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Championing the Difficult and the Poetic in Fantastika

“What I cannot bear, as a reader or as a person, is to be bored.” – Reginald Shepherd

Given what I wrote last time, this week’s column topic should not surprise anyone. I like difficult literature. I like books that surprise me, that subvert convention, that try to find not just a distinctive angle on a story, but actively meddle with that story. I like rich language that is not always to the point, that creates sensation rather than basic semiotic messages. I like to discover and spar with disquietude, unreliability, and perplexity in written art; I like works that create conundrums, that force you to defend and exercise your imagination and ideas, and that show us just how contingent and edifying the act of writing can be.

I became much more passionate about discussing this after reading Aidan Moher’s blog post that asked “Are Fantasy Readers ‘Dumber’ Than Science Fiction Readers?” The title comes from a commenter’s response to an earlier post, and resulted in an array of comments about the linkage (or lack thereof) between genre and intelligence, and between genre and complexity. Aidan encouraged the discussion by extending the (rather loaded) question and asking if Fantasy fiction was less “taxing” or if readers and writers felt that “smart fantasy” was not being published, but most commenters did not address these queries.

The debate focused on the presence of complex ideas and specialized knowledge in genre fiction; many commenters brought up the idea that publishers and the promotional structure generally (and this is a BIG generalization) like to focus on novels that they believe will appeal to a wider audience, which to them means books that are accessible reading or fit into discernable categories. I don’t think that this tendency is overwhelming, but I think it is true that many popular books are not difficult reading, and that some publishers, particularly larger ones, market the books that they feel will have the broadest appeal, which often means less support for the difficult and the poetic (which I see as fellow-travelers). But as the fiction market changes, there may be more opportunities to ask why we permit the system to favor the unelaborate, the mechanically precise, the predictable, or the self-evident in literature? Why can’t difficult literature acquire more visibility, more readers, and a stronger position as the literary terrain shifts?

The answer lies partly in assumptions about difficult literature and the reasons that people read fiction. The idea of difficult literature I am proposing here is a relative of Reginald Shepherd‘s notion of difficult poetry, which includes several discursive elements: lexical, allusive, syntactical, semantic, modal, and formal difficulty. He also offers an alternate typology of difficulties of explication, interpretation, and recognition. What unites these elements into an “anatomy” of difficulty is that they “are violations of readerly expectations.” A difficult work is not one that has only complicated ideas (scientific, social, or otherwise) or a dense, elaborate structure, but that offers the reader challenges to their preconceptions about fiction and language.

Difficult literature is designed to be so. As Shepherd also notes: “[d]ifficulty is not a virtue in and of itself, but obscurity is always a defect.” The goal of the work is to disrupt the reader’s presumptions, but not in an impenetrable or unthoughtful way. Difficult literature is a puzzle fashioned to challenge readers, to have them linger over the text and return to it, to ponder what’s happening and consider carefully what is being communicated. Poetic literature focuses more specifically on lexical and syntactical aspects to create a linguistic exercise to intoxicate the reader with sensual and manifold meanings. Both want to make the reader think, to do extra work in discerning what the text is telling them.

I am not making a utilitarian argument for difficulty here; that has been done before and we don’t read literature for its raw utility. I am arguing that difficult works have aesthetic and entertainment capacity. The utilitarian argument sets up a noisome corollary: if difficult texts make us smarter or more perceptive, more accessible texts make us dumber and blinder. That is a poor juxtaposition that I doubt reflects the intentions of the authors nor the desires and experiences of readers. We as readers want a variety of works to choose from, a range of pleasures and fascinations, and that range should be more inclusive of difficult works. The value of difficult literature is in the different sort of enjoyments it can provide, and moving away from either elitist or instrumental conceptions of difficult literature is necessary to open such art up to more readers. What makes a text difficult is not a lack of sophistication or knowledge on the part of the reader, nor is it that it contains submerged elements not found in straightforward works.

A difficult text does not have more “inside” it or “beneath” the text; as Samuel Delany noted, “They are all surface-that-endures-through-history.” A poetic text does not have unplumbed depths. Both have, instead, less obvious traits, a plasticity of meaning, a capacious margin of interpretation, words set in different relationship to each other, residing in unanticipated patterns and structures. Like the critic that Delany is referring to, readers create their own reading in dialogue with the text presented, influenced by their intellectual and emotional distance from the work and the perspective they bring to their reading. To champion the difficult and the poetic in fantastika is to reinforce the idea that readers do not need some great specialization to enjoy them, just time and the willingness to engage the text with greater discernment and suspicion.

I feel that what some publishers, and to some extent the umbrella culture of reading, have done is given readers cause to mistrust themselves, to think that struggling with a text is neither enjoyable nor something any good reader can do. I believe that fantastika, from the “hardest” SF novel to the most surreal and interstitial fantasia (or vice versa), can benefit from championing difficulty in the literature. The difficult and the poetic and the fantastic resonate with each other, indulging in that which is not-real, not immediately obvious and apprehensible, work which does not just impel towards a limited range of meaning but reminds us that our perceptions can be broader, that our imaginations are deep, and that some puzzles do not have just one resolution. Championing difficult and poetic fantastika means that we treat people like avid, adventurous readers and not just word-consumers, that we take our literature seriously, and that we nurture and show off all that it can do.

NEXT WEEK: Considering dystopia in the 21st century.

7 Comments on Championing the Difficult and the Poetic in Fantastika

  1. A very good and enjoyable post. Not much I disagree with. And I especially like the argument that begins with “a poetic text does not have unplumbed depths . . .” Insightful, if you ask me. 

  2. I thinking you are approaching the poetic from the vantage point of looking up at it. I think the writer who intends their writing to be difficult is only mimicking the truly poetic. Reading poetic writing means seeing the world through the writers eyes. Its not a matter of difficulty but a matter of familiarity. 

  3. Well said, that man. That much of the “difficulty” in literature is really just violation of expectations becomes even more obvious, I think, when you look at how widely popular examples of film and television have used, say, non-linearity (c.f. Pulp Fiction,) or split-screen (c.f. 24,) and had the audience take this in their stride. The presumptions of elitist or instrumental purpose that are all too often applied to literature when it cuts loose in comparable ways — they just don’t come into play.

  4. James: Thanks!  I appreciate that.

    Bob: I think that the matter of the poetic is slippery, as it should be.  I think that sometimes the poet tries to inculcate familiarty, but other times strives to create a singular point-of-view or milieu that between their vision and that of the reader.  I’m trying to figure out if I am “looking up at” poetry, but I wonder if that perception is due to my usage of a poet’s ideas to support what I’m discussing.

    Hal: Thanks very much.  I think that the idea of what is “difficult” shifts, and the examples you give of how this comes out in film/TV show that.  There is also the question of structural complexity (which may not violate expectations) versus difficulty (for example, perhaps, Memento, where you have to do some work to make the pieces fit together).  I think movie viewers have been trained, essentially, to accept more, and that if we could shake off those elitist presumptions, perhaps get mor readers to see how a difficult work can be enjoyable.  I’m not sure how possible that is, but it appeals to me greatly.

  5. Great article.

    I was recently combing through a couple of reviews and book previews, specifically for Patricia A. McKillip and Cat Valente’s new novel, and was dismayed that many readers were claiming that their stylish prose was “purple.”  My understanding of purple is that the prose is overwritten.  Now, it seems that any text that luxuriates in language is considered “purple.” Add to that the “transparent” text movement has resulted in books where it seems like authors are frustrated screenwriters.

    At little off topic, but I knew the late Mr. Shepherd, and he would get a kick out of his theoretical work being applied to discussions of SF and F literature.  He was quite the fan.


  6. Craig:

    Thanks very much.  I included Cat’s Palimpsest as a visual here because she has been criticized for using “poetic” language in that book, as if being poetic is bad for fiction.  I think that a number of her works are good examples of the difficult and poetic writing that would enrich fantastika.

    I knew Reginald also, briefly.  His partner Robert Philen was in my grad cohort at Cornell and we were good friends.  He was cantankerous, creative, and very incisive.  His passing was very sad.

  7. The novel I just finished reviewing, John, definitely channels the difficult…although in a subversion, it takes a bit of wandering into the text before you realize just how difficult, incomplete, and unreliable the things you reading are.

    And I am name checking you, John. 🙂

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