I 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.