Gary Gutting, a philosopher who contributes to the NYT blog The Stone, has written an insightful piece on what it means to read difficult literature. He explores the ideas behind our idea of “guilty pleasure” reading, a notion that depends on two assumptions: “that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable.” He notes that the latter category generally includes Proust.
But many intelligent, widely-read people do not like Proust, so does that make literary tastes completely relative? Perhaps to a degree, but whatever genre we read we each have standards about who are the better writers. Gutting himself finds “In Search of Lost Time” “a magnificent probing of the nature of time and subjectivity…”. Others find Proust, Joyce, Eliot wilfully obscure.
The deeper question is why we find difficulty a barrier to reading. Many of us, after all, will run a marathon, endure the pain and then call it fun. That said, I think most readers who get past the first passages find Proust enjoyable. Still, you will encounter pain. At some you point you will wish that Albertine slap Marcel in the face and bring him to his senses. Gutting concludes, “But the sign of a superior text of whatever genre is its ability to continue rewarding—with pleasure—those who work to uncover its riches.”