January 16, 2019

The Joy of a Difficult Book

“IN A RARE AND BOLD turn, the novelist, poet, and literary critic Christine Brooke-Rose dedicates her final book of criticism — Invisible Author (2002) — entirely to her own body of work, beginning it with a question: “Have you ever tried to do something very difficult as well as you can, over a long period, and found that nobody notices?” It is a rhetorical question. Her career is defined, she says, by writing difficult texts under self-imposed constraints — for example, omitting subject pronouns or restricting her novels to particular tenses — with little attention.

Because of this difficulty, her reader, she thinks, finds her work “unfamiliar” — if not impenetrable — and so “dismisses it, the pleasure of recognition being generally stronger than the pleasure or puzzlement of discovery.” The distinction describes a stark difference between the kinds of readers there mainly are — readers who dismiss or ignore difficult fiction — and the kinds of readers she wants — those who not only read difficult fiction, but also derive pleasure from that difficulty.

To an American reader (actually, given the fact she has very few readers, to everyone), Brooke-Rose’s distinction will be more familiar in the difference defined by Jonathan Franzen, also writing in 2002, when he criticizes difficult writers for privileging difficulty over pleasure, framing the difference as one between “status” writers, like William Gaddis, and “contract” writers, like himself, for whom there exists “a compact between the writer and the reader.” He argues that contract writers assume “a direct personal relationship with art,” and work in “the discourse […] of pleasure and connection.” Meanwhile, for “status” writers “the best novels are great works of art,” such that “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.””

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