Reading difficult literature

I seem to have been reading a lot in recent weeks about reading, the end of reviewing, the future (or not) of the book, and so on. All interesting, though many revisiting familiar territory. One, though, particularly caught my eye. It was a post in Book Riot, by magazine editor/blogger/reviewer Greg Zimmerman, and was titled Our reading lives: Why I like difficult novels.

It’s not a long post. Zimmerman starts with David Foster Wallace’s notoriously difficult Infinite jest. He loved reading it, and says:

Readers read for dozens of different reasons. One of my favourite is to be challenged. Certainly, I don’t want most (or even 2 percent) of the novels I read to be as tough as Infinite jest. But I think spending a good amount of time with a book, really putting in some effort to piece it together, and coming out on the other side feeling like you’ve accomplished something is just so gratifying.

I’m sure you, like me, know exactly what he means. He next mentions Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s rainbow – which he found “really, really tough” – and then Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. My eyes popped out at this point, as that’s the book I was about to start (and have, indeed, now started). While I knew it was long, I didn’t know it had a reputation for being difficult, but Zimmerman quotes others as saying it’s “long and demanding”, baffling”, even “an ingenious ourobouros“. Had I, I thought, left myself enough time to read it in time for reading group? Time will tell. Zimmerman took two weeks, he said, and that’s about how much time I’ve given myself.

The point I want to make though is that Zimmerman says that its difficulty is different. It’s “not like Pynchon because it’s really readable. And it’s not like DFW because it’s not digressive or purposefully superfluous”. Its difficulty comes from “the number of characters, how they’re all involved in the plot but from different perspectives and with different motivations, and the way the plot folds back upon itself several times”.

This got me thinking – not about The luminaries, as I’ll deal with that as I read it – but about my definitions of difficulty in novels. Dificulty is, I think, in the eye of the beholder, so I’ve come up with a few, not mutually exclusive definitions, which I thought I’d share (or, at least document for my own benefit!):

  • language and/or ideas are obscure and/or complex. A recent example for me is Gerald Murnane’s The plains (my review). It’s a short book but it demanded my complete attention. Miss a sentence and I was lost. I’m not sure I fully understood it, but I loved the challenge of trying to work out what Murnane was on about. Most of the world’s difficult books – those by Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Woolf et al – probably fall into this category. These books may have little or no plot. They are the books in which you wonder “what the hell is going on?”
  • structure is complex or disconnected or full of digressions, making it tricky to pin down things like where, when and/or who at different points in the book. Some readers found this with Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review). They found all the shifting around, particularly in the beginning, disorienting. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy fits here, though it’s a long time since I read it. This point is closely related to the first one, and most of the authors I listed there spill over here too, I think.
  • large cast of characters (often combined with complex or convoluted plot). This is apparently the case with The luminaries. David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review) is not overly convoluted but it has a large cast of characters, and keeping track of them is a challenge. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas would fit here too, and in several of my categories I reckon.
  • unflagged transitions between “reality” and “magic” or “dream” or “spiritual” worlds. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami and our own Alexis Wright (my review of Carpentaria), to name a few, can trip us up with the way they slide between worlds. Alexis Wright, however, would argue that this only a problem if you have a western mindset. My solution is to go with the flow – and usually all will be revealed.
  • emotionally confronting, that is, the story is distressing or grim. This is not something that usually bothers me. While I do become emotional about characters and what happens to them, I like that literature lets me explore things I hope I never have to experience in life. Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance is a novel that wears some readers down. For some it’s too depressing, and they give up. I found it ultimately uplifting, despite it all. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace fits here, as do Cormac McCarthy’s The road and Blood meridian, not to mention many Holocaust novels.
  • boring. It’s really hard to read a book that bores you. This is what put me off Great expectations when I first tried to read it in my early teens. I just couldn’t get interested. When I finally faced it again years later, I loved it. I think this might be the reason many readers give up on Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s mandolin. I loved the opening chapters, but he does take a while to get into the story proper.

Do you read “difficult” literature? If so, what do you find difficult and do you have any hints about how to approach such reading. Oh, and for a list of really tough books, check this list out.

52 thoughts on “Reading difficult literature

    • Where is the shame? Is there any shame in what you do and don’t read? I have read Ulysses – at university. I think I should read Underworld but haven’t yet. I’ve only read his Falling man. I haven’t read any Vidal … will I ever?

    • Oh thanks Pam … that’s it I reckon. And if we do that, we will I think get something out of our reading even if we remain a little mystified. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery, is there?

  1. First, I must say I appreciate your definitions – I’ve thought a lot about definitions for historical novers, but not for “difficult” ones.

    I tend to love difficult books, Pychon, DeLillo, Woolf, the Russian classis, Proust, and many others and I loved The Luminaries, although I’m surprised it’s thought to be difficult, but with those definitions, yes, I suppose it is. And I’ve found second and subsequent readings of difficult books to be especially good.

    I don’t love all difficult books, there has to be a plot, good characters, themes, something going on. I’ve never made it through Infinite Jest – I don’t really want to try at this point.

    Thanks for the review!

  2. I would agree about emotionally confronting or distressing books being what I would call difficult. Often I will read an excellent book but can’t like it as much as I might think it deserves.

    Your mentions of structure, unflagged transitions and boringness are more what I would categorise as bad writing rather than difficult writing. Of course, some of those are going to be entirely subjective, but that’s OK too.

    On the other hand, being a fantasy reader, I don’t mind books with large casts of characters. Obviously they can be done well or poorly, but generally, I wouldn’t count it as “difficult”.

    • Oh thanks Tsana … Fascinating! While there are books with large casts of characters that I’ve enjoyed, it’s generally challenging language, interesting structure and unflagged transitions that I love most! Different reading brains eh!

    • Oh thanks Greg … Hope you didn’t mind my spring boarding off yours! Yes, I am enjoying it. Can’t quite believe the maturity of that woman’s understanding of human nature. Her characterisation is truly delicious.

  3. Nope. I’m not sufficiently cebebral, I think. I read to be taken out of myself, yes: but Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’ is as difficult as I want a book to get (and I loved that one!). I can’t write fiction, but I love to read it; but if its twists and turns are too labyrinthine I’ll lay it down. The nuns would say, were they still alive and functioning, that I’m intellectually lazy.

    • I don’t believe THAT for a minute MR …

      The English patient is, as I recollect, the one that people would give up on in the same way they did Corelli. But I agree it’s a great read. His language is wonderful.

      • I meant to say, Sue: how anyone could find Captain Corelli’s Mandolin one to give up on …!
        It was my beloved second-eldest sister who guided my reading: Jo used to send me books all the time.
        I am bereft of so much as I totter into the evening; and yet I have been so extraordinarily fortunate!

        • Totally agree MR … I loved Corelli’s opening chapters. They seemed a little disconnected but each one was a treasure. Loved, for example, the Metaxas chapter and his cats … I hope I’ve remembered that correctly!

          Your sister Jo sounds wonderful … What happened to her was so sad. I know about losing a special sister.

        • I am about to email you with a couple of questions re widgets on your site. Hope you won’t be irritated by dumb questions. 😉

  4. I don’t like difficult books I want to enjoy my reading. I don’t mind being challenged but books that seem to take me nowhere are not a pleasure. I tried to read Ulysses several times and failed. I am a character driven reader. I find Woolf and Faulkner challenging, and it is because of their characters I want to read their novels. Luminaries, is difficult mainly because of all the characters and the plot, but again a story that you want to continue to read. I remember Gould’s Books of Fish by Flanagan as being a difficult book, yet it is one book I just love to reread.

    • Sounds to me that you like difficult books, Meg! But you want to get something out if them, so some sorts of difficulty don’t appeal. I was thinking Gould as I wrote this. I only mentioned a few Aussies … And when you look at lists of difficult books, the Aussies don’t feature. I might do a Monday musings on this, and them.

  5. Thanks. That was an extremely interesting article. Books like The Luminaries are what I call Forgetable Writing. You are supposed to remember that 50 pages earlier A had lunch with B and talked about blah, blah, blah. And you find yourself saying, who on earth is A, who is B, I don’t remember anyone having lunch together !! The writing is quite forgetable. You move through the book on a pointer, only existing for the page you are currently reading. But for me, books like Cloud Atlas are Unforgetable Writing. The characters get into your mind and stay there and you have no trouble with them in the narrative. But I like the way you have grouped the difficulties, and as you say,difficulty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Oh thanks lazycoffees, I’m so enjoying this conversation. You know, I loved Cloud atlas when I read it. It was mind bending but you know I remember almost nothing about it. Not really a thing. I’m just reading The luminaries so I’ll have to wait to see, but I adore her characterisation. However, nearly 200 pages in, I’m starting to find my brain working hard to remember who is whom and did what. I feel though that I’ll remember more because what I usually remember about books in the end is the tone, and the feelings left by the characters. Ask me in a year, though!

      I feel I should read Cloud atlas again!

  6. Great discussion. I remember abandoning ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ and feeling guilty because I always used to try to finish what I started. But life’s too short to persist in unrewarding experiences. i love the challenge of some of the books you mentioned and relate to Zimmerman’s ‘coming out the other side’. But I’m aware people read for different reasons and respond differently. I’ve just started A S Byatt’s ‘Obsession’ and am not sure how I’ll go (also finding the print is very small!).

    • Thanks Anna. It really is in the eye of the beholder isn’t it.

      Clearly I should have add physical difficulty to the list – tiny print, hefty tomes, tight bindings that are hard to open etc offer their own challenges don’t they. I’m so glad The luminaries falls open really easily.

  7. My tolerance for difficult novels relies on my reaction to the writer’s style and his or her ability to draw me in to his or her literary world. I’ve read many of the so called difficult novels, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (twice!), Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Ecco, Riddly Walker by Russell Hoban, all the classic Russian novels etc.etc, but I admit Gravity’s Rainbow defeated me and I’ve never attempted to read Ulysses. I didn’t find The Luminaries difficult at all, was quite taken with it actually.

    • It’s certainly becoming apparent Anne that people’s tolerance for “difficulty” varies according to their reading preferences, and what one sees as insurmountably difficult another enjoys as a challenge. I have read Ulysses and enjoyed it – but a long long time ago. I haven’t tried Pynchon or DFW (except his essays). Remembrance of things past twice is impressive. Just finding the time – or, I suppose, committing the time is a challenge.

      So far I’m not finding The luminaries difficult except occasionally having to check back to see who’s who. I’m loving her characterisation. It’s wonderful. I’ve only read 20% though so plot complexities don’t seem to have set in too much yet!

  8. I’m about half-way through The Luminaries and, actually, one of the things I think it does well is incorporate the telling and re-telling of all the perspectives into kind of summary refreshers.

    I couldn’t keep track of all the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

    • That’s an interesting way of describing The luminaries Kirsty … She’s certainly a clever young woman, that writer.

      I don’t remember that with One hundred years of solitude, but I read it over a decade ago now. I did enjoy it.

  9. Very nice piece WG. Before I read your categories I thought that I positively enjoy and seek out difficult literature. There’s one category though where there’s a type I avoid – literature of grief.

    So, no The Year of Magical Thinking for me. I just can’t face books that are too raw/naked in dealing with grief. Odd, because there isn’t much else I can’t handle, but I’m not paid for this so I’m not hugely concerned to push myself to read books I find upsetting.

    Otherwise, I’m reading Proust right now, I’ve read some Pynchon, I’m comfortable with fractured narratives and texts that require close examination and all that good stuff.

    I do think many people try a difficult author with their most challenging work, which is a recipe for failure. So, if you want to read Joyce don’t pick up Ulysses, try Dubliners which is brilliant and much shorter and much easier to read. If you like that Ulysses will still be waiting. Similarly if you want to try Pynchon don’t try to pick up Gravity’s Rainbow (not least as you may injure your back from the weight), read The Crying of Lot 49 which is marvellous and Pynchonian and comes in at under 200 pages.

    Basically if you want to try this stuff there’s usually an easier in than their most famous work, and if you don’t want to try it obviously that’s fine because reading challenging modernist literature is ultimately something one does for fun – the same motive as another reader might read vampire romance. This isn’t homework and we’re not being paid for it.

    The other common place for me where people go wrong is reading something because they feel they ought – because it’s difficult. That though is a terrible reason. Read it by all means because you’re curious, because you think it might be rewarding, because it sounds interesting, whatever, but reading it from some kind of vague sense that one should is a recipe for a trudge through a book you’ve no actual interest in and that’s bound to end with the book left closed one day unfinished and with a lingering sense of guilt (not that one should ever feel guilty about abandoning a book one doesn’t find rewarding).

    • Some great advice here Max. My first Joyce was The Dubliners … And I loved it. And I do plan to start with The crying of Lot 49. And you are right about only reading because you want to, not because you “should”. Let’s put away those 1000 books you must read before you die right now!

      My husband would agree with you re grief or what he calls misery and you describe as upsetting. Though I argue with him that it’s in the eye of the beholder and that a lot of crime shows we see are more upsetting or miserable than the so-called misery books I read.

      • I’d argue that there’s a difference between literature that explores grief, and misery lit which seems more a voyeuristic trawl through someone’s childhood trauma. The first I don’t read because it’s too painful, the second not because they’re difficult but because I find them ugly.

        Either way though, I’m not saying others shouldn’t read them. It’s just a question of my personal boundaries. The Didion is apparently a fantastic book, and I love Didion’s writing. That she writes so well though makes me if anything even less keen to read her description of such terrible grief.

        1,000 books to read before you die. I hate that kind of stuff. Checklists that make people feel somehow inadequate. I’d far rather someone read the True Blood series from joy than trudged their way grudgingly through War and Peace from some depressing sense of cultural duty.

        The whole trend towards bucket list books – 1,000 films to see, 1,000 books to read, 1,000 places to visit, how could anyone have time to fit it all in? If you started now, gave up your job (except you probably then couldn’t afford it all) and abandoned your own interests you still wouldn’t manage. It just makes people feel vaguely inadequate – I watched The Good Wife when I could have been watching The 400 Blows, I am a failure as a consumer and citizen!

        I do like The Good Wife though.

        • Grief versus misery … I think your definitions are how they are generally understood or written about n literature now, particularly the “misery memoir” , but in terms of describing the emotional response my husband means anything that is emotionally painful and that could include both categories.

          Didion’s book is beautiful … But it’s not as though there aren’t other beautiful books to read so I reckon you’re ok to give it a miss!

  10. If you’re after a tricky book I suggest ‘The Tale of Genji’ I started reading it about 3 years ago and still haven’t finished. I need to research every chapter, spending about 2 hours reading about 10 pages. I do feel a real sense of accomlplishment when I finally understand a section, but it isn’t what I’d want to do every day!

  11. What a fantastic job you’ve done of articulating some of the “difficult” bits. From your list, I’d say that the first is the one that I still struggle with the most; I now view all skinny books with suspicion because they often turn out to be the most demanding (like Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, most recently, for me) whereas on the surface they whisper that they shall take less reading time.

    The question of confusing structure is disorienting as well, but that’s a puzzle that I enjoy, because I just re-read (say, with some of Alice Munro’s stories) until I feel like I get it. So, why don’t I apply the same thinking to those short books with challenging styles/use of language. Perhaps I will, now that I’ve thought about it.

    Right now, the “difficult” book I am reading is Alan Weisman’s Countdown, partly because it is non-fiction, and that always takes an extra effort on my part, partly because it touches upon some grim subjects/situations. I suppose that’s another kind of difficult, when a book challenges core ideas about the way you see (or want to see) the world, whether grim or not, whether fact or fiction.

    • You are right BIP, re slim books. I think that’s partly why novellas aren’t popular. It’s less their size than their content. I love them though because they tend to be tight and intense … Like short stories as you also mention. I like your suggestion about books that challenge your core ideas … Yes, that’s a whole other world of difficulty. Good one.

  12. You know, mother dear, I can’t help thinking the most difficult book for you (and me) to read would be along the lines of 50 Shades of Grey and Dan Brown’s Inferno.

  13. I was relieved to see that The Luminaries is defined as a ‘difficult’ book. I’m about 300 pages in, and while I’m very much enjoying it, I have found it difficult to try to get the different vignettes to hang together. I was thinking that it was just me! I think that I need to devote about three hours to a really good, immersive uninterrupted read of it, instead of 20 minutes before bed. I still don’t know what the astrological chapter headings are supposed to mean, although I’m staring to trust her enough as an author to let go of my anxiety about this- I’m sure she’ll make it clear at some stage or another!

    • Ah RJ, I’m, 250 pages in. I have a half-formed understanding of the astrological headings but I’m not really finding the different vignettes hard because they seem to be circling around the same story from different perspectives. I am though mostly reading it in 1-2 hour chunks, which probably helps. Once a day I read in a short chunk of maybe 30 mins, but the other time I read in a longer chunk. It’s not a fast read though. It might take me 2 hours to read 50 or so pages. I usually read much faster than that. I absolutely love her characterisation. She has such a mature understanding of people it seems to me – but maybe I’m underestimating 28 year olds in general!

  14. I love reading difficult books! I like your definitions. Boring is difficult but I don’t think anyone should struggle on through a book that is boring them so I don’t think that one really counts. I don’t find books with magic/unreality/unflagged transitions to be difficult or ones with large casts of characters. I put in lots of time as a teen reading sprawling fantasy novels and SF space operas so these things are no big deal because of all the practice. I will read emotionally difficult books with pleasure too. There is something very satisfying to be wrung out and hung up to dry by a book. The first two on the list, yes, those are what I find most difficult and those I love to read. They give me quite a thrill from both a sense of accomplishment and from enjoying a good story.

  15. It is probably too late to add a comment, but I will. Your post arrived just as I was fuming about Italo Calvino’s famous ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’. Reading it felt like punishment. But I did not want to say anything until I read more.

    Generally I like difficult books, but this one was a trial.

    It is about writers and readers, a very valuable contribution. If only the plot wouldn’t fit perfectly under your second dot point. And worse.

    The language is brilliant and his way of looking at the world so very interesting. He must be one of the best writers of the 20th century (I am assuming that his other books are easier to read).

    I read this one over a few weeks. Maybe that contributed to my inability to immerse myself in it.

    And believe it or not I am contemplating to start it all over again, find out if it is really as impossible as I thought.

    But not for another few months.

    • It’s never too late to comment Gabrielle – and certainly just a few days isn’t! Calvino is on my to read list. That’s an example of a short difficult book isn’t it? As buriedinprint commented, it’s often short books that are difficult (though we can’t forget Ulysses, Finnigan’s Wake, Remembrance of Things Past, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow and the like, can we). Anyhow, I think it says a lot that you think you’ll read it again! I think reading over too long a time is not a good thing, particularly for “difficult” books. You need to immerse, usually, in them I think – and go with the flow. Sometimes I find it’s the flow that gives you the meaning, not dwelling on the individual apparently mystifying detail?

  16. How wonderful to have such a detailed response to my post, and from someone who found it useful, Ivan. It’s so long since I wrote it, but books can of course fit more than one type, making them potentially more difficult.

    I liked Cloud atlas, but I read it so long ago, before this blog, and I didn’t see the film, so I’m afraid I can’t help you decide. I’m not one of those for whom it’s an unforgettable book.

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