The difficult art of writing well

Not long ago I got involved in yet another online debate on the relative merits of simple and difficult when it comes to literature. Those who are at all familiar with my general views on the subject will not be surprised to find out that, while I do not equate difficult with good and simple with bad writing, I believe that there are things to be said in favour of being selective in one’s literary choices. I also took an issue, in particular, with a view that reading anything is better than not reading at all — but this is a whole another can of worms that I won’t get into here and now.

There is a delightful if somewhat lengthy article in recent Open Letters dealing with the same topic that takes off from Jonathan Franzen’s distinction of Status and Contract models of literature — and eventually veers off into a Süskindian rundown of some difficult-to-appreciate perfumes.

Franzen, who has recently been all the rage due to his becoming the first living writer to appear on the cover of a major mainstream magazine in the last 40 years and, perhaps even more pertinently, the inclusion of his latest novel in Oprah’s book club, is himself very much in the Contract model camp, which according to Franzen, “represents a contract between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience” and thereby purporting that “a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Franzen tells us, is the Status model, whereby “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” For the adherents of the contract model, this is tantamount to betraying the reader’s trust and smacks of snobbery, contempt and hollow self-indulgence.

This all boils down to an age-old argument on the function of art in general, and literature in particular — is it to please or to challenge us? I would, of course, argue that those two need not be opposed and mutually exclusive. There is a lot of pleasure to be derived from overcoming a challenge, as anyone who has ran a marathon or climbed a mountain can readily attest. In popular attitudes towards literature, however, the complex and difficult is all too often summarily dismissed as meaningless navel-gazing, l’art pour l’art that serves no other purpose than to let a small number of smug and arrogant people lord over the proverbial simple folk.

While I firmly believe that a certain resistance to reader is a necessary component of “good literature”, it is important to note that the level of this resistance is not absolute, nor is it fixed for any particular reader. Reading is not something one learns by memorizing the alphabet, it is a skill that can never be “acquired” or “perfected”, as there is always room for improvement, no matter how much one has read. In a way, this is in fact not primarily a matter of what rather than how one reads, although it is certainly true that some books offer less opportunities for challenging oneself as a reader than the others. The very best of literature provides us with a multitude of such challenges, it resists us in a number of different ways and at several different levels, we won’t outgrow it the way we do in case of Pippi Longstockings (which, of course, is not to say that Pippi is a bad books in itself).

Neither am I trying to say that the extent to which a book makes us toil and struggle is in itself a measure of its literary worth. There is a lot of stuff written that is pretentious, difficult to read and obscure to the point of incomprehension. In a way, I do subscribe to the view that a book is “a contract” between its writer and reader — what I don’t agree with is that the terms of that contract should be set by reader alone. And perhaps it is here where I would draw the line, separating good writing from the bad — if a certain book offers no resistance and places no demands to its reader, in order to be “approachable” by everyone with a minimum effort, it is not a good literature.

Then there are imposters — books that offer faux challenges, that to my mind are the worst of them all. They present an obstacle and then subsequently bulldoze a reader through it (like Dan Brown does it) or go on to completely trivialize the challenge (as in Paolo Coelho). This, in my opinion, is the most serious violation of an implied contract between writer and reader and here I would side with Salman Rushdie who was recently quoted saying that although he is generally very much against burning of books (certainly having some personal experience in this matter), he would burn the stuff that Dan Brown has written. This is also the reason why I am very much skeptical of an apparently rather widespread view that reading sloppy or outright badly written books could somehow eventually lead people to appreciate good literature. If good literature has, as I believe it does, something to do with being taken to a task, then how can one learn to like it by being constantly kept away from any challenges? How can one learn to struggle with a text if he is denied any effort when reading? In other words, I fail to see how does basking oneself in the warm and comforting glow of Coelho’s Alchemist prepare one for the bleakness and struggle of reading Beckett’s Murphy? It would seem to me that the only two experiences that are shared between reading those two books are keeping your eyes open and turning pages.

Speaking of bad books, I am currently reading — or rather, forcing myself through — Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love which is every bit as inane, predictable and generally bad as I expected it to be. I am reading it, however, for a rather specific reason — in order to eventually produce a piece on a particular kind of travel narrative in the Western literature — and when read like this, I must say that it provides some pretty interesting challenges. Those challenges, however, are unfortunately external to the text and therefore will not redeem the book itself.

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