Sunday, October 02, 2005

It's too hard

(and no, the title is not a sexual remark...probably)

But if anyone's reading, let's get a dialog going (sorry about the verb choice, corporatespeak may be tainting my vocabulary) about this tidbit from J-Franz:

Joyce seems like a central figure in this debate, since he went from the "Dubliners" stories, which are, at the level of language, perfectly transparent to average readers, to "Ulysses" and beyond. How much are other writers still affected by his example?

Once you bring in "Ulysses," you invite a discussion like one you might find in some endless thread online—people sounding off angrily on one side and the other, everybody losing their head. I'm personally not a great fan of "Ulysses"—to me, the book feels like some big, chilly Old World cathedral stuffed with iconography, with tourists walking through it quickly, and devotees consulting with the priestly critics who comprehend its Mysteries, and the whole edifice certified by the state and by scholars as Great Art. But the problem is not so much the difficulty of the book itself as the particular status the book has acquired. I mean, it's now our leading model of a work of great literature. It's the iconic modern text; it routinely tops lists of the best novels of the twentieth century—which sends this message to the common reader: Literature is horribly hard to read. And this message to the aspiring young writer: Extreme difficulty is the way to earn respect. This is fucked up. It's particularly fucked up in an era when the printed word is fighting other media for its very life. If somebody is thinking of investing fifteen or twenty hours in reading a book of mine—fifteen or twenty hours that could be spent at the movies, or online, or in an extreme-sports environment—the last thing I want to do is punish them with needless difficulty.

Now, there are some good points here I think (and I admit to liking to the point of jealousy the Ulysses-as-Olde-World-cathedral metaphor) but I rankle at the idea that literature should "dumb down" in order to compete with other media.

The point of contention here centers around just what "needless difficulty" is I think. Are the alternating naratives in Richard Powers' "Plowing the Dark" needlessly difficult? Are the numerous art history references? Or could it be simply a content issue? Are the graphic accounts of murder in American Psycho more difficult than a toned-down version would be?

I think it should be up to the readers, and so long as talented writers can still "make it" I think all this "competing with tv and the internet" talk is bullshit of a high caliber. I enjoy a good novel or short story usally because I can't find anything close to it in any other medium.
I can't think of a single thing on the internet or tv that can compete with being curled up in bed, with some good music (say, Rachmaninoff...or maybe some Explosions in the Sky), Infinite Jest open, my two bookmarks at hand, truly enjoying every second (exception: if the bed was shared with a girl also reading IJ with me...but that may be one of those truly impossible fantasies).

For tomorrow (or so): Literary celebrity--what's it mean to you?

1 comment:

Sisyphus Walking said...

Will,
I'm glad to see you're back in the blogworld. Of course, the controversy in your post is without answer, but I'll put in my two cents.
First, you can't compare The Dubliners wtih Ulysses because Dubliners is an attempt at mimesis in the Platonic sense while Ulysses is written in the expressive mode. The goals of the books are different, and so it is impossible for them to succeed in the same way.
As far as hating on difficult books, of course most Americans are going to have a problem with Ulysses. Most Americans want mimetic art (hence the glory of Realism and the popularity of TV and movies which are Realistic and "Reality TV"). Their reason for wanting mimetic art is that they can identify with it easily, which gives them the sense of being intelligent and ultimately serves a self-congratulatory function. "Look how smart we are, we get it!"
Meanwhile, art that pursues expression will never be popular in the mainstream. Does your average American know Mark Rothko? The reason is that it grapples with complexity from an interior angle, without sifting through reality and gelling it into spoon-sized quantities. Example, Condoleezza Rice on George W. Bush - "He least likes me to say, 'This is complex.'" (The New Yorker, Oct. 14, 2002)
Americans (and now most people in "civilized nations" which are influenced by America militarily and otherwise) don't want complexity. Why? It makes them feel stupid and inferior, and NO ONE wants to be made to feel that way because it takes away their happiness. With happiness as the singular goal of life, we've lost integrity.
Consequently, it is only among academics who desire an exploration of the human psyche that books like Ulysses will ever be popular. The rest of the world, for the most part, is seeking happiness, not meaning in their lives.
And, as far as 'needless complexity,' this term I think is a manifestation of the speaker's own insecurity. If art pushes us linguistically, emotionally, or in any other way, it repudiates that we are living perfect lives, which forces us to contemplate our own state of being - a contemplation few dare to endure.