In defence of difficult books
I write accessible books. The language is clear, the characters quickly identifiable; two of my three published novels follow the arc of a romantic comedy. I’m aiming to entertain, not win a literary prize, though I do seek to include some passages of reflection and depth.
This doesn’t mean that I’m an inverted literary snob, however. I think that there is a place for a challenging work, in which perhaps the point of view is continually changing, or is deliberately oblique, in which the language is dense but also richly lyrical, in which there may be a large cast of characters; books by authors who refuse to deploy conventional storytelling rhythms.
It has become an issue recently, because a few well known authors have proudly advised that it’s fine to give up on a book if it doesn’t engage you. Jojo Moyes said in a tweet in February that she frequently doesn’t finish books, and a prominent literary agent mentioned this tweet, adding that there is no need to feel any guilt over abandoning a book. Mark Billingham, the popular crime author, made a similar point at last year’s Margate Book Festival, as Nick Hornby had done so at a bookish event a year or two earlier. Life is too short to waste ploughing through a tale that doesn’t engage you, was the gist.
I think they are mistaken. There seems to be an assumption that the only emotion one has to manage is that of guilt. What about curiosity? Desire for intellectual challenge? And what about the fear of missing out? If I were to name the 25 or 30 most captivating novels that I have ever read, the list would include two difficult works that I came close to abandoning: La Ciudad y Los Perros by Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. The former has an all-male cast, and is set at a military academy. The characters talk in vernacular, the prose is dense and the story is painstakingly slow in the initial chapters. Bolaño’s masterpiece is tougher still: a long tale, stretching over two continents and a long period of time; there are multiple points of view, but none of them is that of either of the two main characters (it’s a long time before you recognize this). In both these works, however, at around the half-way point, I could see what the author was doing, I was hooked by the respective stories, and loved the beautiful prose.
Even in those advanced works which failed to move me, or overly impress me, I wouldn’t say I regretted finishing them. They included aspects that I admired, and offered a learning opportunity.
My experience of reading difficult literary books is varied. They fall into three broad categories:
Astounding, glad I persisted — Examples: La Ciudad y los Perros, The Savage Detectives, Beloved, Milkman.
Clearly brilliant, but would require more learning for me to appreciate fully — Examples: The Waste Land, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Seemingly overrated, but I’m probably missing something — Examples: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Essex Serpent, Oscar and Lucinda.
This is a very personal selection. I would not be surprised if another reader listed some of the same books, but under different categories.
As a writer of (hopefully) entertaining and accessible novels, I have learned many of the techniques that help make a narrative easier to read — consistency of voice, clarity of point of view, convincing nature of dialogue. This has also helped me appreciate better the authors who use the techniques to construct works with more elaborate architecture than mine.
Some of the finest writers display admirable versatility. Graham Greene and Vargas Llosa both achieved the highest literary recognition for their work, but they also produced entertaining page-turners. Greene wrote a political thriller, The Human Factor, and Vargas Llosa penned a hilarious romantic comedy, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Personally, I don’t regard these as lesser works, but that doesn’t mean I wish that all their output had been as easy on the reading eye.
A mistake that the literary snob can make is to assume there’s no depth in a novel that is entertaining, especially if it is funny. A mistake that the inverted snob can make is to assume that there’s no pleasure to be derived from working hard to appreciate a brilliant but challenging novel.
It would be a dull world if all books were exciting.
· PJ Whiteley is a full-time author whose latest novel A Love of Two Halves, is published by Unbound. He writes non-fiction under his full name, Philip Whiteley. www.pjwhiteley.com