoe Moll Flanders 138,087
Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights 107,945
Erich Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front 61,922
Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises 67,707
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment 211,591
George Eliot Middlemarch 316,059
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four 88,942
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird 99,121
Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin 166,622
Henry David Thoreau Walden 114,634
Honore de Balzac Pere Goriot 87,846
J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 73,404
James Fenimore Cooper Last of the Mohicans 145,469
Jane Austen Persuasion 87,978
John Steinback The Grapes of Wrath 169,481
John Steinback East of Eden 225,395
Joseph Heller Catch-22 174,269
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 49,459
Kurt Vonnegut Welcome to the Monkey House 99,560
Leo Tolstoy War and Peace 587,287
Margaret Atwood Alias Grace 157,665
Mark Twain The Adventures of Huck Finn 109,571


…these statistics backed-up (or taken from) Wikipedia – which show that War & Peace comes in at only 27th place in a list of novels that are notably long, or notable for being long, or too long. If the epic Grapes of Wrath is only 169,000, and Eliot petered out at around about the 300,000 word mark in what might well be considered to be the greatest novel ever written in the English language, then why did Tolstoy need nearly twice as much space? Is it to do with epic intentions? Hugo claims some 650,000 words of the reader’s time, attention, imagination in Les Misérables. Ayan Rand seems content to liberally waste the reader’s time whilst encouraging these same readers to regain their freedom from other sources of bondage.

Is the big word count neither here nor there, an indication of nothing more than authorial arrogance, or is there something more interesting happening here?

To read War & Peace in a month – which is what I set out to do – means a lot of reading every day. It’s a big commitment. So what do you get back?

Do you, to be crass and mercenary about it, get 5 Huckleberry Finns worth of stuff? 3 Catch 22s? 7 Persuasions? Or 12.74 Cannery Rows?


Mr A