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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

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


Anonymous said...

Joseph Campbell's comments on James Joyce are definately on of the few things he talks about that I skip over.
Just like kids walking down the middle of a road while sidewalks are available, everyone needs there little moment of power in the world I guess.


Unknown said...

Campbell liked how Joyce tried to build Ulysses on a substructure of myth (re-telling the Odyssey). And I don't fault Joyce for his ambition--he was misguided by faulty notions from the psychology of the day, misguided about language, and quixotically determined, like the rest of the modernists, to re-invent the wheel of story.

What bugs me is that Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake are celebrated as accomplishments instead of as failed experiments.

Anonymous said...

Look, I know you're going to ridicule me as one of those pretentious buffoons who praise Joyce and revile his detractors as morons, but I would reply that in a sense, relying too heavily on an article that mixes both literary misunderstanding with laziness, you are a fool. Franzen's essay is good and I appreciate certain arguments - I deplore most of them - but he draws up an entirely incorrect binary between the status/contract model. Your argument against Ulysses - appealed to by using the quote about mystification and seemingly inane concealment - is, and I don't want to be too vicious, but in the light of your appreciation of Franzen's article, lazy, and also idiotically dismissive. Even if this was Joyce illuminating the entirety of Ulysses - which it isn't, all great writers render their work to a less or greater degree, unsolvable - it would still be valid, given that the aesthetic, according to Kierkegaard and intuition, is about concealment. Obviously disclosure is there, and it's there in Joyce, but 'God must not enter into theology, the writer must not by human reasonings destroy the faith that art requires of us.' So I'd say, aesthetically, given that quote, Joyce would still be valid. Also, it's an interminable stupidity to regard Joyce as needlessly or inanely difficult. I've read Ulysses twice, believe me, there's plenty and plenty to think about. Joyce believed in the infinite possibilities of language and consequently, it seems to me, if language is infinite, we might have to spend quite a bit of time uncovering it's possibilities. All this, seems to suggest a rather poor devotion to art and a rather boring approach to it. You belie the need for complexity by revealing your innate revulsion of it. I'm just infinitely tired of morons berating Joyce for a penny of intellectual validity. For some reason I feel like I hate you. Sorry.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. It's an argument of the sort that bolsters the case it sets out to undermine.

Anonymous said...

Addendum to my earlier post if you will;
When I said "I feel like I hate you", I meant that your particular stance on Joyce belies an underlying simplistic and idiotic mindset that I abhor.

If you are not able to reconcile the dialectic that is part and parcel of Ulysses, you berate it as needlessly complex. That is always what people who can't understand complex ideas do.

There are things in this world that can't be dissected and fully understood. Those things are all the more greater and more interesting because we will never really grasp the full meaning. Great art can't be understood.

Only a thought Nazi desires to understand everything. When I see people like you write about Joyce and critique his works, it makes me livid. If I ever meet you face to face, I will almost certainly take the opportunity slap you about the face, chest, neck and head with my gentlemen's sausage! Good day to you Sir!

Anonymous said...

I think you're getting hung up on the word "elitism," as if socioeconomic hoarding of power were in any way analogous to a writer appealing perhaps only to an audience with the felicity to disengage from the normal states of mind that regulate life for the benefit of socioeconomic elites. And as someone for whom the Siren episode makes stand the hair of my body, as if in the audience of live music, I can't but take offense at your seemingly willful inability to acknowledge that there are people who aren't professors who love Ulysses. We exist. So please drop this tiresome pretension. Because you are the pretentious one here.

Unknown said...

I'm not going to publish any comments with threats or insults. I appreciate that some readers enjoy Ulysses. My general criticism of the novel is that literature is a narrative art form and as such should induce narrative transport. Virtually no one gets lost in Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake. The experience of reading them is more akin to solving puzzles or riddles. If you enjoy that (as I do), that's fine, but it's a different category of activity from reading narratives. If you get chills from reading a certain part of Ulysses, by all means enjoy it--nothing I say should affect that. But the novels we as a society hold up as exemplars of excellence in literature ought to belong to the category of literature. (How many young people have been turned off of literature by monstrosities like Gravity's Rainbow?)

The vitriol in the comments of yours I won't post suggests to me that you in fact don't enjoy Ulysses as much as you claim--and that you're furious to be discovering that your emperor is naked.

Anonymous said...

The notion that literature = narrative is absurd. Is lyric poetry not literature? And I'll repeat: the conflation of socioeconomic elitism with a taste for certain literature is pretentious. The vitriol of my comments stems from indignation that this "constant preaching to the mob" passes as honest literary criticism.

Anonymous said...

P.S. The fact that you did publish a comment in which you were called a "moron" suggests that some other criterion was used to censor me. Perhaps you were the little tyrant revealed to be naked.

Unknown said...

The fact that I published a comment in which you called me a moron simply means I have a sense of humor, something you're woefully lacking.

Is lyric poetry literature? (I publishing this question of yours because it's actually interesting.) I haven't done a quantitative survey but I think most of it is in fact narrative. Something happens, which inspires some reflection, even some resolution. Most importantly, poetry (the good stuff) conveys images through metaphor and description and characterization--unless it's the surrealist postmodern crap. So narrative transport or immersion is definitely part of it.

As for your point about socioeconomic elitism--re-read my post. You've got it completely bass-akward.

Now if you want to have an actual discussion we can. If not, go troll someone else's blog--I'm sure I'm not the only one preaching to the mob about how misguided Joyce was.

Seriously dude, it's time to start thinking about getting some help.

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, I encourage such a survey, and I suggest starting with the Hebrew Psalms, as far as I know the oldest extant lyrics. Or take Sappho. Or Emily Dickinson. Or Hölderlin or Celan (my favorite). These folks' work are addresses meditating on subject material not organized into any plot or progression with the conventional development/resolution. There's no way you're going to be able to categorize these as narrative without ideologically obscuring them. On the other hand , it's besides the point, because I reject the notion that Ulysses itself doesn't partake of narrative. It does so deploying an array of devices perhaps not conventional in contemporary narrative, but it tells a story nonetheless. My point was simply to contradict the basic premise of your judgment, but there are layers of error.

As to "elitism": there is no reason to even have this discussion whatsoever in literary criticism. To even mention socioeconomic elitism in the same breath as so-called difficult literature, and to superficially disentangle the two while maintaining that there is indeed such a thing as elitist literature, which is so by virtue of being tricky and challenging the conventional structures with which we mediate experience, is a red herring.

And I don't think it is trolling to try to debunk crap that gets in one's way trying to google "james joyce jonathan franzen" Recourse to the tired ad hominem trope of "needing help" is not only a condescending, ableist insult to people engaged in therapy, but a way of saying that expressing irritation over the bastardization of something one holds dear is deviant. I reject that, too.

Unknown said...

What an interesting rebuttal. The difference between narrative and reflection or meditation is that the prior conveys something of an experience while the latter sifts through logical and semantic implications to arrive at new conclusions or insights. I do not believe the demarcation is in any way simple or absolute, but there are clear examples of writing in each vein. Narratives are attempts at sharing experiences; non-narrative writings are attempts at arriving at or conveying knowledge.

Emily Dickinson's poetry has a foot in each category. "Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed." This is a knowledge statement, based on an observation or experience. "To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need." Now she's using metaphor to start helping us experience that need by comparing it to hunger. "Not one of all the purple host who took the flag today..." She then goes into an extended metaphor which, when I personally am reading it, puts me right on that battlefield with all those victors who don't know the definition of victory. So, yes, narrative transport. The underlying tension, the conflict, the moral dilemma--it comes from her realization that there's a dark side to victory, which is an inevitable dark side to life.

I also do not argue that there is not one poem in the history of writing that occupies itself solely with concepts, eschewing experience, like the working out of a mathematical equation. I would say, however, that such writings strain the definition to the breaking point and are only called poetry for lack of a better term.

Of course you're correct in saying that Ulysses has elements of narrative. My point is that Joyce's experimentations with language, his promiscuous use of word play and cryptic allusions, it all makes the story incomprehensible. To understand what's going on in any scene, you have to do a lot of translating, cross-referencing, riddling out, and problem-solving. Not once in my reading of the "novel" did a scene or a character come alive and make me feel like I was sharing an experience. I suspect I'm not alone. Ulysses is great for academics who want to work through conceptual problems borne of ideological readings. For people who want to have a literary experience, however, it just sucks.

And my problem isn't with complexity, a point I made pretty explicitly in the post. What you call a red herring is no more than a manifestation of your impatience (or possibly your poor reading comprehension). My problem is with attempts at deliberately thwarting our desire for a literary experience. Proust is another famously difficult writer--and he offers exquisite experiences (assuming you can muster the effort).

Finally, I'm surprised you know ad hominem is a fallacy, having read your earlier comments. And I didn't encourage you to get help because you disagree with me, but because your writing is often incoherent and because you seem so unjustifiably angry--qualities consistent with the label "troll." I'm a little worried you might track me down and assault me.

However, I can't say I haven't found our little exchange oddly stimulating.

Anonymous said...

First off, for your readers' sake, I think I should say I never threatened you, and my only initial "insult" was calling you pretentious. I think it reasonable to guess that the writer of pretentious prose might himself be so. In a later post, I called you a tyrant for censoring my comment while mischaracterizing it. Let the reader judge whether these are statements of a kind with yours.

As to the rest of your post: from my end it all looks rather arbitrary. Your definition of "literary experience" as something distinct from translation and allusion is absurd. Your use of the word "cryptic" is unwarrantedly normative: as someone having suffered Catholic family, I find a lot of pleasure in despairing sexual puns on liturgy. Not everyone will like everything at first glance, and people with different cultural backgrounds will have to do more research than others. Turning away from, say, Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman because learning a little about Yoruba culture would be too much work, is lazy bigotry. The same for Joyce. No work of literature from a different place and time isn't going to need annotation. Any attempt to draw a line and say, "now this is the point at which we can't expect more from readers" is arbitrary and condescending to all the non-academic readers who enjoy making an effort (and maybe even learning other languages.) Moreover, academics were at one point not academics and many (maybe most) become non-academics again. This distinction itself is arbitrary. I don't have a problem with people who just don't find Joyce to their taste, because they have other priorities. It's when personal taste masquerades as objective judgment that I call, bullshit.

Look, all I originally wanted to do was voice my opinion in the hope that someone else, who maybe hates your writing even more than I, could say "right on, brother" and not waste their night formulating thoughts it's all too understandable to want to repress. This has grown tedious.

Unknown said...

Though I quickly deleted the comment, I do rather vividly recall some phrases in your comment along the lines of "If I ever run into you on the street" you were going to bludgeon me with your vanishingly tiny member. So, yes, you did in fact threaten me. But don't worry--you've been posting anonymously. And it's easy to see why.

To be a bit prickly myself, I'll say I'm not sorry you hate my writing, or that my ideas disturbed your sleep. I get the feeling you're the type who advocates for all the things I think are wrong with literature. On the other hand, I also get the feeling if we actually did meet we'd end up being great friends. Funny old world.

Also note, the hits to this post have more than tripled since your first comment. Our little exchange has boosted my Google rankings.
Beyond that, right on, bro, this is tedious--let's let readers decide.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

I've gone ahead and published all comments to address the accusation (after discovering that doing so was still possible).

chris said...

OK, maybe this is an honest misunderstanding. The posts beginning with September 3 8:25 are mine. Given the nature of this forum, the only evidence I can think of to present to dissociate myself with that really idiotic rant of September 1, is that the statement "Great art can't be understood" is a piece of stupidity I would never in my life utter and which is incompatible with the objective rhetorical analysis I advocate in my posts.

I didn't notice how recent was that last post before mine. I see how that might have led you to believe my posts to have been a continuation of that other persons.

Sorry for the "liar" comment.

Unknown said...

Fair enough. Sorry for any confusion. Bygones.