Well this is another of these reductive circular discussions we all love. Publishers Weekly has a report on The Millions survey of the ten most difficult books.

We can all think of more difficult books than the first one on their list, Nightwood, I’m sure. The style may be as off-putting as they say, but nobody could argue that it was as difficult as say Newton’s Principia Mathematica, in English or Latin. But maybe the tacit rules prohibit our choosing scientific texts, or philosophical treatises, and any other books which we would conventionally regard as difficult — though they do allow Hegel and Heidegger in there. Clarissa is long, but surely in no way difficult. Does length qualify as difficult? It may present an additional layer of difficulty if the text is already hard, but it’s surely not in itself a difficulty.

What is it that makes a book difficult? Let’s just restrict this to “literary” works, not advanced texts on nuclear physics and so on. Lydia Davis gives us periodic updates on her reading of “the Telemark novel” by Dag Solstad, in Norwegian, a language she doesn’t know, without the help of a dictionary. The book is apparently very long — long enough that Ms Davis’ Norwegian is getting better and better as she works her way though. Now that’s difficult.

For myself “difficult” works at two levels. First the surface level of vocabulary and syntax. The obvious candidate here is Finnegans Wake; I don’t think I’ve never gotten beyond page 10. Maybe this is odd, because I do like Ulysses, but the language there is pretty straightforward. You do have to work at Finnegans Wake; they say that reading it aloud in an Irish accent helps (though what that does for your neighbors in the subway is undisclosed). Shamefacedly I have to confess that part of the problem is the sheer bulk of it: 628 pages in my Viking edition. Maybe it would be better to attack it as an e-book. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you have no real conception of the size of an e-book while you read it, may make the task easier than lugging around that obvious tombstone of a physical object. Still I do assume I will engage with it sooner of later.

Less likely I fear is much engagement with Gertrude Stein. She seems difficult in a much more unearned way. Here I refer specifically to Tender Buttons, a kind of prose poems. Take the first one, “A carafe, that is a blind glass”. It reads in its entirety “A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.” I know there are those who value this: they love it at ModPo* — but to me after all the close reading work, and there obviously is close reading that can be done, you end up in a place where you just shrug and say “So?”. It’s the literary equivalent of cubism: all surface trickiness and no content.

The other form of difficulty is more baked in. It’s not not understanding the words, it’s the keeping it all together in the front of your brain, the focussing on where we are going, that presents the possibility of disconnect. So you’ll be happily reading along when you realize you’ve no idea what’s happening on the page. Who is this character? What are they doing here? And where are we anyway? I accept that sometimes this is the reader’s fault: we can unlink our brains from our eyes and read without “reading”, but sometimes the disconnect is caused by the author. Usually I suspect it’s intentional, wanting the reader to work harder, to make the rewards of the reading greater, to vaunt the seriousness of the writing. I’m finding a hint of this in William H. Gass’ writing. Many (not I) would say Faulkner at this point.

Naturally George Steiner has something to say about all this. On Difficulty and Other Essays identifies four types of difficulty (lifted from Displacement): “1 – The Epiphenomenal Difficulty. This is in the use of obscure words, phrases; and of ideas that relate to unusual or relatively unconnected areas of knowledge. 2 – The Tactical Difficulty. This is where something is deliberately withheld from the text. This was a major strategy of Eastern European writers, where a classical allusion was used as a comment on a contemporary situation, but the readers had to draw the linkages themselves. 3 – The Modal Difficulty. This is where the tone of the poem renders it unappealing. Think of Swift’s diatribe’s on women’s boudoirs. It need not be inimical to the reader, just at odds with the subject. 4 – The Ontological Difficulty. Contemporary poets question more than ever before the ways a writer communicates with the reader, the languages used, and the ways syntax can be manipulated to express more of the complexity of the contemporary world.”

Ontological difficulty would seem to be at the root of my troubles with much modern poetry. I honestly do think playing with words is fine; I just think it’s usually more amusing for the ludic poet than for the ludibrious reader.


* ModPo, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, is the most successful of MOOC I know. It is conducted by Al Filreis of U Penn, sitting at a table in the Kelly Writers House with a number of graduate students, discussing this poem and that poem in an introduction to contemporary poetry tracing its origins back to the two contrasting strands of Whitman and Dickinson.