What exactly is it that makes a book ‘difficult’? It could be handy to know. Lots of people cite difficulty as their main reason for giving up on a book, or not even getting past the first page and, if we don’t want to drown in the rapidly rising tide that is modern publishing, knowing what not to read is a knack we could all do with.
Some people have told me they find Dostoevsky and Tolstoy difficult. ‘It’s all the words.’ But isn’t prolixity a whole other thing? Granted, a long book can be as daunting as a hard one. I nearly reached for Game of Thrones until I saw the bookshelf sagging under the burden of those other volumes. But ‘all the words’ didn’t put people off Harry Potter or the Neapolitan novels – or Dan Brown’s thrillers which, by a corollary to Zeno’s Paradox, are technically interminable. From Dickens to Stephen King, popular fiction has never shied away from a swaggering word count, so that can’t be where difficulty really lies.
Is it in the unfamiliarity of the story’s setting? Now we might be getting somewhere. Readers prefer a world they can relate to. Ah, you say, but what about the million fathoms of fantasy and science fiction? Yet that’s not really a leap into the strange; all of it is populated by 21st century characters. Most readers of historical fiction just want a theme park Middle Ages, not the wild, hallucinatory, plague- and atrocity-ridden reality. It takes a bit of coaxing to get folks off the tour bus and backpacking along the more obscure trails through the literary jungle.
So is difficulty in fiction about straying from the readers’ comfort zones? The problem with comfortable writing – a likeable character, a cosy setting, a plot that ticks the boxes – is that it often makes for very bad books. And bad books are the most difficult to read. Listen to Papa:
‘For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.’Doing something new doesn’t have to mean brain-blisteringly ergodic works like The House of Leaves or that French thing with no letter e. But now we’re steering in towards the genuine reefs on which many readers founder. Opening a book that is radically unlike anything we’ve seen before prompts the question, ‘How am I meant to approach this?’ The thousand-line poem at the start of Pale Fire, the stream of consciousness of Ulysses, the curlicued digressions of Tristram Shandy, the post-apocalypsese of Riddley Walker. Out of our familiar territory, with no map to guide us, what are we to do but panic?
Take a few deep breaths, though, and none of those books need be difficult. Resist the urge to flip to every note in the back; the author didn’t mean for any of it to be homework. Skip the critical introduction; it’s just an excuse for an academic to show off. Get stuck into the book itself. All experimental literature comes from a sense of exhilaration and (the same root as any fiction) a striving to connect. ‘Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.’ It doesn’t make sense? You can’t parse it? Well, the only problem there is thinking that you have to. Dive in. You can’t drown, and you might find the water’s lovely.
Nobody expects every work to break new experimental boundaries, but fresh and surprising isn’t too much to ask. Even then one encounters the complaint of the challenged reader – ‘I just want something to take to the beach.’ ‘I’m looking for a relaxing read.’ Geoffrey Hill addresses this point in a Paris Review interview:
‘One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. […] I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who […] argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement.’Not to be flippant where Nazis are concerned, but ‘slogans of incitement’ perfectly sums up my impression of most pulp writing. Surely we can all agree that the unlovely, screenplay-shallow prose of a typical contemporary potboiler is very far from being a relaxing read? It glides away before the eyes but gives us nothing to hold onto. The world it presents leaves us on the outside looking in, munching the literary popcorn as the story washes over us and is gone.
It’s curious that, just as television drama is getting more complex, slippery about genre, aiming for ambiguity and interiority – as, in a sense, it’s becoming more literary – the medium of the written word, which is so much better suited for handling those elements, is often favouring a superficial style – declarative, depthless, all surface action. Are those authors trying to leave a calling card with Hollywood? Because – newsflash: if we leave aside the unscalable pinnacles of nine figure blockbusters, what the networks really want is intricacy, richness, innovation, unpredictability. You know, ‘difficult’ stuff.
What is the source of this myth that good books must be a struggle, that you can only relax with ‘trash’? A good book is more difficult than a bad one only in the sense that a relationship is more difficult than paying a prostitute. So why are so many people phobic about literary commitment? It must be an impression picked up at school that ossifies in later life into a Pavlovian insecurity about quality – in all the arts, not just in literature. A silly, muddle-headed submission that ‘fancy stuff’s too much for me’.
Why does this matter? Because for most people the phobia goes much deeper than choosing bad books over good ones. It is the reason that most people don’t read books at all. In perpetuating the fallacy that quality and entertainment value are a zero sum, in dismissing good writing as somehow elitist, we are setting a course towards a world where books are no longer read. Not even the bad ones.