Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 28, 2015

on difficulty

In this exchange on literary difficulty I think Leslie Jamison gives us something far more useful than Heller.

Here’s Heller:

Recently, when I read Christine Schutt’s short story “You Drive” with a graduate writing class, several of the students complained that they found the story baffling. They couldn’t make out the chronology of the events it described; they weren’t always sure which character was speaking; the story, they concluded, “didn’t work.” The fact that they had trouble following Schutt’s elliptical prose was not in itself a surprise. What did take me aback was their indignation — their certainty that the story’s difficulty was a needless imposition on readerly good will. It was as if any writing that didn’t welcome them in and offer them the literary equivalent of a divan had failed a crucial hospitality test.

The “as if” in that last sentence is doing a lot of work, and rather snide work at that. Why should Heller conclude that her students’ dislike of one story is revelatory of a sense of readerly entitlement, a universal demand that texts “welcome them in and offer them the literary equivalent of a divan”? Maybe she assigned a poor story, and the students would have responded more positively to an equally demanding one that was better-crafted. You can’t tell what people think about “any writing” on the basis of their opinions about a single text. 

It’s easy and natural for teachers to explain every classroom clunker by blaming the inadequacies of their students. It’s also a tendency very much to be resisted.

Jamison, by contrast, approaches the question of difficulty in a much more specific way, and what I like best about her brief narrative is its acknowledgment that a reader might approach a given book with a very different spirit in one set of circumstances — or at one moment of her life — than in another. It’s something I have said and written often: that one need not think that setting a book aside is a permanent and unverifiable verdict on the book — or on oneself. People change; frames of mind and heart come and go; and if a book and a reader happen to find each other, it’s beautiful

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