Difficult Literature and the Skill of Reading

Mauro Javier Cárdenas is still doing the rounds for his latest novel, Aphasia, and most recently popped up on Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual podcast with some apt remarks on “difficult literature”:

Crispin: Basically just a constant expression of disinterest in, or almost hostility to, so-called difficult art. Primarily, it seems focused in the literary world at the moment, but there’s this kind of suspicion of literature that isn’t immediately accessible to anybody, or this idea that if a work is challenging in any way, there’s something arrogant about it. …

Cárdenas: For me, difficult books are… these kinds of books are attempting to disconnect themselves from the chatter that is part of our daily lives, whether that’s at the office or online or in the ads that are served to us, or the TV shows that are out there — all these narratives that are constructed around us, that have a conventional feel because they’re so similar to one another. The books that I like… are really trying to say, “What do we talk about when we remove ourselves from that kind of environment?” … and to represent other ways of existing that are outside of these Uber-narratives that are presented to us. … So I think it becomes potentially disconcerting to folks to enter that kind of world, and there’s potentially resistance to that kind of world, because they don’t want to, or they’re tired from their work, or they just want to approach books as entertainment. They want to sit back, relax, open the book, and be able to engage with it, and in order for it to engage easily, it has to mirror the conventional chatter, the conventional narratives. It has to mirror the conventional language in order for you to be able to sit down, relax, and enjoy, without having to use that much of your faculties.

It’s been this way for a long time, though, hasn’t it? Last July, Michael Silverblatt re-released a Bookworm conversation with Zadie Smith from 2006, upon publication of On Beauty, and Cárdenas’ remarks are very reminiscent of Smith’s:

I think of reading as a skill and an art, and if you read badly… The idea we’re given of reading is that the model of the reader is the person watching a film, or watching television, so the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician sits at a piano, and has a piece of music which is the work made by somebody they don’t know — who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely — and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s an incredibly unfashionable idea of reading, and yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

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