What's the Point of Difficult Reading?

James Joyce

          You sit reading the first dozen or so pages of some celebrated classic and gradually realize that having to sort out how the ends of the long sentences fix to their beginnings is taking just enough effort to distract you entirely from the setting or character you’re supposed to be getting to know. After a handful of words you swear are made up and a few tangled metaphors you find yourself riddling over with nary a resolution, the dread sinks in. Is the whole book going to be like this? Is it going to be one of those deals where you get to what’s clearly meant to be a crucial turning point in the plot but for you is just another riddle without a solution, sending you paging back through the forest of verbiage in search of some key succession of paragraphs you spaced out while reading the first time through? Then you wonder if you’re missing some other kind of key, like maybe the story’s an allegory, a reference to some historical event like World War II or some Revolution you once had to learn about but have since lost all recollection of. Maybe the insoluble similes are allusions to some other work you haven’t read or can’t recall. In any case, you’re not getting anything out of this celebrated classic but frustration leading to the dual suspicion that you’re too ignorant or stupid to enjoy great literature and that the whole “great literature” thing is just a conspiracy to trick us into feeling dumb so we’ll defer to the pseudo-wisdom of Ivory Tower elites.

            If enough people of sufficient status get together and agree to extol a work of fiction, they can get almost everyone else to agree. The readers who get nothing out of it but frustration and boredom assume that since their professors or some critic in a fancy-pants magazine or the judges of some literary award committee think it’s great they must simply be missing something. They dutifully continue reading it, parrot a few points from a review that sound clever, and afterward toe the line by agreeing that it is indeed a great work of literature, clearly, even if it doesn’t speak to them personally. For instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses, utterly nonsensical to anyone without at least a master’s degree, tops the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels in the English language. Responding to the urging of his friends to write out an explanation of the novel, Joyce scoffed, boasting, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” He was right. To this day, professors continue to love him even as Ulysses and the even greater monstrosity Finnegan’s Wake do nothing but bore and befuddle everyone else—or else, more fittingly, sit inert or unchecked-out on the shelf, gathering well-deserved dust.

Jonathan Franzen-Courtesy of Frank Bauer
            Joyce’s later novels are not literature; they are lengthy collections of loosely connected literary puzzles. But at least his puzzles have actual solutions—or so I’m told. Ulysses represents the apotheosis of the tradition in literature called modernism. What came next, postmodernism, is even more disconnected from the universal human passion for narrative. Even professors aren’t sure what to do with it, so they simply throw their hands up, say it’s great, and explain that the source of its greatness is its very resistance to explanation. Jonathan Franzen, whose 2001 novel The Corrections represented a major departure from the postmodernism he began his career experimenting with, explained the following year in The New Yorker how he’d turned away from the tradition. He’d been reading the work of William Gaddis “as a kind of penance” (101) and not getting any meaning out of it. Of the final piece in the celebrated author’s oeuvre, Franzen writes,

The novel is an example of the particular corrosiveness of literary postmodernism. Gaddis began his career with a Modernist epic about the forgery of masterpieces. He ended it with a pomo romp that superficially resembles a masterpiece but punishes the reader who tries to stay with it and follow its logic. When the reader finally says, Hey, wait a minute, this is a mess, not a masterpiece, the book instantly morphs into a performance-art prop: its fraudulence is the whole point! And the reader is out twenty hours of good-faith effort. (111)

In other words, reading postmodern fiction means not only forgoing the rewards of narratives, having them replaced by the more taxing endeavor of solving multiple riddles in succession, but those riddles don’t even have answers. What’s the point of reading this crap? Exactly. Get it?

            You can dig deeper into the meaningless meanderings of pomos and discover there is in fact an ideology inspiring all the infuriating inanity. The super smart people who write and read this stuff point to the willing, eager complicity of the common reader in the propagation of all the lies that sustain our atrociously unjust society (but atrociously unjust compared to what?). Franzen refers to this as the Fallacy of the Stupid Reader,

wherein difficulty is a “strategy” to protect art from cooptation and the purpose of art is to “upset” or “compel” or “challenge” or “subvert” or “scar” the unsuspecting reader; as if the writer’s audience somehow consisted, again and again, of Charlie Browns running to kick Lucy’s football; as if it were a virtue in a novelist to be the kind of boor who propagandizes at friendly social gatherings. (109)

But if the author is worried about art becoming a commodity does making the art shitty really amount to a solution? And if the goal is to make readers rethink something they take for granted why not bring the matter up directly, or have a character wrestle with it, or have a character argue with another character about it? The sad fact is that these authors probably just suck, that, as Franzen suspects, “literary difficulty can operate as a smoke screen for an author who has nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say” (111).

            Not all difficulty in fiction is a smoke screen though. Not all the literary emperors are naked. Franzen writes that “there is no headache like the headache you get from working harder on deciphering a text than the author, by all appearances, has worked on assembling it.” But the essay, titled “Mr. Difficult,” begins with a reader complaint sent not to Gaddis but to Franzen himself. And the reader, a Mrs. M. from Maryland, really gives him the business:

Who is it that you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who enjoys a good read… The elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don’t smoke, have abortions tri-yearly, are antiseptic, live in penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper’s and The New Yorker. (100)

In this first part of the essay, Franzen introduces a dilemma that sets up his explanation of why he turned away from postmodernism—he’s an adherent of the “Contract model” of literature, whereby the author agrees to share, on equal footing, an entertaining or in some other way gratifying experience, as opposed to the “Status model,” whereby the author demonstrates his or her genius and if you don’t get it, tough. But his coming to a supposed agreement with Mrs. M. about writers like Gaddis doesn’t really resolve Mrs. M.’s conflict with him. The Corrections, after all, the novel she was responding to, represents his turning away from the tradition Gaddis wrote in. (It must be said, though, that Freedom, Franzen’s next novel, is written in a still more accessible style.)

            The first thing we must do to respond properly to Mrs. M. is break down each of Franzen’s models into two categories. The status model includes writers like Gaddis whose difficulty serves no purpose but to frustrate and alienate readers. But Franzen’s own type specimen for this model is Flaubert, much of whose writing, though difficult at first, rewards any effort to re-read and further comprehend with a more profound connection. So it is for countless other writers, the one behind number two on the Modern Library’s ranking for instance—Fitzgerald and Gatsby. As for the contract model, Franzen admits,

Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation… You’re the consumer; you rule. (100)

Franzen, in declaring himself a “Contract kind of person,” assumes that the free-market extreme can be dismissed for its extremity. But Mrs. M. would probably challenge him on that. For many, particularly right-leaning readers, the market not only can but should be relied on to determine which books are good and which ones belong in some tiny niche. When the Modern Library conducted a readers' poll to create a popular ranking to balance the one made by experts, the ballot was stuffed by Ayn Rand acolytes and scientologists. Mrs. M. herself leaves little doubt as to her political sympathies. For her and her fellow travelers, things like literature departments, National Book Awards—like the one The Corrections won—Nobels and Pulitzers are all an evil form of intervention into the sacred workings of the divine free market, un-American, sacrilegious, communist. According to this line of thinking, authors aren’t much different from whores—except of course literal whoring is condemned in the bible (except when it isn’t).

            A contract with readers who score high on the personality dimension of openness to new ideas and experiences (who tend to be liberal), those who have spent a lot of time in the past reading books like The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness or Lolita (the horror!), those who read enough to have developed finely honed comprehension skills—that contract is going to look quite a bit different from one with readers who attend Beck University, those for whom Atlas Shrugged is the height of literary excellence. At the same time, though, the cult of self-esteem is poisoning schools and homes with the idea that suggesting that a student or son or daughter is anything other than a budding genius is a form of abuse. Heaven forbid a young person feel judged or criticized while speaking or writing. And if an author makes you feel the least bit dumb or ignorant, well, it’s an outrage—heroes like Mrs. M. to the rescue.

            One of the problems with the cult of self-esteem is that anticipating criticism tends to make people more, not less creative. And the link between low self-esteem and mental disorders is almost purely mythical. High self-esteem is correlated with school performance, but as far as researchers can tell it’s the performance causing the esteem, not the other way around. More invidious, though, is the tendency to view anything that takes a great deal of education or intelligence to accomplish as an affront to everyone less educated or intelligent. Conservatives complain endlessly about class warfare and envy of the rich—the financially elite—but they have no qualms about decrying intellectual elites and condemning them for flaunting their superior literary achievements. They see the elitist mote in the eye of Nobel laureates without noticing the beam in their own.

         What’s the point of difficult reading? Well, what’s the point of running five or ten miles? What’s the point of eating vegetables as opposed to ice cream or Doritos? Difficulty need not preclude enjoyment. And discipline in the present is often rewarded in the future. It very well may be that the complexity of the ideas you’re capable of understanding is influenced by how many complex ideas you attempt to understand. No matter how vehemently true believers in the magic of markets insist otherwise, markets don’t have minds. And though an individual’s intelligence need not be fixed a good way to ensure children never get any smarter than they already are is to make them feel fantastically wonderful about their mediocrity. We just have to hope that despite these ideological traps there are enough people out there determined to wrap their minds around complex situations depicted in complex narratives about complex people told in complex language, people who will in the process develop the types of minds and intelligence necessary to lead the rest of our lazy asses into a future that’s livable and enjoyable. For every John Galt, Tony Robbins, and Scheherazade, we may need at least half a Proust. We are still, however, left with quite a dilemma. Some authors really are just assholes who write worthless tomes designed to trick you into wasting your time. But some books that seem impenetrable on the first attempt will reward your efforts to decipher them. How do we get the rewards without wasting our time?

Also read "Can't Win for Losing: Why There are so many Losers in Literature and Why It has to Change."

And: "Life's White Machine: James Wood and What doesn't Happen in Fiction."

And: Stories, Social Proof, & Our Two Selves