Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox by Alex Pheby – Buy Difficult Books!

There is inherent in difficulty as it pertains to the writing of fiction, something alienating. In non-fiction the writer has the luxury of retreating behind the complexity of their subject. It is permissible for them to say that their material requires a lexical density and conceptual intricacy that militates against accessibility.

You can’t do that in fiction. Not anymore. In today’s market everything has to be clear and easy to digest. A writer couldn’t get away with the paragraph above. Their agent would never agree to submit it to an editor and, if they did, their editor would never let it see print. If it somehow found its way to the shelf, readers would never accept it. It’s too difficult. Accessibility, that’s the watchword.

I’m here to argue for difficult fiction.

Writing that makes our mental, spiritual and emotional muscles burn.

When I say difficult, I’m not really talking about reading comprehension. I remember when I was in junior school, they gave us reading tests and graded us by reading age (No To Age Banding by the way) I read The Iliad when I was seven and 101 Dalmatians when I was twenty five – grade that. I’m not suggesting that word length and vocabulary are any promise of difficulty – although I would reserve the right to use any word in the English language (and a fair smattering of non-English ones too.)

It’s not about genre either. I don’t have anything invested in a particular ‘type’ of fiction. To be honest I don’t even understand the supposed differences between most of the genres. Is 1984 science fiction? Aldous Huxley? HG Wells? Kurt Vonnegut? Why isn’t Philip K Dick literary fiction? Is Poe horror? What about The Turn of the Screw? Is The New York Trilogy detective fiction? Are Rose Tremain’s novels romance? Are those Iain M. Banks books where half of it is set in a medieval seeming castle and the other half in a self aware space craft fantasy or sci-fi? Hard or soft? Who knows? Who cares? The only people who have anything vested in genre are people who don’t like to be surprised and the book trade – both of whom can fend for themselves as far as I’m concerned.

What I mean by difficult writing is writing that challenges us as readers, writing that exceeds what we feel comfortable with. It’s puzzling writing that takes us somewhere we haven’t been and perhaps would not choose to go, but where, once we’ve made the effort, we discover something we never imagined we could know. It’s writing that makes our mental, spiritual and emotional muscles burn.

Tricky, irritating, spiky, fascinating writing.

There was once a time when publishers subsidised this tricky, irritating, spiky, fascinating kind of writing. Seeing its literary value they’d divert money away from the big sellers on their list to foster its writers, giving them a place on the so-called ‘midlist’ where they could beaver away in obscurity until, perhaps, posterity picked them up – after their flashier and more accessible stable-mates had made the money. But now that midlist is being cut back to nothing and almost all we have are the accessible novels that promise to sell by the bucket load.

The difficult novels are fading away.

And rightly so, I’m sure some of you will say. Why make things difficult? It’s elitist and snobbish. Simplicity is a good thing. If you can’t say it simply it’s probably not worth saying, and if a novel doesn’t sell that means no-one wants to read what it has to say. If no-one wants to read it, who cares if it never gets published in the first place?

Some bad arguments, if you ask me.

For one thing, who ever said that the best of anything was the most commercial? MacDonald’s can sell $20,000,000,000 worth of Big Macs every year – it doesn’t make them any good, and it certainly doesn’t make MacDonald’s better than the nice little family run cafes they ousted from the market.

They are also arguments that play favourites.

If a writer is commissioned to write a non-fiction book about twenty-six dimensional string theory – even if it’s just one of those books you get given at Christmas and never open, let alone read – no-one is going to tell them that it has to be accessible to everyone. Or that it has to be simple. Or that it is elitist. Or that what it has to say isn’t worth saying. Its subject matter alone is enough to give it some leeway. But when it’s fiction instead of fact? Somehow it has to be simple.

What if a writer chooses to write about a similarly complex dramatic issue? Something that it would be difficult to write simply? Like the link between memory, history and reality? Or madness and ethics? Or what if, rather than seeking to expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge, they want to push at the frontiers of literary endeavour? What about something like Tsepeneag’s Vain Art of the Fugue – a testing, difficult, innovative novel that breaks all the rules of accessibility and even readability? It changes tenses and viewpoints in mid-paragraph, sometimes mid-sentence. It repeats the same narrative in different forms, mimicking the musical fugue after which it is named. It could never be called accessible, but it is still endlessly fascinating.

It is a work of art. Sadly, one of only a very few and the space for new art is getting smaller and smaller.

Step out of your comfort zone!

So who is going to foster written art in this difficulty-phobic culture particularly when, like with Tsepeneag, it is the difficulty in the writing that makes it interesting?

The answer is: (drum roll) people like you.

People interested enough in writing to be reading this blog. People who managed to get past the first paragraph of this post without clicking onto something else. People who, every now and then, are going to want a challenge. It’s down to you.

So, next time you’re browsing through a book and you find it difficult, don’t put it back. Buy it. Read it. Step out of your comfort zone, feel the fear and do it anyway. Why? Because if it has managed to get published in today’s cliché ridden, commercialised, anodyne literary climate and it still has its difficulty intact, it might be something very special.

Admittedly, sometimes difficulty is a function of bad writing. Sometimes it is function of confusion over what the author wants to say. Sometimes it might fail. But sometimes it could be the first hint of something brilliant. The difficulty might be there for a reason. In short, you could be in the presence of literature.

So buy it while you still have the chance.

Alex Pheby‘s only very slightly difficult first novel ‘Grace‘ is about a matricidal and delusional asylum escapee’s relationship with an orphan and her reclusive grandmother. It will be available from Two Ravens Press in January of 2009.

You can read outtakes from this post at his blog The Story of the I

With thanks to Eleanor Grosch for the glorious image of ‘The Fox and the Crab’. To view more of Eleanor’s work at PushMePullYouDesign, please click here.

44 comments on “Thursday Soapbox by Alex Pheby – Buy Difficult Books!

  1. Moira
    July 3, 2008

    People (myself almost certainly included) have become lazy, haven’t they? We’re bombarded with easy entertainment from all sides, and the part of our brain that tackles that which is more complex is slowly – and possibly irrevocably – shutting down.

    A thoughtful piece Alex, thank you. (Oh – and I loved the first paragraph, even if I DID have to read it twice …).

  2. Sam
    July 3, 2008

    Very interesting post, Alex – and relevant to myself, i have just had the full of my Women’s Fiction novel rejected, and one of the less significant reasons was that the title was too oblique and i was advised, in future, to spell everything out.

    But then, i’m afraid, i feel i am pretty representative of the type of person who likes to read straightforward, commerical literature. I sometimes buy Okay Mag, i watch Big Brother, i ‘own’ the remote control and when viewing on my own continually flick channels – i have the attention span of a gnat. So when i do sit down to read, I want something that grabs me straightaway, that i can return to after a break to watch EastEnders and easily pick up the story without having to backtrack.

    I think the rise of less difficult literature is a symptom of our ‘i want it now’ soceity, with it’s fastfood and internet shopping – and i’m not sure what the answer is, to encourage people to pick up a more challenging read.


  3. Anne Brooke
    July 3, 2008

    Well said – we need to keep the difficult novels as it reminds us of our humanity. If we got rid of all the difficult people, after all, then where the hell would we be???


  4. Lisa
    July 3, 2008

    Excellent Soapbox, Alex. I will come back and comment this evening when I have more time, but first things first: you read The Iliad when you were seven?!! Blimey.

  5. Alex Pheby
    July 3, 2008

    Thanks everybody.

    Sorry to hear about your book Sam – oblique can be difficult to sell (though not impossible, so keep trying.)

    Anne Brooke – I’d certainly be a bit thin on the ground if it was difficult people for the chop…

    Lisa – it might have been younger… The only bit I had a lot of trouble with was the names – so many words I couldn’t read that began with A. I must say a lot of it passed me by at 7, but then again, it still does…

    Can I assume from the lack of dissenting voices that the other VL readers/contributors all agree with me too? If so its a great day for difficult books and I’ll ring Waterstones so they can prepare for the rush.

  6. RosyB
    July 3, 2008

    Hey – well. As you’re asking for disagreement…

    I think it’s hard to actually disgree with a soapbox asking for engagement and giving difficult books a chance. But if you do want some dissenting voices I have to admit that something I am very uncomfortable with is the idea that just because something is difficult it is considered to be more likely to be deep and meaningful underneath as it were. And I absolutely hate the idea of people feeling that they should be struggling through all sorts of stuff just for appearances sake, or because it is “good” for them in some way.

    I also wonder about the lack of support for difficult writing as such. There are quite a number of smaller presses who specialise in – well – they might not call it difficult, let’s call it high literary work which probably would never have a huge mass market. Surely this has always been the case, though. A “difficult” book is often unsupported in its lifetime and then if it is taken on by universities or whatever can reach a wider audience and becomes a “classic”.

    Ah and universities. Surely universities also favour those who write “difficult books”? And the arts council.

    I suppose I am suspicious of any generality like this. I am in favour of supporting good books or books that say stuff that I think is important or books that are interesting/challenging/funny/unchallenging but lovable. Some of my favourite books are “difficult” and some are “easy-peasy”. What makes them my favourite books is usually the attitude and world view behind them, not the difficulty or otherwise of the prose.

    But then it all depends how you define difficult.

    That enough to get started on? Come on! Let’s have a fight! 😉

  7. Alex Pheby
    July 3, 2008

    Hi RosyB,

    I think I quite carefully avoid suggesting that difficulty is the quality that makes books valuable – my point is that the books that are good AND difficult are under threat BECAUSE they are difficult (BTW I prefer italics to caps for emphasis, but I can’t do them…) and that their goodness is going unappreciated. Also, outside compulsory education – which is almost always a drag anyway – I don’t think you need worry that people are slogging through difficult books for appearances/because they think its good for them: the sales figures very much suggest otherwise.

    As for the small press argument – there’s some truth in that, but if the readers of blogs like this don’t support these small presses (which is something this post tacitly argues for) they won’t be around for long and nor will the books they publish.

    As for universities – academic English departments are notoriously unwilling to “open the canon” i.e. accept new books for study – which is no help to writers of difficult fiction, and creative writing departments are little more than editorial adjuncts of the major publishing houses (if you can be bothered I presented a paper touching on this at the 2008 Postgraduate Creative Writing Conference which you can read at )

    As for The Arts Council – it had it’s budget cut by half this year…

    I tried to be as specific as possible in my definition of difficult:

    “writing that challenges us as readers, writing that exceeds what we feel comfortable with. It’s puzzling writing that takes us somewhere we haven’t been and perhaps would not choose to go, but where, once we’ve made the effort, we discover something we never imagined we could know. It’s writing that makes our mental, spiritual and emotional muscles burn.”

    If this doesn’t float your boat (and sometimes, secretly, you know that it does 😉 ) then I guess you I can’t reach you. Not consciously at least… subconsciously the suggestion is planted – I’ll let your super-ego do the rest.

  8. Alex Pheby
    July 3, 2008


    “As for The Arts Council – it had it’s budget cut by half this year…”

    I meant the AHRC, but I don’t suppose the Arts Council fared much better.

  9. rosyb
    July 3, 2008

    Well, it is the fact that you carefully termed “difficult” to mean…well I’m not sure what you are terming it to mean (all things good maybe?) which makes it tough to argue the opposite case. Yes, stuff that makes you think, takes you somewhere new etc etc. Sounds good to me.

    But I am a great lover of low-brow and I see a lot of challenging, different, out of the ordinary, reality about character, echoes of society, touching on truth etc in that. But it’s not “difficult” – as in inaccessible.

    You see, we can’t really argue with each other because I don’t see this divide between “difficult” (as in all things interesting) and “accessible” (as in – well, what do you mean by accessible, Alex? I would take it to mean things that aren’t out of reach or hard for people to understand or grasp.)

    As for the university argument, what I was saying that you tend to find writers of “difficult” fiction more rewarded when it comes to jobs as tutors and whatnot or academic study. You don’t usually have your romance writers in there, do you? And as most writers of either sort have to have another living usually, that is quite a source of support in fact.

    And PS we certainly try on VL to have a pretty supportive attitude to small presses. We seek out books from all over the place. But we also (at least some of us – I can’t speak for all the foxes here) try to look for good stuff in all types of fiction – commercial, literary, genre, non-fiction.

    As for reading The Iliad at 7, well at least it’s an action-adventure story, eh? I had a very precociously well-read sister and hence determinedly struggled through Pride and Prejudice at an early age to try and keep up with her…I may have finished the thing but that doesn’t mean I got a whole heap out of it. Not that I should have been stopped, mind you. But it has to be faced – it’s not the most exciting story at that age. I suspect it put me off Austen for life. 😉

    Perhaps if you said “Buy Good Books” I’d agree. As I said before, though, you wanted an argument but it is hard to argue with someone saying give difficult good books a chance. 🙂

  10. rosyb
    July 3, 2008

    PS 17 or something

    I’ve been asking a few of our soapboxers to tell us some good books in their genres. Would you like to list a few “difficult books”? Perhaps not incredibly famous ones but ones you think are in danger of being overlooked. Be good for Vulpes readers (and my ignorant low-brow self) to hear about some of the things they might not know about otherwise.

    Thanks for a great piece, Alex.

  11. Sam
    July 3, 2008

    writing that challenges us as readers, writing that exceeds what we feel comfortable with. It’s puzzling writing that takes us somewhere we haven’t been and perhaps would not choose to go, but where, once we’ve made the effort, we discover something we never imagined we could know. It’s writing that makes our mental, spiritual and emotional muscles burn.

    Hi Alex, I enjoyed reading your piece but I have a problem with your definition of difficulty. A few years ago I tried to read Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes. (What can I say? I think I must’ve confused her with the Sufi poet and scholar Marika Kezes.) Anyway, while reading the novel I found the writing:

    challenging – check
    exceeded what I felt comfortable with – check
    puzzling – check
    took me somewhere I hadn’t been before – check
    and would not choose to go – check
    made me discover something I never imagined I could know – check
    made my mental, spiritual and emotional muscles burn – oh, yes: check

    If you’re calling for me to go out and buy more of the same then I’m afraid, in this instance, I’ll have to respectfully demur.

    [Sam – I don’t want to risk turning this into a rejection thread, but wanted to say I’m real sorry to hear about the knockback. I always thought you were great.]

  12. Alex Pheby
    July 3, 2008

    Sam (the second one) – demur away. Difficulty is not a guarantee of quality, but its important not to sniff at it and dismiss it as elitism. As for Marian Keyes, the only thing I know about her is the size of her advances and given their enormity I can’t see the need to defend her and I don’t want to risk criticising her in print… (I’ve been threatened with legal action in the past)


    re. difficult vs accessible

    You suggest I’m using ‘difficult’ as a catch all phrase for everything good. I’ve picked out most of the adjectives I used:


    Not an overwhelmingly positive list. Now, if you want a definition of accessible, as it pertains to certain aspects of writing, giving rough opposites to these adjectives is probably fair. So:


    With the exception of the last one in each list, it’s not difficult to see why difficult needs defending and accessible doesn’t – although I get your point. Accessible is probably the wrong word. Easy might be better.

    As for the university point I think there is a definite tendency to give jobs to writers of literary fiction, but this is a separate problem because literary fiction is just as open to the modern difficulty phobic tendency as every other genre.

    As for examples of difficult books, off the top of my head and in no particular order –

    Death of the Detective – Mark Smith
    Maldoror – Lautreamont (can’t find the e acute…)
    Portrait Du Soleil – Helene Cixous
    Roberto Calasso – L’Impuro Folle
    Anything by Flann O’Brien
    Anything by Kurt Vonnegut
    Anything by Andre Breton (again with the e acute)

    Whether they are in danger of being overlooked – I don’t know. I feel the whole thing is a modern tendency and the danger is for books that are being written or are yet to be written, which, by virtue of their difficulty in getting published, could never be on anyone’s list.

  13. Sam
    July 3, 2008

    Hi Alex

    I don’t think my sarcasm travelled, but, anyway, my point was that a pretty literary sorta chap could by your definitions find an extremely commercial author difficult and Kurt Vonnegut positively breezy. You read The Iliad aged seven; I’ve been reading it for seven years and haven’t got beyond page seventy-two. It’s a truism that that which one person finds difficult, another doesn’t, but perhaps your piece didn’t quite take that into account. It was therefore a bit difficult to take your call to arms to heart (as what Person A finds difficult may well be under threat of disappearing, but what Person B finds difficult may nevertheless be flying off the shelves). If you meant go out and buy those books that you [the reader] find difficult and don’t sell in vast numbers, then I think that’s just called literary fiction 🙂

    I may be wrong, but I think that maybe all you’re really asking for are better readers; readers that come up to the plate and are prepared to work hard to try and tune into what the writer’s trying to do, instead of coming at the novel with all their pre-conditioned prejudices about what they think makes a novel worthy of their attention. Hell, by that definition, if I was a better reader myself I might even have found out whether or not Lucy Sullivan did, in the end, get married.

  14. Jackie
    July 3, 2008

    I seriously doubt that Vonnegut is in any danger of disappearing from the shelves, at least here in the U.S. Even before his death he was trendy, more so now.
    I blame Hemingway for this migration to simplicity in prose.That is after all, what he’s lauded for and nowadays he’s considered a classic. Authors such as Cormac McCarthy emulate him and I bet many others attempt to in a less obvious way. If that sort of style is held up as a beacon, then it’s no wonder that publishers and authors fall into that mindset that simple is better.

  15. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Sam,

    I think I got your point the first time, along with the sarcasm – perhaps my own sarcasm was lost in the reply (never sure what the emoticon for sarcasm is). I tried to make my use of ‘difficult’ flexible enough not to simply include the type books I like and exclude everything else. I wouldn’t dream of proscribing exactly what people should and shouldn’t read which is why I steered clear of giving too many examples. There’s an outtake from the post over at my blog ( ) on the ‘one person’s difficult might be different to another person’s’ theme. The call to arms is a generic one – don’t shy away from what you find difficult – if that means for people who are already reading the stuff I’m worried is under threat are being called upon to read things that are commercially secure then that’s an unavoidable consequence of the larger argument.

    I’m not as convinced (at all) that literary fiction is the home of the difficulty I’m talking about. If anything it, as a genre, had become depressingly safe and unchallenging and, if I’m honest, I think what I’m really interested in seeing is experimentation in form and content returning to literary fiction. It is currently suffering a homogenising pressure to sell to as wide a market as possible which makes if difficult to get difficult writing published. Which is ironic because some supposedly commercial genres – I’m thinking of crime, science fiction, and horror in particular – almost require their writing to challenge the readers limits, albeit in a slightly different way.

  16. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Jackie,

    Couldn’t agree more about the Hemingway.

    I’m sure none of the writers I gave are under any more threat than Vonnegut – it’s the difficult tendency that they represent that is under threat, especially as it appears in the work of others and in the work of emerging writing as you rightly suggest.

  17. Pingback: Read difficult books | John Baker's Blog

  18. Clorinda
    July 4, 2008

    An interesting article. I agree that difficult books shouldn’t disappear – but I choose not to read them now….

    Only joking!

  19. marygm
    July 4, 2008

    A very interesting, heartfelt piece, Alex. Thank you.
    I’m not sure that I seek out difficult fiction particularly, I like fiction that reflects clearly the vision of the author and for some, their natural style is ‘difficult’ and for others it’s very ‘straightforward’. I have a slight preference for the direct, straightforward style (e.g. John McGahern has a wonderful, crystal-clear, honest prose that I love). Personally I think it’s when I get the impression that writers are trying to be more ‘difficult’ than they naturally are that I feel they are being pretentious. (This was what I thought about The New York Trilogy but it may be because it didn’t ‘speak’ to me. )

  20. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi marygm,

    In today’s market any author who tries to be more difficult than they really are is making a serious strategic error – much more so than in the late eighties when Auster was starting out. Even the ‘naturally’ difficult writers can’t get their work published by mainstream presses which is why a lot of the more challenging midlist writers are either no longer published or are migrating to smaller, less risk averse publishers like Two Ravens (my own publisher).

    Whether a writer needs to write ‘naturally’ is a different question. Perhaps one for another day…

  21. RosyB
    July 4, 2008

    I think it’s the rather wide and ungraspable definition that I am finding tricky here.


    I don’t think “commercial” or “popular” writing (IF that is what we are talking about by “accessible”) need be soothing, comfortable and dull.

    If I had a call to arms it would be for “commercial” writing to be allowed to be spiky, irritating etc also. But I think enjoyability, page-turneriness and strong characters and/or story will always be mainstays of commercial fiction. And what’s wrong with that?

    Fun is good too, I find. 🙂

  22. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    Thanks for that, second Sam:)

  23. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    But Alex there are plenty of newish so-called difficult writers published by mainstream presses!

    David Foster Wallace is a famously ‘difficult’ author and his collection Oblivion I found very difficult for it’s refusal to engage in a plot that moved forward (but, again, many I know found it quite quaint); The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs is a short novel that I found difficult for its strange and slow use of language; Adam Foulds recently published The Broken Word, his prose poem on the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya. That can’t have been the easiest sell to a publisher, but Cape nevertheless put in a lot of effort in finding an audience for it. Adam Thirlwell’s first – and much publicised – novel Politics was very daring in form, with a highly intrusive narrator (his second Miss Herbert even more so) and yet his publishers continue to support him. Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel House of Leaves was I thought as big and experimental as it could get, until his second novel came out with its backward-written prose, cross-referenced coloured fonts, footnotes and strange syntax. I could go on…

    But to all these novels (or at least the ones I’ve read: the Foster Wallace, and the Hobbs) the ‘difficulty’ was intrinsic to the way the novel worked. I think that’s one of the main things publishers want to see when a novel isn’t giving up its charms easily: that it could not have been written any other way. Maybe that just isn’t the case for a lot of the difficult novels that are struggling to find an audience.

    In fact, I’m not sure I quite believe that people aren’t buying difficult books, for otherwise why would publishers be publishing them?

  24. Lisa
    July 4, 2008

    “I’m not sure I quite believe that people aren’t buying difficult books, for otherwise why would publishers be publishing them?”

    That’s a good question. Some customers are certainly buying difficult books, but I’ve also heard the rumour that some publishers release difficult or very literary books that they don’t expect to sell brilliantly, but that prop up that publishing house’s prestige, confirming them as publishers of Literature with a big L. The more commercial cousins of these difficult books go about the business of bringing in the mega-bucks, and balancing out the losses of the smaller sellers. Or at least, I think that was once the case.

    There’s also a question of prizes. Lots of books I’ve found very difficult have gone on to win the Orange or the Booker. I’m sure I’ve heard that some publishers look to sign what they consider ‘prize-friendly novels’, as again the chance of winning or being shortlisted for a major prize is a huge boost for the publisher’s reputation. And long-shot though winning a literary prize is, it can lead to a massive injection of cash into a publishing business.

    Alex, if you’re looking for an incredibly well-written yet difficult read, I suggest you try our Two Ravens stablemate, Stona Fitch. “Senseless” is one of the most brilliant, yet most difficult books I’ve read in years.

  25. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi RosyB

    I don’t understand what commercial fiction, as a type, means – at least as you are using it. The only division I’m using is that contained in the argument – between difficult and not difficult. I think there is a “terms” problem here, which is why we don’t seem to be able to agree…

    Hi Sam,

    If the occasional difficult book didn’t get picked up, I wouldn’t be able to advocate anyone buy them. My argument is a general one and we could swap example and counter example all day, but from my experience of the industry (of readers, writers, agents and editors) I still stand by the contention that difficulty, in whatever form it takes and as a facet of writing, is harder and harder to sell to the reading public and to editors. While I admire your optimism, and wish I could share it, my sense is that it is misplaced.

  26. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Lisa,

    Will definitely try Senseless – although it will have to wait until I’ve made a dent in this huge pile of books sitting to my left, none of which I’ve had a hand in choosing but which I have to read anyway (perils of PhD supervision).

    Also agree that publishing the occasional ‘prestige’ piece is the way some big publishers try to maintain the reputation once provided by their midlist. Again, for fear of litigation I couldn’t possibly single any out (not that I’d need to, they’re all at it).

  27. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Alex

    Well, if we’re down to basing our arguments on ‘from my experience of the industry…’ then you’re right: we could swap example and counter-example all day. From my experience of the industry it’s more than just the occasional difficult book. I think many difficult books (difficult to me, anyway) are published every year. Quite bravely in many cases, as the chances of a publisher making any money on them are pretty slim. And if some difficult novels aren’t getting published, in most cases it might just be that they’re not ready to be published.

    My bottom line on this is that readers should just read what they enjoy reading and derive the most pleasure from, and that difficult books should fight it out with all the other books for the reader’s attention. And if difficult books aren’t getting the attention some people think they deserve then they just need to go and write better difficult books, because I do think that great writing and talent will always out.

    Lisa, you’re right: sometimes publishers do take on a novel thinking that it might take a prize-listing or a Richard and Judy recommendation to get it to shift units. But I think they’re quite open about that. Sometimes it’s even written into the contract that if the book gets onto a prize-list then the author gets more money.

  28. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Sam,

    I don’t like reducing the argument to “in my experience” but when the evidence I’d have to give is a bunch of unpublished books and unpublished authors and off the record comments from authors and agents and editors and a numinous general dumbing down of the published word then I don’t have much choice. Your in print examples are always going to look better. This is why the post is phrased as an appeal to the reader – if you don’t get it, you probably aren’t the audience.

    As for the ‘just read what you enjoy’ argument, I’m afraid I’d take your use of it as argument for my appeal, rather than against it. Writing can, and should be allowed to, do so much more than provide a couple of hours of entertainment.

    And great talent will always out? You only have to look at the number of great writers and artists who were only recognised posthumously to understand that sometimes the culture we’re born into doesn’t always know talent when it sees it.

  29. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Alex

    To be clear, I don’t think enjoying a novel means only being entertained for a few hours. I happen to enjoy having my brain taxed and my intellect (such as it is) prodded. In short, I enjoy difficult books (like the ones I cited above by Foster Wallace and Hobbs, for example). But I think it’s unfair to ask readers to continue with books that they aren’t enjoying on some level, that they aren’t getting something from in return for their time.

    From Socrates to Woolf, every age seems to think civilisation as we know it is coming to an end. Woolf, after all, said that Middlemarch was one of the few books in her time that was written for grown-ups. It’s natural to look back and think things were better, but I don’t think fewer difficult books are being published and read now (the opposite, if anything). I do think a greater number of low-brow stuff is probably getting more and more attention than in the past, but the readers and publishers of quality are still around, and growing.

    Just to make the wider point about a disintegrating culture:

    I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.

    That was Hesiod in the 8th Century BC (BC!) Nothing changes, not really.

    And great talent will always out, possibly posthumously, but that’s the risk you take for wanting to be a writer and writing stuff that might not chime with what readers are looking for at the present time.

  30. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    I guess I’m happy to be in the company of Socrates, Woolf, Eliot and Hesiod then…

    This idea that enjoyment is the measure of writing (or any art) is still not one I’d agree with, whether that enjoyment is cerebral or not. Cultural activity, like anything else, has its own internal rules and structures and its appreciation is incomplete if it stops at whether it is ‘enjoyable’ or not.

    But I guess we’re never going to agree on that.

    I hope you are right in your supposition that more difficult books are being published each year. All I have left to say to anyone reading this: BUY THEM.

  31. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    As long as you agree that Socrates, Woolf and Hesiod were all wrong and being just the teensiest bit curmudgeonly. I’m not aware of Eliot ever expressing such sentiments. Wouldn’t want to put words in the dear old gal’s mouth.

  32. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    I’d never dare question any of them. They agree with me, after all.

  33. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    I’m off to the pub now, Sam. Might not be back for some time, so don’t think you’ve got the last word you so clearly desire… 😉

  34. Moira
    July 4, 2008

    There’s something wrong with being curmudgeonly? I may have to rethink my whole philosophy …

  35. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    Last word.

  36. Sam
    July 4, 2008

    Moira! Not fair!

  37. Moira
    July 4, 2008

    I know.

    I’m a spoilsport.

    What can I say? :mrgreen:

  38. Debra Di Blasi
    July 4, 2008

    Happy Independence Day! (Writing from the U.S.)

    Thanks, Alex, for your article.

    I don’t know what publishing is like in the U.K. these days, but the U.S has an exponentially growing pool of innovative (read, also: “experimental,” “conceptual,” “multimodal,” etc.) writers and small publishers interested in those works. I am one of those writers making a fatter income each year lecturing on the topic. It is quite true, however, that our critics are generally dullards, either unable or unwilling to expend the effort to read “difficult” literature, and women writing outside the expectation of the domestic novel or chick lit still have an extremely difficult time getting reviewed. (The New York Times reviews, on average only 20% women; their women reviewers number about the same.)

    But. But! Every two years, the &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing and Art (it’s mostly writing) increases in size and diversity. Our books are being taught in creative writing and literature courses, thus a younger readership is being nurtured in the, yes, sometimes difficult pathway through a above-the-middlebrow work of literature. Many of us are addressing technological changes and their symptoms by using tech in our works, especially multimodal forms. Tis a marvelous world for those willing to be active readers. And many of the younger generation are excited about possibility, not so much probability.

    Perhaps the trend will cross the Atlantic?

  39. Alex Pheby
    July 4, 2008

    Hi Debra,

    Let’s hope the Atlantic isn’t too wide to stop it…

    Here’s some evidence that it isn’t – Raymond Federman’s novels are at last being published in the UK ( Hopefully that might provoke something like the Fiction Collective or &NOW to come into being over here. What you’re describing sounds genuinely exciting and certainly something the literary scene in the UK could do with.

    Nice website BTW. Ever managed to find a publisher this side of the pond? (he asked, expecting the answer ‘no’)

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2008 by in Fiction: literary, Thursday Soapbox and tagged , , , , .



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