The Virtues of Difficult Fiction

The Virtues of Difficult Fiction

If novels aren’t worthy challenges, we have no reason to linger in their pages.


Who Needs Fiction? That was the question I saw on signs around Stockholm during a recent visit. The signs were advertising a local museum, but being a novelist, I took the question as a direct challenge. From deep inside the thickets of our Digital Age, with its glorification of quantitative information, I’ve been wondering about the genre that defines itself as an alternative to fact. Complex literary works demand an effort from the reader that is becoming harder to justify, given the sink-or-swim pressures to make profitable products for a global marketplace. Who can blame writers for spending more time ornamenting their Facebook page than revising their manuscript? As entertainment, fiction may offer momentary relief from the stresses of reality. As a source of information, however, made-up stories can’t compete. Who needs fiction when you can see a real Viking ship?

In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Toni Morrison was asked about the purpose of fiction. A good story, she said, results in “the acquisition of knowledge.” This is the case that must be made for fiction if the genre is going to survive as an art. Fiction gives us knowledge. Of what? If the goal is to document our time and place, nonfiction and film offer more dependable accuracy. For intimate expressions of the human predicament, there’s poetry. If it’s immediate impact we want, there are the visual arts and music. Who needs fiction that requires readers to work to understand it?

The value of fiction was clear to Virginia Woolf, who argued that nonfiction consists of half-truths and approximations that result in a “very inferior form of fiction.” In Woolf’s terms, reading ambitious fiction isn’t comfortable or easy. Far from it: “To go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.” The illuminations that fiction offers are gained only with considerable effort. “To read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Woolf wrote. “You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.” When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

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Reading accounts of the enrichments of reading offers its own unique rewards. Vladimir Nabokov on Bleak House or Henry James on The House of the Seven Gables prove that reading can be an exciting subject in itself, full of passionate encounters, contradictory judgments, striking discoveries, and unexpected reversals. When we read about reading, we get to share an experience that is usually kept private. Incisive descriptions of reading help us to understand what is going on when our eyes move across words on the page.

James Wood, the New Yorker book critic and a professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, charts his own journey through the literature he most admires in his new book The Nearest Thing to Life, a compilation of lectures delivered at Brandeis University. Fiction, Wood writes, offers a refuge where “belief is metaphorical” and the narrative begins with a “true lie.” While his title, borrowed from an essay by George Eliot in which she calls art the “nearest thing to life,” points to the intimate connection between the two, it also reminds us that art is not life. For fiction, which announces its false status by its very name, the license to invent a reality separate from the one defined by fact is its starting place. As Nabokov insisted, “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.” The genre thrives because its deceptions are liberating. For Wood, the thrill of reading fiction is intimately connected with the awareness that fiction constitutes “an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered.” The excitement comes when, as readers, we’re allowed to participate in this freedom and experience the fiction imaginatively, without being required to believe that it is true.

Wood has made a career out of reading literature and clearly loves what he does. He loves the way that literature changes how we think about our own lives. He loves its ability “to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.” He is not all that interested in ranking books; what he aims to do as a critic, he explains, is to offer “passionate redescription” of the books he admires most. Bellow, Chekhov, John Berger, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Aleksandar Hemon, Elizabeth Bishop—they and others are singled out by Wood for their ability to awaken us from the deadening “sleep of our attention.”

Great writers extend our capacity for “serious noticing,” Wood says. We learn to look more closely at our world by reading artful descriptions of fictional worlds. For Wood, literature provides a crucial education, and in this short book, packed with insight, he identifies the rewards of skillful, careful reading. He ignores, however, the mounting evidence that serious reading is in serious danger of being lost to future generations.

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It can be argued that we are reading more than ever. We read blogs, captions, tweets. Where information used to be exchanged in telephone conversations, now it is communicated through texting. But despite all this reading, there’s a growing concern among educational experts that literacy is declining. “What we are in danger of losing,” says Joseph Tabbi, “is the leisure and educational infrastructure that—alone among cultural institutions—is capable of training young minds of all economic classes across nations in the direction of the literary arts.” He makes this claim with regard to the work of William Gaddis, the subject of Tabbi’s forceful biography Nobody Grew but the Business, but the implications are expansive.

Gaddis did his important work at a time when what had become known, somewhat tautologically, as “literary fiction” was subsidized by commercial fiction because literature was perceived as worthwhile. Today, at best, instead of the profits from bestsellers compensating for the modest earnings of more creatively ambitious fiction, we have a regimen of creative-writing programs to support the literary arts, Tabbi asserts. Whatever one might think of Gaddis’s distinctive style, his novels clearly stake their claim as art, and in particular as a culmination of the artistic period we’ve come to call modernism. Gaddis—­“Mr. Difficult,” as Jonathan Franzen dubs him—wasn’t afraid of the extravagances of James Joyce, or of the bare-bones approach of Samuel Beckett. Somewhat paradoxically, given the density and sheer word count of his novels, Gaddis was willing to leave things out. Stripped of dialogue tags and background, his narratives offer the kind of immersion in ongoing conversations that we would experience if we were in the room with his characters. Gaddis, along with those writers of his generation he’s usually lumped with (William Gass, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Paul West, David Markson), trusted that his readers had the perspicacity and initiative to fill in the blanks.

You might have already noticed that missing from this list of culminating modernists (more often called “postmodernists”) are women and people of color. Toni Morrison should be there, and James Baldwin; so should Maureen Howard, Cynthia Ozick, and Susan Sontag. They have all engaged in literary creation with a seriousness that could be (and has been) defined as difficult. Unfortunate exclusions in the literary mapping done at the end of the last century sometimes made it hard to see shared ambitions among these writers, all of whom showed no sign of being afraid of the innovations of modernism.

Innovation is not, in and of itself, an admirable quality, any more than tradition is. Great innovators like Dickens end up creating tradition; other writers—William Trevor, for example—succeed in resculpting tried-and-true methods to give them new beauty. The challenge for writers and readers is to avoid dismissing fiction that might not yield to comprehension at first glance. In Nabokov’s words, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” The surprising problem arising in our culture is that good, active, creative reading is on the decline.

* * *

In her new book Words Onscreen, Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University, addresses the most important question that can be asked about reading today: Are digital media “reshaping our understanding of what it means to read?” She recasts the question more pointedly later in the book: “Are business practices reshaping cultural reading practices—and if so, with what consequences?” Baron doesn’t come straight out and answer the question, but she does bring together some worrisome evidence.

Baron cites a study commissioned in 2008 by Lloyds TSB Insurance, which concluded that the average attention span of people in the United Kingdom had decreased by more than half, to five minutes and seven seconds, since 1998. Even as libraries dispose of large portions of their print collections, Baron’s own studies with university students in the United States, Germany, and Japan indicate that there is a widespread preference for reading hard copy. Baron acknowledges research suggesting that it doesn’t matter whether we read a single short paragraph in print or on-screen; the comprehension is the same. But she also cites a Norwegian study published in 2013, which showed that students reading several pages of text on-screen had a lower comprehension rate than students reading the same text samples in print. Perhaps the most disturbing point amid all the research that Baron has assembled: When it comes to book-length texts, we have no data. “What we don’t have—but sorely need—are data on what happens when people are asked to do close reading of continuous text,” she notes.

In her brief overview of the history of print culture, Baron identifies 1740 as the crucial starting point for the novel, when Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was published (oddly ignoring Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719). The 18th-century public proved to have a huge appetite for fiction, and writers responded: Between 1750 and 1770, about 600 novels were published in England. During the following decade, the number of novels that appeared jumped by approximately 1,400. With her data, Baron confirms what scholars have long argued: that the genre of the novel thrived because of print.

Baron recognizes the obvious advantages of online texts, including their portability and interactivity, and the ease of grabbing information through search functions. Perhaps to appeal to readers who divide their attention between different apps, she has a tendency to divide the chapters of her own text into sections, and the sections into subsections. She continues, though, to pile up support for the more immersive reading associated with print. She cites studies showing that close reading “generated increased blood flow in areas of the brain responsible for executive functions.” She cites somewhat fuzzier research to shore up the claim that “avid fiction readers are better at understanding (and empathizing with) others in real life than those reading little or no fiction.”

Baron makes a strong case in favor of print, at the same time admitting that technology is going to change the way we read, whether we like it or not. She quotes Calvin Coolidge—“The chief business of the American people is business”—to emphasize her point that “commercial interests” will continue to define our reading practices. Data on the differences in comprehension won’t stop the production of e-readers. And that’s fine, because the data aren’t even relevant when it comes to a defense of careful reading.

* * *

David Mikics, like James Wood, eschews data and goes straight to books in his Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Mikics shares Wood’s love of reading, though he sees it as a threatened activity. “Every minute, it seems, a new link snags us, an article or post teases us with a sexy headline, promising us we can be in the know if we just click and spend a few seconds looking at it.” Online reading invites quick glances; Mikics prefers the “silent, fascinated absorption” that comes with careful reading of a worthy book. He loves the necessary creativity that goes into reading and the “tactile and palpable sense of a material object being worked on.” He prizes the kind of “slow reading” that allows us to appreciate the rhythms and voices and atmosphere of a book, to take it apart as one might a clock, in order to figure out how it works.

Mikics lays out his method with lucidity and forcefulness. We need to ask the right questions of a text in order to find its hidden point, he advises. He compares readers to tourists: “If you love what you read, you may even decide to live there for a while: to return again and again to Austen, or Milton, or Chekhov.” His examples come from books that have proved their staying power over decades and centuries. In his guide to slow reading, he sweeps widely through literary history (maybe too widely in his effort to conjoin diverse authors). “Confronted with writers like Plato or Machiavelli or Burke, who rely on elusive yet frequently repeated terms…you must track the key words that these writers use and watch their shifting appearances. You will be repaid by a newly vivid sense of what such important words can do, and of how writers use them to accomplish their most crucial work: opening new perspectives in the reader.”

Mikics also advises readers to keep a dictionary at hand, and to be suspicious of and look beyond obvious meanings. Most important—his Rule Number One—is: “Be Patient.” This means not demanding that an author “deliver the point in an easy, palatable way,” and not being afraid of an elusive style or complex structure (he cites Ulysses as an example). Mikics doesn’t need to track our neurons or assemble numbers in order to make this plain observation: “We gain in intellectual skills by learning to talk back to books in a productive way. The universe of books is full of radically different voices, each one demanding that we listen and answer. Our sense of life broadens immensely when we start paying attention to them.” What’s stunning is that in our enlightened age, the rewards of reading aren’t a given.

* * *

Among the arts, literature faces a special challenge. To look at a film, a painting, a play, an audience has to be able to see. To listen to music, an audience must be able to hear. To read, an audience must be literate. This begins when a child learns to match phonemes to letters and then to grasp the implications of grammar. Reading levels are identified as stages, from emergent to fluent. As dedicated students of literature know, fluency is only the beginning of a never-ending education. The world’s library is vast. There will always be something somewhere that will invite a new kind of attention from even the most experienced reader.

Education in the humanities, as imperiled as it becomes when an economy sputters, is essential if our society cares at all about sustaining and encouraging creative expression. Yet writers and educators are called upon to defend their disciplines. We sit on boards charged with devising incentives to attract students back to the study of language, literature, and history. We go to meetings and hear about the new collaborative-learning spaces and the welcoming pastel colors, the tables and whiteboards that will replace the old stacks in libraries once the books are removed. In an age of widespread literacy in this country, we are asked to persuade Americans that there actually are benefits to reading literature.

Richard Poirier foretold this shrinking interest years ago. In 1982, he wrote, “People have acquired enormous cultural power, but they do not exercise it by reading. Their cultural power is expressed by their choosing, as they could never have done before, not to read, or at least, not to read Literature.” To some extent, he blames the modernists—­Joyce, Lawrence, Faulkner—for making fiction “extraordinarily difficult.” Yet he points out that all probing inquiries into life and language are necessarily difficult. H.G. Wells may have raged at Henry James for his confounding, complex style—“all for tales of nothingness,” Wells moaned; it is a “leviathan retrieving pebbles”—but for a while, at least, it seemed that those who found satisfaction in the puzzles and paradoxes of modernism were winning out over those ready to dismiss them as irrelevant. I am among the readers who thought modernism, along with other richly challenging literary periods, had staying power. Now I’m not so sure.

The national educational standards known as Common Core mandate more “informational” reading, necessarily reducing the amount of fiction read in the classroom. By the 12th grade, 70 percent of a student’s reading is supposed to be nonfiction. As a public-school administrator recently explained, “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.” At the university level, English departments used to be havens for difficult literary works. With enrollments shrinking, however, educators are scrambling to make the study of literature relevant. Funding sources are focused on enhancing the “Digital Humanities,” resulting in data-mining projects like “Mapping Emotions in Victorian London,” conducted by a Stanford University research collective. You can learn from this research that in Victorian novels, the emotion of fear tends to be associated with markets and prisons. Who would have guessed? Now we don’t have to read through all those massive 19th-century novels; we don’t have to argue about the infinity of fascinations contained in Dombey and Son. We can just look at the data.

Tabbi remains hopeful that MFA programs will provide a gathering place for thoughtful, patient readers. But despite the fine-arts degree they confer, the credo of “craft” predominates in these programs, especially in the genre of fiction. The goal is to produce a solid, sellable product—a “good read” distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing—rather than a work of art. You can see the emphasis on readability in the responses to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Goldfinch. Hailed as both literary and popular, the book was admired by Stephen King for its “hair-raising” plot, and reviews were full of inaccurate comparisons to Dickens. Unlike Dickens, Tartt chooses not to offer complicated syntax or a wildly varied vocabular; she invites readers to move briskly through the story. But the fact that Tartt’s ability to entertain has been depicted and even praised as “old-fashioned” says more about the current reading public than about the book itself. “Old-fashioned” in this context implies a rejection of literary techniques that dare to complicate the plot and thus slow down the process of reading. If we don’t think of novels as worthy challenges, then we have no reason to linger in their pages.

Careful reading is difficult because it demands continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing. But who wants to spend precious free hours figuring out a Gaddis novel when they could be relaxing with Netflix? And with e-readers that limit the necessary page shuffling and rereading that are often required by complex texts, the Mr. and Ms. Difficults of the world don’t stand a chance. Or do they?

Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, ­Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity. Some of those writers went unheralded in their time. There are writers at work today who go unheralded. Yet this is a big country. There is as much room as there is need for both simplicity and complexity, for fiction that is spare and crystalline along with fiction that is messy and difficult. There is space for writers who do not sell a lot of books but may end up playing a defining role in our culture’s literary tradition. If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult.

Difficulty is neither a virtue nor an evil. If it is going to earn our patient attention, it must make itself an essential element of a text’s expressive powers. In the adept hands of a masterful writer, demanding techniques enhance rather than impede comprehension, strengthening our abilities as readers. The familiar criticism that difficult literature is elitist assumes that the reading public is not capable of learning more than it already knows. Do we need our athletes to explain the value of testing their limits? It is both logical and democratic to defend those books that test ours. The difficulties of a literary text, just like the subtleties, require educated readers to be appreciated—and that is essential. Education offers the potential for independence and empowerment, so let’s not replace difficult novels with easy ones, or pretend that the two are the same. Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.

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