f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Mr. Difficult

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mr. Difficult

Kids these days. Who knows what they'll teach you.

The Intern passed along a book last week with the suggestion that I take a look at one of the essays. We'll get to that next week. Today I'm more interested in another of the essays in the collection: a piece called "Mr. Difficult" that deals precisely with this topic of reader comprehension. The book is called How to Be Alone. The author is Jonathan Franzen--National Book Award winner for The Corrections.

The piece starts wonderfully with a letter from a reader accusing Franzen, because of some showy language in his novel, of being one of those "socially privileged readers and writers who turn up their noses at the natural pleasure of a 'good read' in favor of the invidious, artificial pleasure of feeling superior to other people." Or in the writer's common parlance, a "pompous snob and a real a**-****."

Franzen's response is of two minds. One part wants to respond with asterisk-worthy words of his own. The other (supposedly) thinks of what his mother would say: Had he really needed to use the word "diurnality" or was he just showing off?

Dwelling for a moment on what he truly believes, Franzen admits to being caught between two divergent models of how fiction relates to its readers.

Status: Great novels are works of art. Those who create them, geniuses who deserve any and all credit due to them. Value exists separately from whether people enjoy a book or not.

Contract: The first purpose of writing is to connect. A novel deserves attention only as long as the author sustain's a readers interest.

Here's Franzen:
"According to the Contract model, difficulty is a sign of trouble. In the most grievous cases, it may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity... ahead of the audience's legitimate desire for connection--of being, in other words, an a******. Taken to its free-market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product's."

And again:
"From a Status perspective, difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel's author has disained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. Easy fiction has little value, the argument goes. Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having; and if, like (his nasty reader) you can't hack it, then to hell with you."

The essay at that point becomes an analysis of the works of William Gaddis, which may or may not interest you. (Though Franzen's POV might, given that this is a National Book Award winner. I think further exploration of what constitutes "difficult" needs to be addressed.)

What say you to these definitions in the meanwhile? Anyone want to plant a flag for either camp?