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.

Indie Frictions

I’m glad I didn’t have to say it. I’m glad that Charles Boyle took the initiative. Here it is, anyway, an uncomfortable truth about the relationship between independent publishers and bookshops:

In theory, independent bookshops are by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, no independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) stock CBe titles on a regular basis. (This is an observation, not a gripe.) When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title that is not on the shelves, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis — agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

One of the things I’d add, about which I’ve been asked several times, is a note on why small presses like Splice don’t allow returns. In brief, the industry standard is this: publishers make their titles available to bookstores with a discount on RRP (a minimum of 35%, and usually between 50% and 55%) and on a ninety-day sale-or-return basis, as Boyle indicates. In effect, this means that bookshops can order as many copies of a title as they please, and then, after three months, send back the unsold stock to the publisher at minimal expense to themselves. By “minimal,” I mean that they only have to foot the bill for the return postage, while the publisher has to foot the bill for the printing, warehousing, and initial postage of the stock, as well as other aspects of investment such as sales representation.

To put this in the simplest possible terms, the publisher is required to assume the commercial risk at both ends of the transaction, taking a blind risk on the commissioning of the author before publication and a post hoc risk on the sale of stock after publication. But why? If bookshops know their customers well — and indie bookshops pride themselves on knowing their customers much better than the conglomerates — then why can’t they take the post hoc risk and pay for the stock up-front before selling it on? A refusal of returns forces them to do just this, so that, at least when it comes to titles from Splice, it’s a sure thing that the risk is shared between the publisher and any retailers who would profit from the publisher’s risk. To my mind, that’s just a matter of fair and equitable business practices — although, alas, it’s many a bookshop that has refused to stock titles from Splice on the basis that they can’t return them risk-free.


Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula, in Katy Derbyshire’s new translation, was one of the most subtle books I read last year. In an effort to draw new attention to literature that largely went overlooked during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve dedicated some space at Splice to a review of Hoffmann’s work:

Where Paula really shines… is in its narrator’s capacity for doubt, as Hoffmann carves out spaces in which to question the worth of hoping to know a person by eroding their armour of silence. “What makes a person?” the narrator asks at one point, apparently in despair, unsure about whether stripping back the silence surrounding her grandmother will finally yield anything worthwhile — unsure, that is, as to whether it’s a valid method of developing a sympathetic imagination or merely an engine of fantasy. “And how can a woman add up… if she’s done her utmost to reveal nothing of herself”, she continues, “as though she could still say: No, I won’t give you permission. No, you may not know me. No, you may not tell my story. How far do vetoes extend? How far does silence reach?” There are no ready answers to these questions, and their unanswerability tears holes in the integrity of Paula. It is to Hoffmann’s credit that her narrator is able to leave no stone unturned in her investigation of Paula’s legacy — historical, emotional, and psychological — while also accommodating the possibility that the entire thing is a folly.

Mutual Attraction and Repulsion

New at Splice, here’s my review of Jaimie Batchan’s début novel, Siphonophore, which is narrated by a man named MacGregor who knows himself to be a character in a book written by another man referred to as “the Creator”. Although the novel begins as a fairly straightforward account of the disastrous Darién settlement of 1699,

Siphonophore [eventually] metamorphoses into something more interesting than historical fiction, if still recognisable: a metafiction of the sort in which a character tussles with an omnipotent author. The conceit, so far, is nothing new. Take it as the stuff of philosophy and you get Luigi Pirandello. Take it as material for playfulness and you get At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and Mulligan Stew (1979). Or bear down on the stasis of the narrator’s situation — his awesome displacement combined with his stationary existence — and you get something like Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama (1956) or Gerald Murnane’s ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’ (1985). But Batchan deftly avoids walking the same path as these forebears by introducing a new element, a new source of tension. A third of the way into Siphonophore, MacGregor learns that his Creator has been diagnosed with an illness that will slowly, agonisingly, drain the life from him. The illness is known as Prionic Fatal Insomnia, a real condition that causes sufferers to stop sleeping until, over time, fatigue compounds fatigue and finally results in cognitive failure, organ breakdown, death. So, on one level, Siphonophore straddles two distinct periods in time as well as two consciousnesses — although, rather than permitting the Creator a chance at narration, his twenty-first century worldliness is sort of imported into MacGregor’s thoughts as prior knowledge which he feels to be alien to his experience. But then, ambitiously, Siphonophore introduces a ticking time bomb that brings these two characters into conflict.


In his recent discussion with Dustin Illingworth, Mauro Javier Cárdenas has this to say about the literature of trauma:

I hate the automatisms of trauma. As soon as I hear that dreadful word, henceforth to be replaced with the word demipenteract, I see a hand with ruler & pencil drawing a straight line between demipenteract and present dramatic circumstances, and I hear a voice, stylized for your pleasure — it’s not self-help it’s literature, doctor — that explains the sadness of the demipenteracted. You can’t even watch an airplane movie without poor Mad Max having flashbacks to his demipenteract, which, paradoxically, is supposed to complexify him? And yet of course our demipenteracts, if you’re unlucky enough to have had them, do tend to have an outsized impact, so I am not trying to dismiss them or minimize them but instead I am trying to ask myself how to represent what’s so boringly linear. … In other words my answer to the question of the representation of demipenteracts is to represent the not thinking about demipenteracts.

Yeah, that’s the point I’ve come to as well. Which is to say that my first review of 2021 is a long, very personal, very anxious and ambivalent response to Trauma, a new anthology published by Dodo Ink. Here’s my take:

I’m sympathetic to the value of testimonies of trauma in the cultural discourse. If to speak of trauma is to speak of things done to objectified bodies, those bodies are by definition minoritised: therefore generally not male, white, straight, cisgendered, able, and at least middle-class. When people thus traumatised speak out about their trauma, they do important work for those who are similarly traumatised but remain silent. They create channels for dialogue. They build permission structures for the airing of experiences that would otherwise remain suppressed. They destigmatise trauma. They help to diminish the sense of shame that many survivors carry with them. They agitate for a cultural sphere in which those who testify to their trauma are acknowledged — “seen” — and, if victimised with intent, then believed. They prompt reconsiderations of experiences that sufferers may not have previously seen as traumatic. And they establish new bonds of solidarity, as those with no direct experience of trauma may understand it more keenly if they encounter the testimony of someone with whom they can identify in a bodily sense.

But it’s important as well to view the discourse with scepticism. Any system of validation, no matter how informally structured, inevitably creates perverse incentives and often arbitrary hierarchies of value. If, for instance, this discourse encourages the validation of testimonies of trauma, then doesn’t it ask careerists in pursuit of cultural prominence to embellish their testimonies, to exaggerate their claims? Jeanine Cummins is a glaring example of one who has fallen for the lure, but not everyone who seeks a public platform has to go as far as she did. Perhaps, amid fierce competition for the attention of readers, it can be helpful to characterise an experience as traumatic when it is not clinically so; but then, perhaps, to use the term in this way is to dilute a reader’s understanding of what trauma is, what constitutes it.

And thus begins this year’s coverage of new titles from small presses at Splice.