What Makes a Novel Hard — and Is a Difficult Novel Worth Reading?

Written by John K Danenbarger

May 15, 2020

“…riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

James Joyce Finnegan’s Wake

So begins Finnegan’s Wake, the book that took the great modernist writer James Joyce seventeen years to write, and which some critics have called “unreadable.” It certainly doesn’t get easier. The use of patois and made-up words, the multiple allusions and references, and the lack of a narrative all make it a novel you explore rather than a book you read. Few make it all the way to the end, and none will understand where they’ve been without a collection of reference books and annotated footnotes to guide them along the way.
We expect a novelist to do that work for us. We want them to take us by the hand, to lead us on a journey, to introduce us to people we want to know, and to point out the delicate scenes that they’ve created for us to admire. Finnegan’s Wake, like other difficult novels, demands that we do all the work ourselves. We have to extract meanings from the words and the sentences they form, select one interpretation that works best in the context or which resonates with us most, and take it with us to the next sentence without abandoning all of the other possible meanings that the sentence has created. We’re also expected to continue without knowing to what some oblique Biblical or literary allusion, thrown in for good measure, could possibly refer.

It’s a challenge, in the same way that climbing a mountain is a challenge, or running a marathon.

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each difficult book is difficult in its own way. Finnegan’s Wake takes the prize because it’s difficult in every way. The language is almost impenetrable and the story is discordant. Other books though present different challenges. Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, with its meandering, nineteenth century sentences, demands a focus that’s often lacking when we first encounter it at school. Familiarity makes it easier and the ghost story that lies at its heart may be opaque but it is conventionally gothic.

Moby Dick too, forces readers to battle with complex language but like Joyce, Herman Melville adds literary and classical references that modern readers may miss and throws in philosophical digressions that the reader has to transverse before they can dive back into the whale hunt. It would be easy to imagine Moby Dick re-written as a story of adversity, a Jaws-like tale of man against ferocious beast with the heroes suffering setback after setback before finally conquering their foe. The story maps neatly onto a three-act structure. Moby Dick is not that book. It’s a much harder read.

Difficulty in a novel then can come from two places. It can come from language, from long, complex sentences that use atypical vocabulary and pile multiple clauses onto each other or which digress into metaphors and analogies so that, like a half-damaged whaling vessel, it meanders and you forget where the sentence started. And it can come from an unclear narrative or half-written characters. Instead of one event naturally following another, flashbacks and unreliable narrators make scenes confusing and opaque, or we never feel close enough to the people we meet to build a satisfying relationship with them. In the Man Booker-prize winning book Milkman, Anna Burns eschews giving any of her characters a name, a choice that Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, says has vexed critics. But he also notes that the choice was made for a reason, and quotes Anna Burns directly:

“The book didn’t work with names,” she said. “It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser — or perhaps just a different — book. In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn’t stand for it. The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again.”

As Leith points out, that layer of difficulty is there for a reason. Giving the characters names would have changed the experience of reading the book. It would have altered the reader’s relationship to the story and to the characters, and made it more intimate in a novel with plenty of characters with whom we probably wouldn’t want a close relationship.

Similarly, complex and difficult language can have the effect of either distancing the reader or pulling them deeper into the book but it has a secondary appeal too. Books are written with words and are experienced through words. A beautifully written sentence can be as appealing as an intricately carved tool. A letter rack can be two pieces of wood that hold paper, or it can be a work of art in its own right. The challenge for the writer is to balance beautiful writing with effective writing so that the words add to the experience of reading the book without detracting from the experience of imagining the story. Too often, debut literary writers are willing to sacrifice the pace of a story for the use of a pretty phrase. Beautiful language alone is never enough to save a difficult bad book.

They key question then isn’t what makes a book difficult but whether it should be difficult. What does the reader gain from the challenge? Does the hard language deliver a rich, poetic experience that makes the mining of meaning worthwhile? Does the irregular narrative create an emotional response that extends beyond confusion to enhance the experience the book creates?

Difficulty in a novel, whatever its cause, demands a price from the reader. The reader will only pay that price if the reward is worthwhile. But as long as that condition is met, some readers will pay it. Few people climb mountains or run marathons, but some do. And they all consider the challenge worthwhile.

Difficulty in a novel, whatever its cause, demands a price from the reader. The reader will only pay that price if the reward is worthwhile. But as long as that condition is met, some readers will pay it. Few people climb mountains or run marathons, but some do. And they all consider the challenge worthwhile.

The Article What Makes a Novel Hard — and Is a Difficult Novel Worth Reading? was first published on Medium on Sep 5, 2019

Original drawing from novel “Entanglement — Quantum and Otherwise”

Original drawing from John Danenbarger’s novel “Entanglement — Quantum and Otherwise”

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