On Reading Difficult Literature

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.”


12 Responses to “On Reading Difficult Literature”

  1. Yefim Tovbis Says:

    I have no knowledge of course, but maybe fun from a marathon comes exactly from overcoming the difficulty. Should it be the same with literature?

    From comments on the Gary Gutting’s article by Josh Hill, New London:
    “Genius is like quicksilver: it runs where it will.”

    From the article:
    “In our democratic society, many take a relativist position: you can’t argue about taste, because there are no standards that allow us to establish higher quality as an objective fact.”
    But nonetheless, there IS higher quality as an objective fact.
    The problem – and a very big one – is democratization.

  2. Yefim Tovbis Says:

    Isn’t value of literature in something else? Depth and quality for example.

  3. Yefim Tovbis Says:

    Effort and discomfort may be present, but I don’t see a necessity.

  4. Yefim Tovbis Says:

    A marathon is to enjoy a struggle, a book is not.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Perhaps it is different in visual arts, but in literature one often spends many hours, many days even, on one work of art. There will periods of confusion, passages will be reread, the book thrown down followed by a change in the way you read you read the book.

    • J.C. Nahrling Says:

      The pleasure of running a marathon, I think, is not so much in struggling, but rather in the moments you forget about the struggle, and the feeling afterwards of having struggled and conquered. In Proust the struggle itself is enjoyable, maybe for the same reason that learning is enjoyable (that is, learning for learning’s sake): because your mind is stretched, and your vision enriched.

  5. Yefim Tovbis Says:

    You’re right. I forgot that not everything is short stories.

  6. Lauren Wills Says:

    Chiliad by Simon Otius is an immensely difficult, but also enormously rewarding, novel.

  7. Lauren Wills Says:

    ‘Chiliad’ by Simon Otius, at unhappened dot com, is weird metafictional literature; a difficult read, requiring great patience, yet immensely rewarding.

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