Heading Into Literature

Following on from his earlier Twitter thread about “readability”, Sam Byers has a sharp take on what’s really happening beneath the surface of cultural discussion about the death of the novel in light of the rise of streaming entertainment. Netflix says it’s competing with books for the attention of readers/viewers. Byers says this:

Of course Netflix might say they’re competing with books. That doesn’t mean they are. And when we talk about them as this all conquering force we are in some ways doing their work for them. But there is a deeper problem, and that is the way we talk about literature and the way that conversation has become increasingly dominated by a single word: story. … If we regard both television and literature as mere delivery mechanisms for an entertainment drug called “story”, then it seems to me that, yes, TV is the more efficient delivery mechanism. However, both forms are actually more than that, and the ways that they are more than that are fundamentally different from each other. Ironically, I think both forms suffer when we reduce their strengths to a nebulous concept of story.

Literature is not actually just about story. Literature both arises from, and is concerned with, language. More significantly, literature is a medium almost unparalleled in its ability to explore a key aspect of our lives: our interiority, our consciousness. TV and film, meanwhile, are able to bring a level of visual and auditory experience that literature obviously can’t match. They can tap right into our senses. In the race to the bottom to regard all broadly narrative art forms as mere story mechanisms, we’ve lost sight of both those things. We’re fixated on “what happens”. We expect a certain rhythm of being “gripped”. We want everything to be “addictive”, “can’t put it down etc”. The novel is so much more than this, and in my view the future of the form lies not in the ways it might mimic the structures and narratives of TV series, but in the courage of writers to use language to access places TV can’t reach. …

I think a real timidity has developed around literature that is not televisual. And I think writers have compounded this by often seeming very uncomfortable talking about literature in “pretentious” intellectual and creative terms. This is a great time, I think, to head into literature, to remind ourselves what language and the written world can do, and to think about “stories” that just wouldn’t make it onto TV.

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.

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. Continue reading →