The Year of Reading Dangerously

In his essay ‘Mr Difficult’, Jonathan Franzen outlines two contrasting models for fiction. The first he calls the Status model where:

“…the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.”

The second is the Contract model where:

“…a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.”

Franzen uses these models as a basis to tackle the issue of difficulty. To simplify, he argues that in the Status model difficulty is seen as a good thing and that novels are celebrated for little more than being difficult; and in the Contract model difficulty is, conversely, a bad thing as it will simply cause readers to abandon the book. (I mention Franzen deliberately because when reading Freedom I couldn’t help but think to myself – if this is such a great novel, why is it so easy to read? This is exactly the attitude he deplores – and one might argue he goes out of his way to disguise the complexities of his own work).

Beyond an element of self-justification, it is perhaps no surprise that such an essay would come from an American writer. As Franzen admits, the Contract model, as its name suggests, places art alongside any other commercial transaction:

“Taken to its Free Market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s.”

Reading, however, is a learned process, during which we constantly change as reader, and a text that might prove ‘disagreeable’ at one point might later be loved. (Similarly, we may look back on books we once enjoyed and find them shallow and uninvolving). Franzen’s position also suggests the underlying Anglo-American fear of seeming pretentious, an anti-intellectualism that is prevalent in both cultures. (The only reason an English writer would have been unlikely to have written this essay is the topic would not even be regarded as worth debating).

Franzen’s biggest error, however, is in focusing on enjoyment and pleasure. The best play I saw last year was undoubtedly Tim Crouch’s The Author. If you don’t know the play, it begins without a stage, only an audience, from which characters gradually reveal themselves. In other words, it does the kind of things that experimental writers do. I found it unsettling and thought-provoking, but I would not use the word enjoyable to describe the experience. Yes, just as Franzen notes the ‘difficult’ novels left uncompleted by readers, so too there were members of the audience who left (prompted by audience member planted by Crouch!) But just as their reaction was extreme, so was the reaction of those who stayed more profound.

Over the last few years, entertaining page turners, no matter how literary, have begun to wash over me. (In fact, I began this blog to ensure that I spent at least a little time thinking about what I read). The process of reading is now so automatic that I’m worried it will become more and more passive. I’m sorry, Jonathan, but I‘m looking for a little more than just enjoyment. As Kafka said:

“Altogether I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?”

Over the next year I’m going to explore the world of experimental fiction. Some of the writers will be well known, and others more obscure. Hopefully some new names will surface. While I intend to read many of the ‘classic’ experimental novels, I have no intention of attempting to be exhaustive. I will also try to include newly published or reissued books as appropriate. Any suggestions are welcome.

At times it will be difficult, but – who knows? – I might enjoy it.

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2 Responses to “The Year of Reading Dangerously”

  1. Justine Says:

    What a great post! I totally agree with you. There are times when one craves simply enjoyment from a novel. But if one’s ideas or expectations are never challenged then we never grow or change. One of the best books I have ever read was Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. It was outstanding because it caused me to reconsider so much of what I believed to be true. However, I loathed the book for this very reason, it was not an enjoyable read.
    I have recently read Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ and while I really enjoyed it, I can’t say it challenged me in any way, nor did it stay with me.

  2. The Year of Reading Dangerously (via 1streading's Blog) | Reviews from a Serial Reader Says:

    […] I thought you might enjoy this wonderful overview of the art of reading from 1streading’s blog. In his essay ‘Mr Difficult’, Jonathan Franzen outlines two contrasting models for fiction. The first he calls the Status model where: “…the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” The second … Read More […]

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