In the distorting light of immediate impression,
one's own period tends to seem more extreme than any other, our
deficiencies more egregious. This literary moment's persuasive
illusion is that fewer works that challenge the reader's skills
are being read. The reasons may be beside the point, though they
are everywhere apparent. Impatience seems high on the list. We
want immediate payoffs for our commitments of time and concentration.
Fiction, suggests the evidence, tends to be used more and more
as a licit form of drug abuse.
The difficult in fiction has a variety of faces.
There are opaque surfaces, obscure diction, work that is challenging
conceptually. There are also fictions that appear simple that
are deceptively elusive. Difficult fiction is not, as has been
assumed, less emotionally compelling than readily accessible work.
The fiction I'm talking about tends to resist easy manipulation,
does not wear its emotional life on its sleeve. It's arguable,
of course, but I'm not alone in thinking that the most original
fiction in America of the last three decades comes by and large
from the difficult writers on the postmodernists panel at Brown
ten years ago.
Originality tends to generate difficulty in that
it breaks faith with expectation, undermines the prevailing verities
of last season's fashion. Originality, by definition, takes us
by surprise. Surprise is one of the touchstones of art. Literary
art is always difficult during our first unescorted encounter
with it. It often arrives without fanfare and without self-defining
It's probably fair to say that art sells only
when it becomes an identifiable commodity. Commercial publishing
tends to court literary work that is a thinly disguised variation
on the recognizably artful last year's award winner tricked
out to seem at once new and safely familiar. We are continually
offered the illusion that there is nothing new by people who believe
that the new is really just the same old thing shrewdly disguised
in this year's marketing strategy.
It is easy to blame television for corrupting
our habits, which is one of those partial truths in general currency.
Liking television doesn't preclude liking to read. Television
is our national tranquilizer, the drug that talks back and has
no calculable effect on our bodily chemistry. It is a hard act
for written fiction to follow. Even the simplest books require
the translation of language into thought and image.
Reading itself, reading anything, is an ambitious
act in an age dominated by visual media. Still, what's the point
of reading work that is like television when television itself
is tastier and more digestible, and less time-consuming. If one
reads at all, doesn't it make sense to go for an experience in
which language (the medium itself) is central, something one can't
get from television or movies or anything else?
My concern is with the onerous tendency toward
greater accessibility in literary fiction at the expense of mystery.
The system of course has its own self-referring logic. Books brought
out by small presses with little or no publicity budget, which
is to say little or no public identification, have virtually no
hope of selling fast enough to earn shelf space in the stop-and-shop
bookstores. Review media unwittingly collaborate with the chain
of circumstances that discriminates against difficult fiction.
Media give extensive review space by and large to books publishers
announce as important through, among other signifiers, commitment
of advertising budget. Even writers of major established reputations
who are not perceived to have large audiences pay the price.
For example, in the August 7, 1988, New York
Times Book Review, John Hawkes, one of our great originals,
was reviewed on page 11. The reviewer, Patrick McGrath, ends his
mostly admiring review with, ``It [Whistlejacket] is nonetheless
an intricate and tantalizing book, quite strong enough to maintain
John Hawkes's position as the most consistently interesting writer,
in terms of formal inventiveness, intelligence and sheer grace
of prose, at work in the U.S. today." Good to see John Hawkes
given his due on page 11, but if fashion allowed, if the difficult
were not in disrepute, we might see a new novel by the most consistently
interesting writer in the U.S. today acknowledged on page 1.
Now I come with some trepidation to the argument
hitherto implicit in the title of this piece. What's fun about
reading fiction that yields itself grudgingly? Ah, fun! Still,
I think it reasonable to say that the more active we are as readers
the greater the potential satisfaction in the reading experience.
The more we give to a text the more the text yields in return.
It's a bit like love. But isn't everything?
The reader who is interested in the music of a
sentence (that reader all writers imagine for themselves) is willing
to brave the difficult in pursuit of discovery. It is not the
resolution of difficulty he is after, but the nature of the mysterious,
Take for example a favorite passage of mine from
John Hawkes's The Lime Twig:
Alone with the tar doors dripping and the petrol
and horsewater drifting down the gutters, the boy would waggle
the animal's fat head, hide its slow shocked eyes in his hands,
flop it upright and listen to its heart. His fingers were always
feeling the black gums or the soft wormy little legs or quickly
freeing and pulling open the eyes so that he, the thin boy,
could stare into them. No fields, sunlight, larks only
the stoned alley like a footpath or a quay down which a black
ship might come sailing if the wind held, and down beneath the
mists coming off the dead steeple-cocks the boy with the poor
dog in his arms and loving his close scrutiny of the nicks in
its ears, tiny channels over the dog's brain, pictures he could
find on its purple tongue, pearls he could discover between
the claws. Love is a long close scrutiny like that. I loved
mother in the same way.
To my eye, this passage itself makes an unassailable
case for the difficult. And maybe, in the long run, the difficult
is not really so difficult. Joyce's Ulysses, for example,
has lost much of its vaunted difficulty with time because of our
increasing familiarity with its once radical-seeming conventions;
its techniques have been afloat in the literary air for years.
What remains undiminished, as with the Hawkes passage, is the
surprise of its language.
If one goes to the trouble of reading, maybe one
ought to read books that are as treacherous as whitewater rafting,
books that throw one's whole way of seeing into question. Difficult
fiction is probably dangerous; it undermines more preconceptions
than we are often ready to yield. At its best, as in the novels
of John Hawkes, it gives one the exhilaration of having survived
the ineffably perilous. As a consequence of such reckoning, we
are as readers, for the moment at least, new born.
"The Pleasures of the Difficult" was
originally published in slightly different form in American Book
Review, March-April 1989. The version appearing in Frigate
was read at Brown University during the John Hawkes Memorial Festival,
April 13-14 1999.
DRAWN ON IN THIS ESSAY
Hawkes, John. The Lime Twig, Second Skin, Travesty. Penguin
USA, 1996. Paperback, 352 pgs., $14.95.
ALSO OF INTEREST (Recent Publications)
Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. E P Dutton, 1995. Paperback,
Barthelme, Donald. Snow White. Scribner,
1996. Paperback, 186 pgs., $11.00.
Coover, Robert. Briar Rose. Grove Press,
1998. Paperback, 96 pgs., $11.00.
Coover, Robert. Ghost Town. Grove Press,
2000. Paperback, 160 pgs., $12.00.
Coover, Robert. A Night at the Movies Or, You
Must Remember This. Dalkey Archive Press, 1997. Paperback,
197 pgs., $11.95.
Coover, Robert. Pinocchio in Venice. Grove
Press, 1997. Paperback, 336 pgs., $12.00.
Coover, Robert. Pricksongs & Descants:
Fictions. Grove Press, 2000. Paperback, 256 pgs., $12.00.
Elkin, Stanley. Boswell: A Modern Comedy.
Dalkey Archive Press, 1999. Paperback, 372 pgs., $13.95.
Elkin, Stanley. Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers
& Criers. Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. Paperback, 272 pgs.,
Elkin, Stanley. The MacGuffin. Dalkey Archive
Press, 1999. Paperback, 283 pgs., $12.95.
Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American
Novel. Dalkey Archive Press, 1998. Paperback, 512 pgs., $16.95.
Gaddis, William. Carpenter's Gothic. Penguin
USA, 1999. Paperback, 272 pgs., $13.95.
Gaddis, William. JR. Penguin USA, 1993.
Paperback, 725 pgs., $18.95.
Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. Penguin
USA, 1993. Paperback, $21.95.
Gass, William. Cartesian Sonata: And Other
Novellas. Basic Books, 2000. Paperback, 304 pgs., $15.00.
Gass, William. In the Heart of the Heart of
the Country & Other Stories. David R. Godine, 1984. Paperback,
Gass, William. Omensetter's Luck: A Novel.
Penguin USA, 1997. Paperback, 320 pgs., $12.95.
Gass, William. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.
Dalkey Archive Press, 1999. Paperback, 64 pgs., $11.95.
Hawkes, John. The Frog. Penguin USA, 1997.
Paperback, 208 pgs., $11.95.
Hawkes, John. An Irish Eye. Penguin USA,
1998. Paperback, 176 pgs., $12.95.
Hawkes, John. The Owl and the Goose on the
Grave/Two Short Novels. Sun & Moon Press, 1995. Paperback,
217 pgs., $12.95.
Hawkes, John. Whistlejacket : A Novel.
Dalkey Archive Press, 1997. Paperback, 208 pgs., $12.95.
FICTION OF JONATHAN BAUMBACH ONLINE
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