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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why do 'hard' novels give pleasure?

Over at Ask Eric, Eric Wagner tackles a question posed by Michael Johnson: ""I wonder what you'd say about the role of difficulty in reading books like The Cantos, Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, Zukovsky, Gravity's Rainbow, WSB, The Wasteland, the S-Cat Trilogy, even Illuminatus! (Just today someone on Internet labeled Illuminatus! as 'unreadable.')?"

Eric chews on this, remarking, "I don't think I have a very good answer." But he does pretty well, I think.

I don't have a very good answer either. If a book is too hard, i.e. I can't get much out of it, I don't tend to like it. At the same time, there's no question that my taste in fiction often favors fairly difficult books, i.e. I've always loved Vladimir Nabokov, who isn't exactly a pulp writer, and I love ILLUMINATUS!

I think that part of the answer is that dumb, silly fiction seems flat and lifeless to me, and fiction which is complex seems particularly vivid, as it seems to work for me on more than one level. It is denser with information. I think that's part of what RAW meant, in a quote that Michael includes in his comment on Eric's post, that RAW liked works that were "inexhaustible." He liked books that were so  dense with information there was always more to be retrieved.

Michael's question inspired an interesting blog post of his own.


jdgalt said...

Stephenson's Cryptonomicon shows that a novel can be very information-dense without being at all hard to read, so I really don't buy the excuse.

I believe that when someone writes a book that's next to impossible to understand, either he's hiding something from would-be censors (Crowley's Book of the Law) or he's just wasting our time because he thinks it's a great joke to do that to us.

I place Joyce's work in the latter category. Your mileage may vary.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite novels, but clearly there are different ways of being "information dense." I'm not a Joyce scholar, though, so I feel ill-equipped to argue the case for Joyce.