In 2002, there was a big debate over the validity of experimental literature. It was sparked by an article in the New Yorker, September 30 2002, where “Jonathan Franzen writes about the career of William Gaddis, one of the most imposing modern novelists, and considers the question of whether a novel’s difficulty is related to its quality as literature“. In the online interview that accompanied the article, Franzen raised a few concerns about what he calls “difficult literature”.
As a student, you’re handed Milton or Shakespeare, you’re told that it’s great literature, and you find it difficult to read — at least, at first. If you think of a novel as a contract between the reader and the writer, an agreement to entertain and be entertained, difficulty doesn’t make much sense. But, as soon as you have “important literature,” books with some sort of cultural status, the notion of difficulty sets in.
Once you bring in “Ulysses,” [. . .] it’s now our leading model of a work of great literature. It’s the iconic modern text; it routinely tops lists of the best novels of the twentieth century — which sends this message to the common reader: Literature is horribly hard to read. [. . .] This is fucked up. It’s particularly fucked up in an era when the printed word is fighting other media for its very life.
He draws an important distinction here, between a “contract writer”, whose contract is to meet the reader in an entertaining middle ground; and on the other hand there is the “difficult” literature with a “great” reputation that he says owes more to its difficulty than to its quality.
You could group athletes similarly — wrestlers for example. On one hand, there’s Hulk Hogan, who is under contract to be entertaining, and then there’s an Olympic wrestler, whose “greatness” depends largely on the difficulty of his athletic feats. Franzen makes a fair distinction, in other words. He used a similar athletic comparison himself. The interviewer never asked, but many readers got the impression that Franzen would be more entertained by Hulk Hogan, and he probably couldn’t be bothered to watch the Olympic variety of wrestling. The athletic analogy is wearing thin.
In Defense of “Difficult” Literature
In response to Franzen, Ben Marcus wrote an article in Harper’s, sarcastically titled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it“. In this article, Marcus devotes more than a dozen pages to ripping Franzen a new asshole for suggesting that difficult literature isn’t good literature. An article in Slate magazine summarized the argument as “an unnecessary, and disingenuous, attempt to repolarize American literary culture.” (Repolarize? Go to a lit class. Now go to a bookstore. Compare. Note the polarity. It is not a new polarity, and the argument here is just another episode in an ongoing epic.) Anyway, Slate’s Jess Rowe sums the whole argument up very well.
It would be one thing if the literary world really did comprise omnipotent insiders and destitute outsiders, arrogant avant-gardists and thoughtful Contract novelists. But Marcus and Franzen are both shadowboxing around a more complicated truth: that the modernist credo — “To Make It New” — is part of every contemporary novelist’s DNA, as is a certain degree of ambivalence about the gravitational pull of narrative toward certain well-established forms. We need a vocabulary that can explain a novel like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, which at times feels deeply archaic and yet unfamiliar, rewarding the reader’s expectations on one level and frustrating them on another. Resorting to terms as all-encompassing and diluted as “realist” and “experimental” isn’t furthering the debate.
Rowe must mean by “repolarize” that there’s an additional polarity here, not that an existing polarity has been rehashed. First, we have the dichotomy between “difficult” and “digestible”literature. That’s the dichotomy that concerns Franzen. Then, we have the dichotomy between “realist” and “experimental” literature. It has been pointed out, fairly so, that this isn’t really much of a dichotomy at all. An experimental form of literature can still depict reality, albeit in novel ways. The electronic book review describes the argument in familiar terms, as being between “mainstream” and “alternative”.
More importantly, The Electronic Book Review enters the debate with a focus on the experimental literature itself, with an eye toward the merits thereof (finally). Where Ben Marcus’ argument is mostly a personal attack, it’s refreshing to see a more objective approach to the argument. There is even some discussion of compromise in “Notes from the Middleground“.
The pedagogical task, then, is not so much to convert one side to other, which would prove equally frustrating and useless, but [. . .] to transcend the limiting strictures of the debate. There is always a cell of students who become more interested in the functioning of language over character, of structure over story, during the progress of these sessions; yet, as Franzen observes, Gertrude Stein is simply not accessible for many readers – no matter how engaged with her composition-as-process they might become. [. . .] How to argue away the distinction between a faux-elite/populist constriction – as an aesthetic issue – when the reader who desperately wants to be sympathetic knows, with post-ironic savvy, that these distinctions are primarily economic. . .
At the end of the day, perhaps the debate does come down to economics: some people try to sell books that everybody likes, while other try to get everybody to like the books that they sell. On the other hand, there really is an aesthetic difference between these two types of literature, just as there is between abstract expressionism and neoclassicism.
It is unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate vocabulary for discussing or comparing the differences in the literature, the way there is for discussing the art. In the visual arts, the various styles seem to enjoy a more peaceful cohabitation. With the literary arts, there’s a lot of bickering.