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.

Don’t “Show, Don’t Tell”

Earlier this week, on Twitter, I saw an interesting “demolition” of the conventional wisdom that informs no shortage of creative writing classes: “show, don’t tell.” And, being glad to see the conventional wisdom demolished, I thought I’d share the advice I prefer to give my students…

“Show, don’t tell” is, like most creative writing “rules,” bullshit — not to mention a vestige of Cold War-era propaganda and orthodoxies. But, crucially, rejecting it doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to do the opposite and just “tell.” These are the binary extremes of a whole array of choices you’ve got in front of you, and it’s your job, privilege, and responsibility to make your choices freely, knowing what you intend to achieve with them and knowing also what alternatives you’re forfeiting.

So, yes, you can absolutely show instead of telling: you can observe the materiality of an environment, construct characters with intelligible psychologies, set scenes, orchestrate action, depict events cinematically, etc., and thereby immerse your reader in a particular moment. Or you can tell instead of showing: summarise events, enumerate thoughts and feelings, explain motives and consequences, and generally move through time — or back and forth through time — at a faster clip than if you show the nitty-gritty of all this stuff. When you show, you risk losing pace, momentum, and to some extent the significance of details, in cases where significance might come from a freezing of time, or a telescoping of chronology, to dwell on them in-depth or to observe their ripple effects from afar. When you tell, which is to say summarise and/or explicate, you risk losing the immersive capabilities of full-scale depiction, and therefore some of the emotion that readers tend to invest in characters whose stories they experience up-close, in something approaching real time.

(Sidenote: “telling” can also be “showing”, because at least when a first-person narrator tells a story, you are showing them in the act of telling, which overlays a new temporality on the events they’re telling the reader about. And “showing” can also involve “telling”, because when you’ve got an externalised, third-person depiction of a scene in which a character tells a story, you can show others’ reactions both to the telling in the moment and the tale itself. Othello does this really well.)

Anyway, ultimately, it isn’t a binary choice, is it? Page by page, line by line, moment by moment, you’re going to make that choice over and over again, and every time you make it you’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. The artistry isn’t necessarily in showing or telling, but in oscillating between them — in the degree to which you do it, and the frequency with which you do it, and your strategies for modulating the oscillation, gently fading with a nice segue or giving your reader whiplash. And the artistry is also there in having a sense of the effects you can generate by choosing one instead of the other, as well as a sense of the effects you’re not generating — but could — if you went down a different route. So, in rejecting the binary choice, don’t reject it at the outset. You may well want to “show, not tell” at some stage, or “tell, not show.” It’s a choice to make continuously in every moment of the process, depending on what’s in front of you at any given instant.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on Dancing In the Dark, the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it: Continue reading →

Meaning Against the Meaningless

At this late stage, two years after the English translation of the first volume of My Struggle, there’s very little to add to discussions of Karl Ove Knausgaard. A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and now Boyhood Island have spurred so much writing of such a high calibre – by novelists like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and by reviewers like James Wood, Rose McLaren, and especially James Ley, whose essay in the Sydney Review remains easily the best I have read – so that it is now virtually impossible to say anything new about the man and his work. There’s one observation, though, that has made frequent appearances in responses to My Struggle and that strikes me as a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction. It’s the observation that My Struggle is compulsively readable even though its often mundane subject matter should make the reading experience somewhat like wading through treacle, and that the source of the compulsion to read on and read on is therefore shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about this. I think that the source of the compulsion to read is right there in Knausgaard’s first ten pages. Continue reading →