Last week, Ben Roth published an essay on The Millions entitled “Against Readability,” which was provocative in a fairly predictable way. But as he drew lines between the praiseworthy (e.g. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) and the forgettable (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), it pushed a button that prompted a version of this kneejerk comment:
As someone who has spent nearly 20 years recommending the work of Evan Dara to receptive readers–brimming with the conviction that The Lost Scrapbook is the best novel of the past 25 years–I, too, am not thrilled with the use of a readability quotient as a critical criterion in an age of bingeing. These days, talented writers and cagey editors are more attuned to the idea of flow, sculpting prose that provides a flattering level of challenge to their readers while reducing friction wherever possible, in an effort to keep the pages turning. This diagram lays out a version of the theory of flow, with the reader’s skill level sitting on the X axis and the challenge level of the book sprouting from the Y.
But, as I thought about this further, I realized that the works which Roth rips aren’t actually optimized for flow state, but sit within the control and/or relaxation quadrants, providing optimized consumption experiences, like watching Stranger Things or listening to Serial. The downside is that this kind of pleasurable immersion can slash the time a reader needs to pause and reflect. As Roth himself reports, he barreled through The Goldfinch and Jonathan Franzen’s most recent offerings in about two days, on average. When dealing with 500-page novels, this kind of breakneck pace forces the brain to purge much more than it can thoughtfully digest. But does the blame for this rest squarely on the shoulders of the author? Moreover, does hypnotic, mellifluous prose prevent a good book from entering the pantheon?
In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen takes William Gaddis to task for making things too hard in JR, for asking too much from the reader, no matter how active or intelligent they are. Looking at the diagram again, I wonder if his/our skill level is equal to the task, or if he’s exhibiting the kind of anxiety that many of us faced when climbing its craggy conversational cliffs. Admitting failure, he goes on to derisively question the novel’s defenders for focusing on what he sees as its explicit flaws and turning this demanding lemon into elitist lemonade. Franzen brazenly legsweeps William Gass by taking one of his lines–“If the author works at his work, the reader may also have to, whereas when a writer whiles away both time and words, the reader may relax and gently peruse”–and concluding that with friends like these, who needs readers?
Franzen doesn’t make a very persuasive case, but it’s not entirely invalid either. I also agree with Roth’s original thesis, but I question his somewhat arbitrary placement of the border between the great and the mediocre. From my perspective, readers need to remain vigilant, and stay alert even as the writer seduces them to put down their pencil and post-it notes. Great books are neither defined by their readability nor their inherent difficulty. But they should ask you to put them down from time to time and entice you to take a long walk and think. Readers have a central responsibility for the experience, and need to be prepared to rise to the challenge of works of unconventional brilliance, like The Lost Scrapbook. Or The Easy Chain. Or Flee.
Then again, I always tend to agree with Gass.