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.
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.