No Thanks, Mr Franzen, I Like My Novels Difficult

Let's give praise to Jonathan Franzen. Not only does he write bestselling novels, he also manages to get on everybody's nerves with a few carefully reckless comments.

Recently he inadvertently became a Twitter trend. This is funny because he hates Twitter. Franzen seems, in fact, to disapprove of many things, and he would like you to know about it. And unlike a good number of other opinionated authors, he manages to be heard just about every single time. This takes talent as well as obnoxiousness. His self-promotion, since the release of his hit novel, Freedom, doesn't consist of much more than occasional bitter remarks about the state of literary matters. Ebooks aren't okay. Twitter is the end of the world. So forth.

A decade ago, Franzen was already an entertaining, intelligent loudmouth, but he was also less famous than we, the apparently uneducated, pop culture-obsessed public, have made him now. He was known for The Corrections. He was friends with David Foster Wallace, and he contributed articles to various highbrow publications. One of them was an essay on one of the most fascinating and neglected American authors in history: William Gaddis.

If you've never read William Gaddis, you're not alone. His name isn't exactly unfamiliar, but you're not likely to find three or four people reading his novels on the subway. Not that subway-goers are dumb — it's merely that Gaddis wrote brick-thick novels of such erudition, scope and sheer difficulty that you're better off at your desk with Wikipedia open if you want to read them. It's not necessary, but it will help. To Franzen, however, this is a bad thing. Why be so impenetrable? Why not be kind to your readers? Why, in the end, should a writer spend his energy creating books that will scare off even a potentially intelligent, sophisticated audience?

Difficulty itself is a difficult thing. It is a difficult thing to define, nearly impossible to delimit. We have all tried to read books we found hard to read, but it's not easy to explain why any one particular book is hard to read and another is not. Most of us don't try to schematize things. Franzen does. And he's not an ignoramus, so we read on.

Franzen has given Gaddis a try. He even makes clear that he appreciated Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions. But enough is enough. Novels written to challenge readers, to shake them out of somnolent, undemanding reading — such novels probably also teeter toward self-indulgence and obscurantism. Perhaps they are Art, but perhaps they are just a waste of time. To Franzen, they are written according to the dictates of a specific mentality, and an ugly but relatable one at that: I mean the mentality according to which "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; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it," as Franzen explains it. This, he implies, is very much how things used to be.

Fearless Franzen ends up advocating a different sort of writer's mentality:

a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. Writing thus entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of "Finnegans Wake" enthusiasts or fans of Barbara Cartland. Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust…

Trouble begins here. How can you possibly disagree with such egalitarian ideals? Why should the snooty, big-headed, big-worded Writers be so full of themselves anyway — and should we lionize them as we do? Franzen is eloquent and (often enough) cautious in what he writes about Gaddis, the ostensible subject of the essay where this dichotomy is elaborated, this difficult choice between Status writing (Mr Writer is a Genius, Leave Him Be) and Contract writing (The Writer and the Reader Work Together). Unfortunately, his eloquence and semi-consistent caution come at the price of seeming like an author thoroughly unconcerned with incredible literature.

These sound like fighting words. They aren't meant to be. I, like anyone else, have been irritated and put off by books that seemed too clever for their own good. Sometimes, after two or three years, I've returned to a book I originally found too clever and ended up loving it for the first time. But that doesn't always happen. It really is a grating sensation: reading a book that seems written to intimidate you, to bully you into admitting that you didn't get it and that you are very simple. While I'm not sure many authors actually set out to accomplish this, it really can feel that way. Franzen, though, takes things to a level where Status writing becomes a mess of elitist bullshit and nothing much more, and Contract writing is just, like, the reasonable thing to look out for.

Have you read The Recognitions? It is a beautiful, intimidating, fascinating, infuriating book. It took Gaddis a long time to write; far longer than it will take anyone to read a few times, but that means nothing much, because it will still take you a good while to read. It's almost a thousand pages long, has many characters, assumes a great deal of knowledge from its readers, and about a hundred pages in, the protagonist, Wyatt, stops being mentioned by his name. The novel was published in the early 1950s, before Thomas Pynchon and before Philip Roth and the other giants of late 20th-century American literature. He set the trend for them, and went unnoticed for a very long time. A man calling himself "jack green" published a weird text he named "fire the bastards!" wherein he pointed out, without punctuation or "proper" spacing, just how incompetent the original reviews of The Recognitions had been. "fire the bastards!" is a wonderful read. It's vicious, convincing, funny, and very scathing. Franzen probably disapproves of it. Yet Franzen's reaction to the difficulty of reading Gaddis's novel is one that I relate to completely:

There were quotations in Latin, Spanish, Hungarian, and six other languages to be rappelled across. Blizzards of obscure references swirled around sheer cliffs of erudition, precipitous discourses on alchemy and Flemish painting, Mithraism and early-Christian theology. The prose came in page-long paragraphs in which oxygen was at a premium, and the emotional temperature of the novel started cold and got colder. The hero, Wyatt Gwyon, was likable as a child ("a small disgruntled person"), but otherwise the author's satiric judgments and intellectual obsessions discouraged intimacy. It was a struggle to figure out what, or even who, the story was about; dialogue was punctuated with dashes and largely unattributed; Wyatt himself dwindled to a furtive, seldom-glimpsed pronoun ("he"); there came brutish party scenes, all-dialogue word storms that raged for scores of pages.

It's not surprising that Franzen found it a challenging read. The fact is: The Recognitions is a brutally challenging book. While I don't agree that "the emotional temperature of the novel" gets colder as the book progresses, I can see where Franzen's coming from. The book is fiercely intellectual at times, occasionally confusing to the point of being maddening, and although it has some moments of utter hilarity, they aren't quite as frequent as you might expect in such a monstrously thick book.

So why should you read it? You don't have to. That's the first point — unless it's on your college syllabus, you can probably get away with not reading it. The idea that what Franzen calls Status writing is the writing of intellectual bullies and their sycophants is just weird. No, you do not have to read Gravity's Rainbow. You don't have to read the Cantos of Ezra Pound. Most of us never do, and life continues, and Franzen goes on making his money and building his literary reputation, and so forth.

If you read The Recognitions for a bit before deciding to slam the book down on the floor and never approach it again, that's fine. You can be a snob about other things — movies, perhaps, or indie music. We are all elitist about something, after all. The weirdness in all of this, as Steven Moore suggests in The Novel: An Alternative History, is that for some reason the really good, ambitious writers are hated for their accomplishments in a way that musicians, actors, Olympic athletes and hey, even doctors, politicians and marketers are not. To quote Moore:

In diving competitions and gymnastics, ratings depend on the degree of difficulty. Magicians who pull off difficult feats get more applause than the guy who merely pulls a rabbit out a a hat, as do jugglers who keep a dozen objects in the air rather than two or three oranges. Experienced climbers and skiers prefer the challenge of a difficult mountain over an easy one; for a good golfer, a "difficult" course is an exciting one. If you enjoy working jigsaw puzzles, do you want a simple one with 30 pieces, or a "difficult" one with 300? … But when it comes to literature, many readers want to be spoon-fed; they want the bunny slope rather than the challenging one, miniature golf rather than the real thing. No wonder movies usually portray bookish types as pansies.

Although he doesn't mention it explicitly in relation to Franzen's essay on Gaddis, Moore (among many things, a Gaddis scholar) brings up the idea of a "contract" between writer and reader that is oddly compatible with — and yet also opposed to — Franzen's. "It isn't a matter of submitting uncritically to a difficult work; it's about trusting that the artist knows what he/she is doing, even if you don't apprehend it right away." Moore adds: "Just keep reading: even the most difficult novel will eventually make some sense, and if you realize you missed things, you can always go back for a second try if still curious."

But why read a difficult novel? If that really is a question that bothers you, and you are revolted by what is often called elitism when you could just as well call it "having read enough books to be bored by formulas and wanting to see something new, something challenging" — well, I don't know. It took me four months to read Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I was eighteen. I hated some of it, but stuck it out. Three years later I based my final undergraduate project on that same book, because I had finally clicked with it. Sure, it's hard-going. It has too many characters, and too many puns, and the fucking protagonist disappears a hundred pages before the end of the book! No real explanation. What the hell — and didn't Gaddis already kind of do that twenty years earlier in The Recognitions? And why should I have to know so much about the kinds of rockets used during the Second World War, Calvinist theology, physics (and goddam "entropy"), 1940s Hollywood, spiritualism and psychics, Pavlovian psychology… Can't I just read it and enjoy it?

Nope. You want to get the most out of Gravity's Rainbow, you have to play by at least some of its rules. You want to "get" Moby-Dick, you need to read the whaling bits too. The Cantos of Ezra Pound may be relentlessly difficult, and you may need to buy a guide, but that's how it is. Pound was one of the greatest poets in history. He knew what he was doing, at least on the page. And if you want to appreciate Gaddis, you probably have to re-read him, not just read him. If you don't have the patience for it, that's fine. Nobody should insult you. But should Jonathan Franzen be speaking on your behalf, O "stupid masses" who just want a good read? Is he necessary?

I have enjoyed a couple of Quentin Tarantino's films without having a clue what particular scenes were alluding to, but apparently he keeps referring to other movies. Some of my film-obsessed friends are capable of explaining what this or that scene means, why this or that camera angle was chosen. I just liked the films. I am totally innocent about the art that goes into "highbrow" cinema (although just as many people would consider Tarantino to be "low" highbrow — like I said, we are all elitist about something). Does that invalidate the art of clever, playful cinematography? I hope not.

Is it really so hard to believe that some people just like being challenged by a book? And that maybe a "pretentious" author doesn't really care about being clever as much as we think he does, and is simply stretching his muscles, trying to do something he's proud of and that a few of us pretentious Status-loving readers will find incredibly accomplished? Maybe Franzen's right about Twitter, insofar as it discourages serious critical attention, offers the world in soundbites, reduces language to a utilitarian "thing" that merits no attention in itself. But I don't think so. Twitter and The Recognitions can, and do, exist in the same world. Ben Marcus once wrote something quite perceptive in response to the same Franzen article that I've been talking about: "The true elitists in the literary world are the ones who have become annoyed by literary ambition in any form."

Or to quote Moore again: "Can't recognize the organization of a novel? Assume there isn't one. Baffled by 'arcana' — i.e., stuff you don't already know? Call the author pretentious. Find a book hard-going? Assume the author is deliberately torturing you."

I'll be right back, I'm off to be tortured.

Image via Reuters

Image of The Recognitions (American Literature (Dalkey Archive))
Author: William Gaddis
Price: $14.47
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 976 pages
Image of Fire the Bastards! (American Literature (Dalkey Archive))
Author: Jack Green
Price: $11.66
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press (1992)
Binding: Paperback, 88 pages
Image of The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600
Author: Steven Moore
Price: $22.39
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 704 pages

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Comments

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! March 15, 2012 - 1:31pm

I'm glad someone came out and said it: if you don't get it and you aren't willing to keep trying, that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. Simple as that. I like your column, Phil, and now I want to read The Recognitions. Speaking of The Corrections, I haven't read that but I heard it's overhyped. But I read Corrections, by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, and it's very dense (though short-ish) and rewarding in a weird way - nothing much happens but a lot is going on (isn't that what would get disqualified automatically by the lazier readership?). I highly recommend it.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing March 30, 2012 - 8:48pm

Just saw this article today.  Good work.

Dean Blake's picture
Dean Blake from Australia is reading generationend.com April 1, 2012 - 12:37pm

Good post.

Sometimes I don't like to read 'elitist' works because if you strip away all the pages of jargon and 'intellectual' mumbo jumbo, you realise that you've spent days reading about a story that actually isn't that interesting, an essay with ideas that are actually incorrect, or a message that can actually be summed down to one or two sentences. And sometimes I don't like to read 'simple' works because, well, they're too trashy.

I'm about halfway through Freedom.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Between Here and the Yellow Sea June 29, 2012 - 5:01pm

I went to see Franzen read last year, sat right up front, and while I enjoy his turns of phrase and appreciate the effort he puts into writing quality work, I also admit to a degree of schadenfreude with how socially-awkward the man is. That, genius he may be, but I write just fine and can actually speak to a girl without peeing myself.

jgabbard42's picture
jgabbard42 from Indiana is reading Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher October 4, 2012 - 8:57pm

I read Freedom with great zeal...and yet I hated it.  I've rarely read a book that I couldn't put down while simultaneously disliking every character. And the back story.  Why so much frickin' back story?