September 08, 2009


Michael O'D

I'm reading some Faulkner just now, and the challenge of sorting through the thing is half the fun. It feels like my brain is moving along at high RPMs. There is, of course, a point at which literature can become willfully obscure to no real purpose. But the masters strike the balance just right.


"... Lev Grossman's recent WSJ essay in favor of easy books."

Merely saying a book doesn't have to be hard to have literary merit is different from saying that one should "favor... easy books."

Grossman isn't denying that some people enjoy difficult novels, but he is attacking the assumption/idea that literary novels must be hard and hard novels must be literary, which seems to underlie too much literary discourse.


Grossman's essay is very odd. For one thing, it presupposes a flood of "difficult" books issuing from US publishers, leaving readers drowning in modernism. Who are these writers? Where are these books? I can't really think of a single writer that's writing these kinds of "difficult" books anymore. Well, yeah, OK, William Vollmann - but who reads his stuff anyway ($1 to anyone who can prove to me they actually read all of "Imperial")?

US writers have been focusing for more than a decade on (a) chick lit (b) memoirs (c) fantasy (d) memoirs and (e) thinly veiled fictionalizations of their recent divorces.

The only groundbreaking, difficult stuff (e.g., 2666) is coming from abroad. So, really, Lev, can you get back in touch with reality sometime soon?

The other odd thing about Grossman's essay is the assumption that genre literature is somehow less difficult than literary literature. Really? Which would most people find easier to read: Mrs. Dalloway or the Cryptonomicon? Mrs. Dalloway, hands down. Indeed, especially science fiction is becoming every more baroque, what with the "hard scifi" renaissance in full swing, and 800 page door stops being turned out in the UK like Volkswagens.

But Lev, your essay is a nice advertisement for yourself, and those easy page turners that will not intimidate a single reader back into illiteracy. Build that brand, Lev, build it!


Saddest omission from the Booker shortlist is William Trevor.
Justin Cartwright (himself a fine novelist) said, in The Spectator, that 'The Infinities' is 'unequivocally a work of brilliance'. Who wouldn't want that on his book jacket?


Tess Rooney

I don't find Faulkner too hard to read provided you let the narrative wash over you and wait for it to be revealed. Henry James is the one that stumps me, yet the language is so intricate and delicate that it's worth the time taken to read him.

As a Catholic I'm _dreading_ Pullman's book.


Peter Nadas is hard for me to read. It's fantastic prose, but it's also kind of like listening to a highly articulate, highly narcisstic drunk guy at a bar tell you the story of his life.


Sales (and reality) support Grossman's argument.

Literary fiction is dominated by "Performance Writing"--basically writers writing for other writers. The work can be amazing, but the audience is so small, so self-reflecting, that the mainstream reader is left out entirely.

Hence dwindling sales, and award-winning, critically acclaimed books falling out of print.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."