What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

Beyond the Praise

I’m a longtime admirer of the literary criticism of Daniel Green. I reviewed his essay collection Beyond the Blurb when it came out a few years ago, and I’m honoured now to have him writing on a regular basis for Splice. This week, he has chimed in with a review of Anna Burns’ Milkman, and he’s tackling the question of “difficulty” head-on.

The whole review is full of keen observations, not only about the novel but also about the way the novel has been discussed and praised. Of course, Green himself writes favourably about Milkman, but he also finds something untenable about the critical tendency to praise it for its representation of political turmoil in Northern Ireland while appreciating its stylistic features in an ancillary way, as if they’re intriguing by the by — or, worse, the tendency to simply give a tip of the hat to the style while “ploughing on,” or “working through it,” to reach the political marrow. Green reminds us that Burns’ choice of style is its own political manoeuvre, and argues that not giving pre-eminent consideration to this choice can entail missing out on something significant in Milkman rather than accessing something else in a more direct way.

In retrospect, this review works hand-in-hand with Green’s first review for Splice, focusing on David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On. What I appreciate about both of them is the way they challenge the reductive tendencies of a critical consensus. They’re not necessarily challenging the consensus per se, not breaking with the praise for either of these two books — but once a consensus begins to develop around a book (eg. Darker With the Lights On is “dreamlike” or Milkman is abstracted and digressive) there’s a pressure on critics to move the discourse forward, and this leads many people to adopt certain terms without thinking through their implications. I include myself in this.

In these two reviews, however, Green reminds us to stop, slow down, take pause, think twice. Are David Hayden’s stories really “dreamlike”? Is that the most apt way to describe them? Do we use that word just because they feel like dreams? Is it appropriate if they don’t necessarily follow a dream logic? And do we pre-emptively circumscribe our reading of the stories, their effects, their strategies if we take their being “dreamlike” as our starting point, the basis for our engagement? And then, Anna Burns — her novel is really and ultimately about Northern Ireland, isn’t it? But is it so specifically about Northern Ireland if the author employs strategies of abstraction that remove us from the setting? When we see the specificities of time and place in Milkman, how much do they issue from us, as readers, rather than from the text? How much of what we see of Northern Ireland is due to our habit of reading the specificities into the voids of Burns’ abstractions, supplying Milkman with what the author has removed from it?

In the hurly-burly of publication, prizes, reviews, counter-reviews, and so on, it’s all too easy to take for granted things that adhere to a text — coming to them from elsewhere in the discourse — and appraise a book without questioning them. But Green keeps an eye on them and reminds us to question them, to see through them to the originary text. And to see that a book might deserve praise for the ways it anticipates and challenges the very terms we’re likely to apply to it.

Voices or Ventriloquism?

With the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist making space for Alex Pheby’s Lucia, Will Eaves’ Murmur, and Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, it’s clear that there’s a trend for “bio-fiction” — fictionalised biographies of real historical figures — which raises a number of questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics. There’s a fascinating discussion of these issues on the latest RofC podcast and a welcome defence of more experimental strategies from the powers that be at Galley Beggar Press.

RofC in Retrospect

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the “Love Takes Risks” conference on small presses at UEA in Norwich, and the announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize. I was there to represent Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There, which was published by Splice last year and landed a spot on the longlist back in January. Ultimately, Hang Him didn’t make it through to the next round, but that’s okay; I was honoured just to have Splice represented during its first year of operations, and I also had a great time listening to the plenary session that preceded the shortlist announcement. That session featured the powerhouse trio of David Hayden, Eley Williams, and Chris Power in conversation — and my fingers were flying across the touchscreen as I tried to document it all on Twitter in real time. If you’re interested in following the threads I unspooled, start here and read to the end, then follow up here with a look at a part of the thread that somehow branched off from the first.

Beckett Without Beckett

Here’s another double-take. Earlier this week, at Splice, I reviewed Sam Thompson’s new novel, Jott, which depicts a lightly fictionalised version of Samuel Beckett and even includes fragments of pastiche representing the fictionalised Beckett’s outpourings:

[But] Jott… is really a novel whose various elements — the characters and their situations, as well as styles of thought and expression — are assembled in an array of delicate equipoises and counterpositions. At its heart is the dynamic of antagonism and conciliation between two oppositional personalities. Arthur is a buttoned-down young man so polite and cerebral, so emotionally distant and contained, that he remains ashamed of himself for the secret he harbours: he is “two months from his thirtieth birthday” and he has never had “a sexual experience”. Louis, conversely, is puerile and lascivious, deflationary and iconoclastic, a provocateur “burning with conviction to the fingertips, living by a hunger that would not be satisfied, incapable of doing a dull or conventional thing”.

Then, later in the week, I spoke to Thompson about the place of this type of writing in the current literary landscape:

Were you conscious of contributing to a minor trend in contemporary literature? Jo Baker fictionalised Beckett in A Country Road, A Tree (2016), and a version of Beckett appeared again in Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018). What’s your response to writing on a similar wavelength to these books?

You know all those ‘punk’ genres in SF — cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk and so on? I like that terminology because it captures how fiction can take a certain setting, with its associated sensibility, paraphernalia and preoccupations, and work it up into an aesthetic which becomes an end in itself. Writing Jott felt that way to me. The whole business of writing á clef was really just an excuse to get inside an atmosphere and invent a world. So maybe that’s the nature of the kinship with A Country Road, A Tree and Lucia — I wasn’t conscious in advance of joining in a trend, but maybe Jott belongs to the micro-genre of Beckettpunk.

Only Language

Marc Nash’s Three Dreams in the Key of G is a difficult, demanding novel of absolutely virtuosic language. After David Hebblethwaite reviewed the novel for Splice, I put some questions to Nash about his creative ambitions and his process:

Let’s kick off with something notable about the title: the assonance, four rounds of “/e/”. This seems to be a signal to the reader, before page one, that Three Dreams will be a novel that relishes prosody and the possibilities it opens up: rhyme, wordplay, double entendre, and so on. How do these elements of style become part of your writing process?

I think about words a lot. Words that fail, that don’t quite convey the meaning I’m after (oh, for the German language’s facility for compound words); words that have more than one shade of meaning, and my attempting to suggest both meanings within a single usage in a sentence; and as you say, prosody, the sounds of words, puns, lexeme echoes and so on. I like using words in unexpected contexts, in sentences where you wouldn’t expect to find them. I like veering between high and low vocabulary, from scientific or words with august roots in ancient Greek or Latin, through to street slang or online speak. And when I say ‘like’, I mean that that tends to be my focus in the writing.

Because I’ve written a lot of flash fiction (fiction of 1000 words or fewer), I’ve written stories sometimes riffing off a single word. So a single word can prompt a whole chain of words in its wake. The words lead me. When I write, I don’t think about plot or character so much as voice and language. Character is fully contained within voice, so that takes care of that. And as for plot: again it comes back to the voice, what it’s saying and how it’s saying it.

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.