Joanna Scott makes the case for difficult fiction—fiction that promotes "good, active, creative reading."
Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity. Some of those writers went unheralded in their time. There are writers at work today who go unheralded. Yet this is a big country. There is as much room as there is need for both simplicity and complexity, for fiction that is spare and crystalline along with fiction that is messy and difficult. There is space for writers who do not sell a lot of books but may end up playing a defining role in our culture’s literary tradition. If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult.
Difficulty is neither a virtue nor an evil. If it is going to earn our patient attention, it must make itself an essential element of a text’s expressive powers. In the adept hands of a masterful writer, demanding techniques enhance rather than impede comprehension, strengthening our abilities as readers. The familiar criticism that difficult literature is elitist assumes that the reading public is not capable of learning more than it already knows. Do we need our athletes to explain the value of testing their limits? It is both logical and democratic to defend those books that test ours. The difficulties of a literary text, just like the subtleties, require educated readers to be appreciated—and that is essential. Education offers the potential for independence and empowerment, so let’s not replace difficult novels with easy ones, or pretend that the two are the same. Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.