Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Somewhat conversational

In recent years, there have been a few literary dustups — how insane is it that such a thing exists in a world at war? — about readability in contemporary fiction. In essence, there are some people who feel that fiction should be easy to read, that it’s a popular medium that should communicate on a somewhat conversational wavelength. On the other hand, there are those who feel that fiction can be challenging, generally and thematically, and even on a sentence-by-sentence basis — that it’s okay if a person needs to work a bit while reading, for the rewards can be that much greater when one’s mind has been exercised and thus (presumably) expanded.

Much in the way that would-be civilized debates are polarized by extreme thinkers on either side, this debate has been made to seem like an either/or proposition, that the world has room for only one kind of fiction, and that the other kind should be banned and its proponents hunted down and, why not, dismembered.

But while the polarizers have been going at it, there has existed a silent legion of readers, perhaps the majority of readers of literary fiction, who don’t mind a little of both. They believe, though not too vocally, that so-called difficult books can exist next to, can even rub bindings suggestively with, more welcoming fiction. These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week. There might even be — though it’s impossible to prove — readers who find it possible to enjoy Thomas Pynchon one day, and Elmore Leonard the next.
-- Dave Eggers. "Introduction to the 10th Anniversary edition of'Infinite Jest' (1996-2006)."
In a commencement address delivered to the newly minted graduates of Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace warned them of their forthcoming enlistment as soldiers in “the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” of the “petty, frustrating crap” that awaited them there, and the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” in which they’d soon be immersed. He argued that the “default setting” of the human being is self-centeredness verging on solipsism, and that the value of a liberal arts education is that it supplies the means to escape “our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms” by exercising a disciplined, nonstop attention to the unexamined details of our lives, and so transcend the selfishness of our frustration and boredom. This could lead, he said, to “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” The speech, which strikes me as pretty unpersuasive, is nevertheless the best available synopsis of what Wallace was attempting to do in "The Pale King."
-- Jonathn Raban."Divine Drudgery." NYRB. 05/12/11

UPDATE: We acknowledge the truth of this, and of course one has read (and therefore demonstrably can read) both Henry James and Charles Portis. But we do have biases. Mine are partly those of a recovering professional writer. The job of such a person is to communicate with clarity and not to waste words. Some sweat and strain goes into the attempt to accomplish this, and it's harder than it looks. I recognized the distinctive tone of the right-thinking pro in the words of Daniel Woodrell, quoted here once before:
"I have a writer friend who tends to write longer works. They always call it being more ambitious, which I resent, because sometimes those writers aren’t making the difficult decisions of what needs to be there and what doesn’t. That’s what makes writing hard. Leaving everything in, letting the readers decide what’s good, those are the choices I want the artist to make."
I recognize this as a bias, though, because who could complain about work that's difficult because it has to be to communicate complicated ideas -- _______'s , for example (fill in the blank with the name of your favorite demanding but ultimately profound and rewarding task-master author)? I've liked the sound of what Wallace is up to in the new book sufficiently to download not that volume but "Infinite Jest" to my Kindle., along with the famous index as a pdf. Give him a shot at being added to the tough but fair list, along with ________.


Tulkinghorn said...

The Eggars essay is wonderful, and careful readers will note a studied lack of symmetry between the one position -- that fiction SHOULD be easy to read -- and the other - that fiction CAN be challenging.

Usually, one puts the tight-assed rule makers on the side of the difficult. Eggars characteristically reverses it. Verbum sap., as they say.

I've always thought that Jonathan Raban was an asshole -- his being unpersuaded by Wallace's wonderful Kenyon speech is further evidence of that.

Tulkinghorn said...

Where you go wrong in your bias is the notion that deviation from simplicity requires justification because of complicated ideas, seems to me.

1)The deviation doesn't require justification -- sometimes it just comes out that way. See, for example, anybody from Laurence Sterne to Dostoyevski, to Joyce, to Vargas Llosa to Bolano, to Proust, to, to , to..

2) And if you must needs have justification, the "ideas" are usually the least of it. See again those above with the exception of Dostoyevski

Tulkinghorn said...

Actually, no need to huff and puff: There is a pleasure to complexity that requires no apology.

David Chute said...

Not actually arguing your POV, BTW. Just insisting on it. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Efficiency is a pretty basic aesthetic principle, it seems to me. Maybe there's a New England Puritan streak in there somewhere, too.

Christian Lindke said...

I agree that efficiency is a basic aesthetic principle. Though, in the case of a book like Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," one imagines that it is almost a quantifiable one. The difference between the edited edition and the "author's cut" is remarkable. The edited version is a joy to read, the author's cut seems bloated in comparison.

Length of prose often, though not always, signals a lack of sufficient drafts or editorship. Think of the later Rowling books. I would argue that she placed market demands above aesthetic demands. The books are still well written, but they are bloated textually.

None of this means that a book's prose need be jumbled/bloated in order to be complex and difficult. One can easily imagine a book that is tightly written that is challenging -- one can go back as far as the Euthyphro to find such a work and there are many more recent works that meet that criteria.

David Chute said...

I agree.

Tulkinghorn said...

I'll give up my copies of Tristram Shandy, Gravity's Rainbow, and 2666 when you pry them from my cold dead fingers.