On Difficulty

Now that this year’s Booker Prize has gone to Anna Burns’ Milkman, we’re back into a discussion of the value of “difficulty” in literature, as distinct from “accessibility.” The novelist and critic Sam Byers has a typically astute take on the situation, on Twitter:

I think this year’s booker has demonstrated that in fact we do have the means to reward daring, challenging writers. The problem is that we no longer have a mainstream media that’s capable of responding to that intelligently.

I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that there’s something of a crisis in British literary critical culture, at least as represented by the major newspapers, but I think this year’s booker has helped me understand that the way the prize is *covered* is most of the problem

The press is increasingly reluctant to do anything that comes too close to old fashioned textual analysis. All their braying about the booker has in many ways just been a slightly desperate shout of “give us something we can turn into a story”. There has been very little idea of how to cover the books in question. Instead there has been an increasingly blundering effort to talk about “sales”, “readers”, brits, booksellers, “difficulty” etc.

So I wonder now if this year should be the year we come to understand a rather thorny problem. Not only are we over-reliant on book prizes to make books “successes”… [but] book prizes themselves are over-reliant on a media ecosystem no longer adequately equipped to consider in any meaningful detail what they do and decide. Meanwhile, an increasingly anti-intellectual, populist atmosphere has encouraged a way of thinking about literature that is generalist, insubstantial, frequently patronising, and based on limited textual reference.

This sort of “criticism” relies on profoundly woolly concepts: “readers” (always characterised as a homogenous mass), and a fairly useless “difficulty vs readability” metric that apparently no-one has noticed is entirely subjective.

I think that’s exactly right, and worth elaborating on. My suspicion is that there are two really basic, often unarticulated assumptions underpinning 99% of literary criticism and reviews in the press.

Assumption 1: that because the building blocks of literature are in common use and free of charge (everyone has access to the language and doesn’t have to pay for it), it doesn’t really take any special skills to write a book. What it takes is a special idea and then the time to sit down and write the book, using the tool of language — which almost everyone already wields — in order to execute the idea. But there’s supposedly nothing skilled about the use of language itself, therefore no process of trial and error by which a writer might hone that skill, therefore no need to consider the writer’s skill (especially relative to other writers) in reading the finished product. It’s as if there’s an idea and there’s a product, and between these two poles there’s a process of execution, but that process only involves maximising the value of the originating idea and not the skill involved in applying language to it.

Assumption 2: That because literature is culturally construed as one variant form of entertainment, evaluating it involves putting it on a plane with other forms of entertainment (cinema, theatre, television, live music, etc) and assessing its approach to their shared properties. Which basically boils down to narrative and/or emotional arc. So literature is “supposed” to involve “a good story, well-told” — with all that that entails — and criticism involves determining how well a writer conceives and tells it (and, relatedly, develops its characters).

And then there are the evident consequences of these two assumptions:

  1. criticism that glances over the very properties that make a work of literature literature and not another form of entertainment (or art)
  2. criticism that diminishes the importance of the very skills that allow writers to write the literature that other language users simply don’t write (but supposedly could, if they had the time)

Combine those two things and you’ve got the starting point for literary criticism in mainstream outlets. If a work of literature is valuable in terms other than those, because it does things beyond their scope, then reviewing it involves not only assessing it but also identifying and articulating new terms of evaluation that are unfamiliar to many readers. This requires space for elaboration, which many review outlets don’t provide. It also requires credence on the part of the reader, an openness to the reviewer’s articulation of new terms.

For my part, I think many people are willing to enter into the dialogue that this would entail. And with shows like Masterchef and Bake-Off making entertainment out of paying attention to the fine-grained textures of food, and explaining the skill involved in its artful presentation, in a way that just didn’t happen ten years ago, I think there’s good evidence for a cultural openness to having one’s terms of evaluation broadened and given greater nuance, although the presentation has to be engaging and clearly the arts have some catching up to do (Mark Kermode notwithstanding).

Anyway, take the diminishing space for mainstream reviews and combine it with many reviewers’ presumptions about readers (impatient with complexities, unwilling to go beyond the prevailing terms of evaluation) and you’ve got the conditions that explain the reception of Milkman. When a reviewer calls a work of literature “difficult,” and doesn’t explain simply that that means the book breaks with conventions and established expectations, and doesn’t articulate the terms on which it is valuable or innovative or skilfully made, what they’re really saying is that they don’t have the space (or the patience? or the ability?) to explain it, and they don’t think their own readers would understand anyway. But by definition there is nothing “difficult” about a work of literature that is evaluated on appropriate terms which have been adequately articulated to receptive readers. It becomes accessible: the review has opened it up for readers who may have been closed off from it.

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