Saturday, December 22, 2012

On Difficulty

Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—people object to Vine because of its “difficulty”.   They claim obscure or abstruse words,  long sentences, fragmented episodes.  These are things that get in the way of the story, they claim.  Things that disrupt the pleasure of reading.

Let me make my case.

Suppose you were at a diving event.  Which would you rather see:  a lithe young Australian doing a back one-and-a-half off a high board, or a dumpy, fifty-something Irishman such as myself attempt a cannonball from poolside?  Not for the comedy, mind you.  For the sheer athletic and aesthetic pleasure of a dive.
It’s what they call degree of difficulty.  We are impressed by things exceptional, things that ordinary folks don’t or can’t do.

It’s why literature is more than writing, though we tend to forget it because of the very nature of the literary medium. Neither you nor I would expect to be playing a trumpet well enough to record if we first picked it up a month ago.  But writing is regarded as different, because we all use language.  Everyone can communicate with sentences, but to really write is to delight in the ways of communication, to juggle and manipulate them.

The story itself is part, not all, of fiction, I think.  If it were simply story, if it were the writer’s job to get out of the way, there would be very little difference between how fiction and journalism are done.  But with fiction it seems there is more emphasis on the way the story is told—on language or rhetoric.  In fact, fiction that employs transparent prose and linear, causal narrative is really basically a holdover from the mid to late 19th century—writers like George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Stephen Crane.  Writing before and after that relatively brief window of time is often writing that calls attention to itself, that is ruffle and rhetoric, back-pedaling  and leaping perilously from one circumstance to the next.  Look at Tristram Shandy or The Pickwick Papers or Frankenstein on one side of that window, Lovecraft or Joyce or Garcia Marquez on the other.  These are fictions that delight as much in how the story is told as in what is told.

So I will play with ways of telling.  I will offer my readers a chance to work with the story I tell, to help me make that story by their involved and intelligent work with the words I give them.  I hope that doing some work has its rewards, that the reader emerges, deepened and exercised, from something of mine that they’ve read.  If they don’t, they don’t.  If they choose not to undertake my offer, I understand:  I respect that they want something else from the reading experience, and the two of us wave and walk our separate literary paths.

But in itself, difficulty is not a bad thing, I maintain.  It is a choice, a tactic to reveal and challenge, not a posture or design to intimidate.  Indeed, I think that difficult fiction can respect the reader more; in asking you to shoulder more of the burden than to sit back and be entertained, it is asking you to undertake something that can be a different, and sometimes a better adventure.


  1. TRISTRAM SHANDY is possibly my favorite book EVER! The movie supposedly based on it was, on the other hand, the opposite of my favorite movie, although it was equally strange.

    Thanks for an insightful and generous post, Michael. Just what your readers have come to expect of you.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  2. I wonder what quality in writing (that is a priori difficult) causes some readers to label it as such? There has been a strange resurgence of this in literature - perhaps due to a recent spate of "difficult books" (Danielewski comes to mind). This also exists recently in film, it was not long ago when a widespread cultural debate occurred where phrases like "cultural vegetables" and "the meaning of boring" were bandied about like nobody's business.

    In both instances it (unfairly) places the burden on the artist/critic to defend the work of art as something that exists beyond the trouble it gives you, as something that transcends the very things that impede your progress, when any argument to that effect necessarily misses the point (which you make here). These films are boring, these books are difficult, but it is precisely because of that quality that they reach greatness.

    Maybe we're used to things moving quickly in this new fangled digital age. We like our webpages loading, our mail received, our statuses updated in seconds. (Or is seconds even too long to wait?) So when we read a book or watch a film that challenges us, that takes a while, its easy to dismiss it, using really meaningless words. (If a book is difficult, so what? Books are difficult. They are books.) The truth may be that in this moment in history we will not abide a work of art that causes us to slow down from the bustle of our lives, to sit in a chair and read for a day, to watch a movie that seriously makes you reevaluate the world.

    For my part, this is why I hope boring films and difficult books continue to be made.