In Defense of Difficulty

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13 September 2009

I should leave Lev Grossman’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard,” alone.  I’ve gotten into trouble on this subject before, and I learned that my thoughts on the matter of “the difficult pleasure” vs the easy one are outdated, underdeveloped, and poorly expressed.

But apparently I have a couple of things to attempt to say in response:

First, Grossman equates the “difficult pleasures” argument with an aversion to, specifically, plot.  This is simply inaccurate.  I am currently reading, for instance, the highly-plotted 2666, by Roberto Bolano and could name many examples of literary novels which are well-written, challenge the reader’s mind and soul, and also evolve around, as Grossman puts it, “crisp, dynamic, exciting” plots.

The crux of this debate has never been about storytelling or non-storytelling, but about good storytelling and bad storytelling.  The foundation of literature is language, and poor use of the language to tell a good story is where my beef begins and ends.  It seems to me Grossman makes the same error of argument that is made repeatedly by genre-defenders: that somehow hoity-toity literary writers have something against a great plot, whereas the real objection is to the idea that a good plot covers a multitude of writing sins (and Ms. Meyers is guilty of entirely too many).  Conversely, I don’t see a lot of people defending a poetically-written pile of nothing-much; all readers crave emotional and intellectual pay-off, via the thoughtfully-crafted journeys of the characters.  I just want those journeys to be told in beautiful, stunning, maybe even strange language (which is not to say fancy language) that effectively renders what John Gardner called the vivid and continuous dream. If every other description includes three adverbs and the word “sparkle”, my experience of the fictional dream is not continuous.  More aptly put by William Carlos Williams: “Organize the language right.”

Second, there is a problem with the term “difficult.” What do we mean by difficulty when we are talking about literature?  There is James Joyce difficult, and there is Toni Morrison difficult. There is William Vollman difficult, and there is Mary Gaitskill difficult.  There is Dostoevsky difficult and there is Tolstoy difficult.  There is Virginia Woolf difficult and there is Hemingway difficult.  I recently had a conversation with a Danish friend, to whom I confessed having avoided Proust for a long time, for fear of the difficulty.  “There’s really nothing to be afraid of,” he said.  “It’s a pretty easy read.”  Meaning, it’s long, but not hard.  Some have said the same about Bolano.

As examples of books he considers not difficult, Grossman cites Dickens and Thackeray, in which “you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about.”  So it seems to me that “difficult” in Grossman’s literary lexicon refers to a certain density or experimentalism in language and form; something that requires a person to jump out of the register of vernacular-English and conventional time and into the register of something closer to poetry or avant-garde cinema — “typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure.”

Fine, but in this case, we’re really only talking about Joyce, Vollman, maybe Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, a minority of Faulkner’s novels, Beckett,  and a handful of others.

But the difficulty of writers like Morrison, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Chekhov, Annie Proulx… writers who respect the language, in every sense, whose works are not particularly “difficult” to read, strictly speaking; but whose difficulty lies in their essential visions of humanity and the ways in which the stories they tell impel us to see differently, to see better, with, as Carlyle put it, “armed eyesight” — this is a difficulty which refers to something altogether different.  Something in the realm of the moral and spiritual.  Their characters come to endings which are often not happy or neat, but real and true nonetheless; their stories take the reader to unfamiliar and unexpected places that show us a humanity not readily on display in commercial movies, or genre romances, or thrillers in which the good guy always wins.  If Grossman is taking up the cause of “easy” in this realm — then my concern is best expressed by Vaclav Havel:

The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.

Can difficult work, by the latter definition, be entertaining?  I think so.  Does exhilaration — like that which I feel when reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth or the stories of George Saunders or ZZ Packer or Flannery O’Connor — not constitute entertainment?  The “entertainment is king” argument seems to exclude even highly-plotted sexual-tension page-turners like The Age of Innocence and The Golden Bowl these days, because, well, the sentences are just too darn long and jam-packed with all those words.  How reader-unfriendly.

Mr. Grossman seems to equate meaningful with boring, and in its resemblance to a recipe for perpetual adolescence (not innocuous, in the hands of, say, future leaders in the image of the George Bush’s or Hugo Chavez’s playing power games with the lives of millions of innocents) his argument troubles me a great deal.

Next up: my thoughts on Christopher Beha’s response to Grossman’s article, from the blog at n+1.

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3 Responses to “In Defense of Difficulty”

  1. Eric Says:

    Well said.

  2. Ryan Michael Williams Says:

    I’m struck by your idea of “moral and spiritual” difficulty as maybe being the real barrier here. As a reader, I love having my assumptions and values called into question, both intellectually and emotionally. I want a book to upset me a little bit–I want it to complicate how I understand the world, and how I feel about the people in it. I want to feel challenged and unsettled. For me, this is what good literature does–and it’s also what entertains me. If a book isn’t sufficiently complicated (or “difficult”) in this way, I’ll get restless and impatient with it. I’ll grow bored. It won’t entertain me.

    But I get the sense that lots of people (maybe including Grossman) don’t find this kind of “difficult” reading entertaining like I do. They don’t want to be challenged or questioned in any way–in fact, they find comfort in repetition and predictability. Hence the popularity of purely formulaic genre novels.

    Which isn’t to say that I don’t also like having my beliefs and values affirmed sometimes (or most of the time). And of course there are many genre novels, including some very popular ones (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series comes immediately to mind) that certainly do contain a lot of “difficult” content. Maybe for some readers, familiar trappings like genre (or of character, setting, plot, etc.) need to be in place in order for them to feel comfortable when writers begin to challenge them. Or maybe it’s that some part of the appeal of “difficult” books is precisely in the tension between the conventional and unconventional, between what’s familiar and safe and what’s provocative and/or risky.

    In any case: I really like your list of books that are at once “entertaining” and “difficult.” Saunders and Packer are great, and I’d give Jesus’ Son to a skeptical genre reader any day (though maybe not some of Johnson’s more recent stuff). And I deeply love The Age of Innocence–I think it’s an absolutely perfect novel. I love Bolano’s stuff, too–though once when I was toting 2666 around and telling everyone how much I loved it, a skeptical coworker asked me if it was “fun,” and I didn’t know how to answer the question at all.

  3. sonyachung Says:

    @Ryan: Someone once said to me that readers don’t like it when a novel makes them feel stupid. I’m not exactly sure what that means; but my first reaction was that I sort of love it when a novel makes me feel stupid. To me, that means that it makes me realize how much there is to know and understand, how little of it I do know and understand, and what a great wide world there is to explore. Hmm…


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