Difficult Books.

Sam Leith’s recent essay for the Guardian starts off looking like just another thumb-sucker mulling over the usual idiotic gripes about the Booker:

“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.

“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”

That’s at least a useful starting point. Appiah defends the idea – which, nearly a century after modernism really kicked off, probably shouldn’t need defending – that ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.

No, it shouldn’t, so why are you bothering? But then (after pointing out that “Books can be ‘difficult’ in all sorts of different ways”) he gets into more interesting territory:

I’ve heard it said, and it’s an attractive position, that “literary fiction needs to recognise that it’s just another genre and get over itself”. Fair enough. Let’s explore that. […] Like it or not, literary fiction is a category that we use. And if it is just another genre and needs to get over itself, fine. Let’s work with that. We can identify features of other genres. Aliens and nanobots? SF, more often than not. Guns and hats and dead bodies? Crime. Dossiers and dead drops? Spy novels. So we ought to be able to make some, if necessarily vague, stabs at identifying what the features of “literary fiction” are. Let’s leave aside cultural value judgments about “importance” or “seriousness”. Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

It’s sometimes fuzzily said that literary fiction gives you more on rereading, or that it stays with you, or that it’s “more profound”. That may be true, some of the time – but these things are more likely to be symptoms than necessary features. I’d suggest that the main identifying feature – and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres – is to do with complexity and depth of attention. That can be moral or psychological complexity – crudely, the goodies and baddies are less clearly delineated – but it can also be, and tends to be in the best work, allied to a greater attention to the form and to the sentence-by-sentence language itself. And where I say that it mingles with other genres, the point I mean to make is that (just like hats, or nanobots) its features can be found in any genre. You could make the case that Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are literary SF, that Sarah Waters has written literary historical thrillers, that Joseph Kanon or John le Carré write literary spy novels, that the metafictional quality of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a literary quality, and so on. The examples are numberless.

A publishing acquaintance suggests an analogy with music: jazz is more complex than blues. It’s harder to play and harder to appreciate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t lots of good blues and lots of bad jazz. It doesn’t mean that jazz is an innately superior artform. It simply describes a formal difference between the two. Likewise, when we talk about a “literary novel” we usually mean something that demands and rewards close attention – though, as ever, there will be exceptions. The quality of that attention isn’t uniform from novel to novel. You don’t, for instance, read the torrential riffings of a Thomas Pynchon or even a Karl Ove Knausgaard the same way as you do the crystalline exactness of Nabokov. And those qualities will, for reasons that should be obvious, sometimes but not always issue in “difficulty”.

That seems to me a useful way of looking at it, and his further discussion is worth reading (though I’d like to see him provide some substantiation that TS Eliot is “wildly funny”). Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    That is not humblebragging; it’s just bragging.

  2. Bar none, I am the most humble-est
    Number one at the top of the humble list
    My apple crumble is by far the most crumble-est
    But I act like it tastes bad outta humbleness
    The thing about me that’s so impressive
    Is how infrequently I mention all of my successes
    I pooh-pooh it when girls say that I should model
    My belly’s full from all the pride I swallow
    I’m the most courteous-biddable, hospitable
    Reverential, normal-ary Arnold Schwarzen-orgarary
    I hate compliments, put ’em in the mortuary
    I’m so ordinary that it’s truly quite extraordinary

  3. humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    I was reminded unstoppably of:

    Otto: Don’t call me stupid.

    Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?

    Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.

    Wanda: Yes, they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.

  4. I’d like to see him provide some substantiation that TS Eliot is “wildly funny”

    Eliot’s most famous work is pretty funny, come on. “Macavity! Macavity! There’s no one like Macavity! He’s broken every human law! He breaks the law of gravity!”

  5. That’s always struck me as a Very Serious Poet trying very hard to lower himself to the level he feels he needs to communicate at for a certain purpose, and getting praised for it. Compare Lewis Carroll, who was in fact wildly funny. T.S. Eliot’s humorous writing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

  6. I disagree – the Practical Cats are funnier than Lewis Carroll. Carroll is a) pretty weird and disturbing stuff and b) full of in-jokes about Victorian children’s literature which no one gets these days. Eliot is writing comic verse where a lot of the humour is based on clever rhymes, like WS Gilbert, and silly names, like Monty Python, both of which last much better. As a child I liked Carroll because it was clever and surreal, but Eliot made me laugh.

  7. But on the article you posted, that sounds good and I’d agree – the idea that literary fiction is where you’re supposed to pay attention to cleverness of form and style, as opposed to the author being as transparent as possible so you can pay attention to cleverness of setting and plot. If I’m reading a thriller I don’t always want to be distracted by some terribly ingenious and complex structural innovation. I want the story, told simply and accessibly and in an exciting manner.

  8. Yes, exactly.

  9. I, for one, don’t humblebrag.

  10. Not that it’s in any way important, but I happen to humblebrag less than you.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure the greater-on-average-formal complexity of jazz, as compared to blues, means that closely-attentive listening is more important and/or rewarding for one rather than the other, or even that one is easier than the other to “appreciate.” Simple is sometimes harder to do really well, and formal complexity can often deteriorate into a somewhat empty display of virtuosity/”chops” than doesn’t actually achive as much aesthetically as a simpler but perfect-for-the-context approach would have.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    I really suck at humblebragging. I just sound plain humble.

  13. Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.”

    He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read? Vogue? Popular Mechanics? Appiah’s grandfather is Stafford Cripps (Vegetarian Monthly?) and his gt gt aunt Beatrice Webb (the New Statesman?)

  14. A Philistine writes: I’m always put off by the suggestion that literary fiction is supposed to be difficult. Difficult how, exactly? Yes, it should ask you to pay attention, and maybe it requires you to be familiar with lots of other literary fiction and all kinds of knowledge in general, but when the difficulty lies in simply decoding sentences to figure out what they mean, or in struggling to make sense of chopped-up storylines and apparently random interjections of completely different stories and characters — well, now that I’m old and lazy, I just don’t have the patience for that sort of cryptic-crossword type of literature. Just give me a good story, dammit!

    (I haven’t read Milkman, almost certainly won’t, so don’t have a clear idea of wherein its difficulty lies.)

  15. He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read?

    Yeah, I was put off by that, but I figured it was Mandatory British Snark.

  16. This piece by Jeremy Klemin in the latest NYT Book Review is a good companion to the Guardian one:

    Because even the most nondescript Easter egg could end up enhancing the gaming experience in some way, players were obliged to take them seriously. That random vase in the middle of your character’s path, or the old man incoherently babbling about a cave outside town: These are what Italo Calvino called, in a literary context, “magic” objects. “The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships,” Calvino wrote in “Quickness,” one of a series of lectures on literature he was working on at the time of his death. “The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative, any object is always magic.”

    In the same way that the green light on Daisy’s dock across the bay in “The Great Gatsby” is a detail imbued with symbolic purpose, every object in a video game has the potential to affect our understanding of the game’s logic and our progress through the plot. […]

    Video games are supposed to be, to borrow Jorge Luis Borges’s favorite motif, labyrinthine. Regardless of how trapped players may feel when confronting a particular obstacle, they can generally assume that there is a puzzle to crack and a way to crack it — a way to reach the center of the labyrinth. This is why I found video games so fulfilling, and no doubt why my introduction to “serious” literature as a teenager was primarily through 20th-century modernists like Virginia Woolf and Hermann Hesse. In their novels, personal improvement seemed to be a matter of process; their characters fight indecision or internal conflict by scaling their own psychological summits or, to draw a comparison to video games, by taking a crack at solving their own inner puzzles. The idea of a challenging yet well-ordered world so prevalent in modernist literature may seem dated now, but as a young reader and video game player I found it tremendously appealing.

  17. John Cowan says:

    “Literary fiction is what we point to when we say it.” –Damon Knott

    Update: Read the Powell & Proust thread and discuss whether their works are “literary fiction” a la Leith.

  18. Literary fiction is what used to be called fiction.
    Genre fiction is what used be called pulp fiction.

  19. Actually, On Genre Fiction is the most germane LH thread to this one. Whether Leith answers the questions raised at that thread I leave to others to ponder.

  20. @ajay the Practical Cats are funnier than Lewis Carroll. Carroll is a) pretty weird and disturbing stuff and b) full of in-jokes about Victorian children’s literature which no one gets these days.

    OUTRAGE! Carroll is full of mathematicians’/algebraists’/epistemologists’ in-jokes which every adult in the twitterati should be capable of getting. Read Martin Gardner’s ‘Annotated Alice’ or especially the ‘Annotated Snark’.

    You do realise that Carroll’s is adult humour, despite it being passed off as Childrens literature? Same rap as Gullivers Travels.

    In comparison to those (which I re-read often), Monty Python is horribly dated, and I just can’t see or remember why I watched it so much in my yoof. The recent revival stage show was out-and-out embarrassment.

  21. @AntC: I didn’t say that Carroll wasn’t intelligent and enjoyable, just that I didn’t find it funny. Tastes differ!

  22. Literary fiction is what used to be called fiction.
    Genre fiction is what used be called pulp fiction.

    No.

  23. “He IS a professor of Philosophy. What journals would the writer prefer him to read? ”

    The objection is not to his reading the Journal of Philosophy, but to his bragging about it.

  24. January First-of-May says:

    OUTRAGE! Carroll is full of mathematicians’/algebraists’/epistemologists’ in-jokes which every adult in the twitterati should be capable of getting.

    It’s actually full of both – but the Victorian in-jokes are 1) a lot less noticeable, and 2) usually funny in their own right (and the few times they’re not they’re just, well, unnoticeable; there’s almost no forced passages that only make sense as an in-joke [well, as a non-mathematical in-joke, at least] – unlike Monty Python, which is filled with those).
    And I guess occasionally 3) explained in-story (you don’t need to have Tweedledum and Tweedledee in your own culture to understand the respective chapter, because the chapter makes it clear that they’re part of Alice‘s culture, complete with the actual text of the poem; to a lesser extent the same is true for the Lion and the Unicorn, though I admit that it’s one of the most forced parts).

    And in a few places Gardner seems to ascribe a lot more to Dodgson that he could realistically have known (I’m pretty sure that any references to the theory of relativity, in particular, are sure to be made up by later commentators and not intended by Dodgson himself).

  25. The objection is not to his reading the Journal of Philosophy, but to his bragging about it.

    A Philosophy professor who mentions that he reads JoP – an academic journal, for fuck’s sake – is by definition not bragging. More logical would be to say that he became a professor of Philosophy in order to impress people, but that would be philistine even for a grandson of the late Sunday Express editor John Junor (Leith).

  26. A philosophy professor (or anyone) who mentions something about themselves and states that it makes them cleverer, wiser, braver, more noble, or whatever can easily be bragging, whether it’s a part of their job or not.

    First surfer on beach: Wow, it’s pretty choppy out there.

    Second surfer on beach: Yeah, but I’m a Navy SEAL and I swam five miles through rougher water than this when we deployed to Syria, so this doesn’t really bother me too much.

    AJP Crown: This is not bragging. A Navy SEAL who mentions that he habitually swims long distances is by definition not bragging.

  27. you don’t need to have Tweedledum and Tweedledee in your own culture to understand the respective chapter

    While 19th-century North European folklorists dug up many rhymes analogous to Humpty-Dumpty (Entepetente, Lille Trille, Gigele Gagele, etc) none was sufficiently well known to be adopted by Lewis Carroll’s translators. A semi-exception is Danish Klumpe-Dumpe, which occurs in HC Andersen’s ‘Fir Tree’ and was rendered “Humpty Dumpty” by English translations of Andersen, then backtranslated in Danish versions of Lewis Carroll. Andersen’s Klumpe-Dumpe “fell down-stairs, and yet was raised to high honours, and obtained the princess’s hand”, which does not correspond very well with the Humpty Dumpty(s) of the nursery-rhyme and Lewis Carroll.

  28. Lewis Carroll is funny because he isn’t afraid to be mean.

  29. Though several online sites claim “humblebrag” was coined by Harris Wittels (associated with “Parks and Recreation” on TV) in 2010, Merriam-Webster online claims to know a usage in 2002. Of course, anyone could have noticed that….

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    @ajay

    This is not bragging

    It so is. The fact that he spontaneously brought up his SEALdom is the bragging.

    When I discuss risk with people (a common part of my job) I sometimes try to deflect the common question “What would you do in my position?” by saying: “I used to live in Nigeria, so my idea of acceptable risk may not be typical.” I have little doubt that this (though perfectly true) is in fact bragging, only a little undermined by the fact that about two hundred million other people can say the same. (And the fact that those of my colleagues in Nigeria who came from big American cities generally seemed to feel that they were, on the whole, comparatively safe in Nigeria.)

  31. Stu Clayton says:

    I summarize the claims made so far.

    1. He’s bragging
    2. He’s not bragging
    3. He may seem to be bragging, but he isn’t really
    4. He may seem not to be bragging, but he is really

    De minimis non curat disputatio, but it does help to while away those hours of leisure in a Christian spirit: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    A plague on your relativism. The Truth is out there.

  33. Stu Clayton says:

    I have never denied that. It’s just that I find tub-thumping about the GPS coordinates of Truth to be unproductive. If only words can convince, we are doomed.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

  35. (I’m pretty sure that any references to the theory of relativity, in particular, are sure to be made up by later commentators and not intended by Dodgson himself).

    According to QI (so it must be true), the Alice books are a thinly-veiled attack on the relativism creeping in to Victorian Symbolic Logic, which reached its culmination in Gödel’s theorem, but was clearly already spreading its malicious tentacles with Frege.

    I won’t add more links, because Hat will only have to rescue this message from durance vile, but Google for Dodgson “stubbornly conservative mathematician” or “non-Euclidian geometry” or “Math wars”.

  36. January First-of-May says:

    I was referring to the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books.

    Dodgson did indeed have loads of ideas about logic (there are much clearer attacks regarding it among his other works, such as What the Tortoise Said to Achilles); sadly the second volume of his Symbolic Logic was never finished (though an edited version ended up published in the 20th century), and the planned third volume apparently never started.
    I can’t think of any direct references to (or attacks against) symbolic logic in either of the Alice books, but at least in this case I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re actually full of them.

  37. Stu Clayton says:

    David E: But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

    Sure, but you don’t gotta accuse me of “relativism”, whatever that may be. I accused nobody of nuttin’. Instead, I remarked on rhetorical patterns being thrown at peanuts (“is he bragging?”). I was throwing peanuts at patterns. It’s called antimetabole.

  38. the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books.

    I’m convinced. Assuming that’s not a doctored quote. I didn’t get through much of Sylvie and Bruno — far too worthy.

  39. Ajay: A philosophy professor (or anyone) who mentions something…AJP Crown: This is not bragging. A Navy SEAL…

    Although no one mentions straw man arguments nowadays (how did that happen? ten years ago they were in every Comments column), apparently they’re thriving.

    Stu: De minimis non curat disputatio

    I know. A LH argument ought to include at least say, one new and interesting link that keeps the hatting audience amused. Without it, the great electronic comment judge should reject the comment as personal therapy and as penance its author would buy Language a book on his wish list.

  40. Steering back to the original point, this “literary fiction versus (genre fiction?)” division sounds like a similar nonexistent binary as the alleged existence of “art music versus popular music”. It’s not a binary, it’s a continuum, and also just one dimension along many, not the One True Measure of what is “real art”.

    I’m happy I don’t pay enough attention to literature to have run into this before, seeing how IME everyone who defends the “art music”/”popular music” division is an insufferably pretentious wanker whose main goal in life seems to be denigrating as uncultured plebs anyone who dares to like different things from him. In retrospective it was obvious that this dynamic should also exist within literature, though…

  41. Steering back to the original point, this “literary fiction versus (genre fiction?)” division sounds like a similar nonexistent binary as the alleged existence of “art music versus popular music”.

    Oh, sure, but it often leads to interesting conversations!

  42. David Marjanović says:

    It really is amazing how much lip service Western culture pays to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, “there’s no accounting for taste” and the like, and then promptly turns around and acts based on the assumption that such things are either objective or can at least be treated as statistical universals with negligible outliers.

  43. the physical theory of relativity, as in the one usually attributed to Albert Einstein. Yes, people have found references to it in the Alice books

    That’s very interesting — I hadn’t come across it before — but I can’t see any way to infer that Carroll was hinting at relativity. The scenario he describes makes perfect sense in the purely Newtonian conception of gravity. Einstein went further — he imagined such a situation and leapt to the wholly new idea that gravity and acceleration are the same thing. That’s the essence of General Relativity.

  44. Why are you leaping to General Relativity? That’s not what most people have in mind when they talk about “relativity.”

  45. @languagehat: The only “relativity” theory that has anything to do with the universality of free fall is General Relativity. The universality of free fall was a well recognized feature of Newtonian physics long before Einstein, and by the middle to late nineteenth century, people were recognizing that it might have implications for the nature of gravity. Riemann, the first person to systematize calculus on curved manifolds, correctly realized that gravitation might be expressed as a result of curvature. However, Riemann only considered curvature of space. The missing piece was the unification of space and time described by Einstein’s Special Relativity. Only with curvature of spacetime was it possible to formulate a geometric theory of gravity that had Newtonian gravitation as a low-energy limit, yet which differed at relativistic energies.

  46. Trond Engen says:

    It seems like the thought experiment was very much in the time, and had been around for a while, and what Einstein did was taking it to another step.

    Update: Or what Brett said.

  47. To put in another way, Carroll’s ‘thought experiment’ has no connection to special relativity. I should have made that clear.

Speak Your Mind

*