Against Readability

February 21, 2017 | 15 books mentioned 45 6 min read

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.”  What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk?  That it won’t kill you?  That it does not taste completely terrible?  That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright?  “Bud Light keeps it coming.”  Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable.  It’ll do, I guess.  The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients.  Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure.  One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist.  (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.)  Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it.  “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.

covercovercoverI have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise.  Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.”  Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.”  The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include).  A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read.  What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read?  Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend?  “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it.  Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences.  They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process.  Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor.  Not too much description, or abstraction, or style.  A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary.  To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up.  A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix.  (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)

“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to.  But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in.  Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention.  Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming.  So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?).  Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell.  Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.

It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads.  But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all.  “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard.  Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one.  Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say.  But now it’s time to name names.  The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer.  All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable.  None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught.  A provisional definition of literature: that which does.

covercoverIt is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow.  Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.”  You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished.  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.”  Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.”  Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose.  (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.)  Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary.  For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another.  The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead.  But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment.  Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation.  Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.”  “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.

covercovercoverWhat novels are not readable?  Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs?  (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.)  Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish.  William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it.  Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable.  I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think.  After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it.  These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.

covercovercoverReadable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is.  Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel.  There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones.  Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however.  It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need.  Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world.  Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages.  A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world.  But these are the sorts of books we need.  To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser.  But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had.  It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available.  The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill.  So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller.  So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should.  It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too.  Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser.  Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders.  Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics.  Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory.  Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass.  Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon.  Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters.  What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world.  They have new ideas, and images, and phrases.  What matters is that they are good.  You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

teaches for the Harvard College Writing Program. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy.

45 comments:

  1. I think I agree with this. There’s nothing wrong (in fact, there’s probably something good) about a book being “readable,” but it’s terrible as a metric or measure of praise. A book’s ostensible readability: 1) is completely subjective, and 2) should be a pure function of the author’s aesthetic and dramatic intent. The Patrick Melrose books are readable as a stylistic function of St. Aubyn’s comically blithe and ironic treatment of the horrible British upper class. On the flip side, Eimar McBride’s “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is not very readable, because it is communicating a not easily readable consciousness. Praising readability is like praising smooth steadicam shots in films regardless of genre, budget, etc.

  2. I think the author of this article is confusing the contents of the pages with the work within. Don’t read too far into the marketing, it’s purpose is to draw in new readers who don’t want to buy books to sit on a shelf. This article comes off whiney and elitist.

  3. Considering that the average American’s reading comprehension is somewhere around a 7th Grade level, I think we should just be happy that they are able to read anything, let along something being ‘readable.’ As our current President would say: “Reading is for losers.” Most of the country would agree with him, no?

  4. I’m sympathetic to the argument here. But this criticism of the Neapolitan novels–“For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another”–feels wrong-headed. What Roth scuttles in a single clause is by no means insignificant; in fact, it’s Ferrante’s arguable goal in writing those books. Certainly the determination to render female experience at such length and intensity was what I found most compelling in the Neapolitan novels.

    Dave Coulier’s perspective above seems better than recommending complexity over readability in all cases as Roth ends up doing. In other words, better to figure out *why* a book earns the “readable” designation—which may speak to some goal the writer has in writing “readable” prose—or has (to your eye) the “readable” quality, which may indeed speak to some weakness in it.

    There’s also the fact that we depend on our Budweisers, so to speak, to determine where the other, better beers are…

  5. Accessibility and literary merit are independent. You could call the work of Chekhov “readable,” also Dickens, and neither should be considered inferior to Joyce. Is Dubliners inferior to Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake?

    There are so many elitists who would happily back literature into a tiny, private corner. “Make Literature Great Again” type of people. We must ignore them aggressively.

  6. Pete R —

    I was just about to say that! Some people think that anything they can’t understand is necessarily highbrow, sophisticated, erudite. It’s this kind of thinking that created Judith Butler and others who’ve made a career on writing gibberish and then telling us we’re not smart enough to get it.

    Henry James is a case study. Roderick Hudson was very readable; The Bench of Desolation is borderline gibberish. In between there was a steady increase in unreadability, leading scholars to note his increasing sophistication. Nonsense: his earlier works are just as brilliant as his later ones, but far better because far more readable. As he began to wear out the “American gets screwed in Europe” theme, he found it necessary to add faux sophistication by adding sub-sub-sub-sub dependent clauses to each sentence, but with little effect other than obfuscation.

    Long live Stoner.

  7. Best I came away with was comment by James:: TL;DR

    But I did regrettably read. Snobbish occurs to me. Someone said elitist. I think more schoolmarmish. Written like a lit prof, namedropping his faves and buds. This is the kind of stuff that turns people away from reading, someone pontificating on his canon. Didn’t take much googling to discover that one of his stars plagiarized and then justified it by calling it art, as if copying word for word from the French Wikipedia and inserting it in his book unattributed transformed it into art.

  8. Look at all the slanders on display in this comment section: snobbish, schoolmarmish, highbrow, sophisticated, erudite, and — the current gold standard amongst the MAGA crowd – elitist (x3).

    What a sad state of affairs. America 2017: if you have a college degree, you’re an elitist; if you don’t, you’re a racist.

    I have to comment on this though: “This is the kind of stuff that turns people away from reading, someone pontificating on his canon.”

    “Someone pontificating on his canon” has inspired me to read countless books I never would have otherwise picked up. Why in the world would someone passionately arguing for their favorite books turn someone off? Rur, are you that arrogant to think you know everything you need to know about every book out there? Who’s snobbish again?

  9. “It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. ”

    Years ago I enjoyed a kind of epiphany after reading a novella-length text I found on the Internet. The text was a true-crime narrative written in very poor prose… if an eighth grader had written this thing for a final grade I’d have expected it to get a “C” at best. But I “couldn’t put it down”. The crudeness of expression was the opposite of a barrier to reading it; I read without stopping and finished it at the crack of dawn.

    I realized from that that one if the oldest parts of my brain is addicted to raw narrative the way one of the other oldest parts probably craves raw meat; wordprocessing bestsellers (eg Haruki Murakami) monetize that physiological peculiarity by blending direct expression with cliche. And it’s among the more “developed” (or decadent) parts of my brain which light up with such monkish pleasures as sleeping on boards, taking cold showers or reading (eg) Gass’ The Tunnel. Beckett.

    The best, for me, is the mix: raw meat *and* cold showers: Pynchon, DeLillo, Brodkey, Gardner, VN, Woolf and all those… what we might call the upper-middlebrow? It’s much easier to do one extreme or the other (ultra-readable Knausgaard’s real talents are self belief and his perfectly-judged jacket photos, imo… VS… the remaining 9/10ths of Finnegans Wake hanging over me like a noble promise to paint someone else’s kitchen). Achieving the Readably Unreadable is a real trick. But it’s all a taste thing, in the end. Bloody Big Macs vs… haggis?

  10. toad –

    I don’t object to passionate arguments for favorite books. The opposite. Let’s celebrate the many and varied voices. Please tell me about a great book I haven’t heard of, canon or otherwise. That’s not what I’m talking about. My problem is with intellectual elitism, e.g., “I possess superior taste, which I demonstrate now publicly by hating on XYZ author.” The article above is a typical example. It was likely written for an audience of academic peers, not for people who love books. Related complaints include: there are just too many writers these days, people shouldn’t try NANOWRIMO, and why do my books earn such microscopic advances when they’re clearly superior to XYZ author’s?

    By the way– this type of elitism is not at all the same as Fox News’s “elitism.” (The readable) George Saunders recently described his political orientation as “to the left of Ghandi,” and me too. In addition, I like cappuccinos and organic locally grown vegetables. #resistance

    Liam – thanks for the Williams tag. I love that book — so heartbreaking and readable.

  11. Pete, so are you saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say about a book, don’t say anything at all”?

  12. toad – I suppose I was heading in that direction. My main point here is that accessibility and commercial appeal do not signify any lack of artistic merit.

    To respond directly to your comment: I’m suspicious of dismissive, take-down literary criticism in general. Ben Roth really seems to relish the moment in this piece when he gets to “name names,” wouldn’t you agree? And when he says, “so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to,” I hardly think he’s including himself in that breezy condemnation. He’s dismissing authors and their readers broadly here, diminishing them to nothing.

    I find art criticism valuable. I’m personally interested in analyses of what is and isn’t successful in a given work of fiction. But I’d challenge anyone: if you literally see no value in a book, then why are you reviewing it publicly? Why even mention it?

    I’m curious to know the reason why Roth has read more than one Franzen novel. I suppose he puts him one step above Grisham. But why write an article hating all these Budweisers+1 when he could instead focus intellect and critical energies on the complexities of some unknown craft beer? Is his time not valuable? Or is there something to gain? Does Ben Roth gain literary street cred by subjugating authors and readers by the dozens and tens of thousands, respectively? Does he gain and maintain status in his community by upholding a literary class system (would he call it a “brow” system?) based on random qualities like accessibility? And what does any of it have to do with artistic human expression?

    Ultimately, he lands on an argument against the word “readable” as a term of praise, but not before all the damage and named names.

  13. I have been a book critic for decades. I’ve read most of the books that you are referring to. I don’t think I’ve ever waded into the comments of an essay like this before. But oh boy, here goes. Ben, please! Have you ever read Zadie Smith?

    “All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught.”

    Is there some lesser-known writer with the name Zadie Smith that you are referring to? I don’t see any evidence in this essay that you actually read Swing Time. If you did read it, I think you must have skipped some pages. Like all the pages in Africa, all the ones with Tracey, all the ones about the protagonist’s feminist mother and about life in the housing projects. And all the ones that discuss Fred Astaire’s performance in blackface. It is a book that does reward being reread, studied and taught. In fact, I reread parts of it before I wrote my review, and gleaned new insights. And I’ve taught several classes about Zadie Smith’s writing. The students seem to leave them with their eyes opened and their heads filled.

    I vehemently disagree that Smith writes in such a way that you only have “to skim in order to process” her prose. What a weird charge, anyway. If you skimmed it and got nothing out of it, then maybe you need to go back and read it again. The problem lies with the reader, not with the book. Yes, Dana Spiotta, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus and Stephen Millhauser all do remarkable things–I’m a fan of their work too. But to fence them off into the category of being worthy of your time and to put Zadie Smith on the other side of that fence? What a weird place your mind must be.

    Whew. I didn’t know I had any ire left in me for issues unrelated to politics, so thanks, Ben, for awakening the dormant part of my brain devoted to literary fisticuffs.

  14. One way to see a Lit Site like The Millions is as a bazaar of Ideas and Worldviews; strong opinions will interest some and turn off others; some ideas will seem under-cooked to some and eye-opening to others; the readers are free to stroll the various aisles along different tents and choose. Minds, in some cases, may be expanded or changed. Feelings may be clarified. The wider the range of Worldviews on offer, the better.

    “Naming names” is nothing more sinister (on a Lit site) than an inevitable extension of having strong opinions… but passionate defenses of the writers denounced could do the writers denounced a service greater, after all, than the (possible) disservice done in the initial denouncing. So, this kind of bazaar can be a *Win/Win* for all involved if it’s used vigorously on all sides, eh? With a sense of good sportsmanship, definitely.

  15. “What a sad state of affairs. America 2017: if you have a college degree, you’re an elitist; if you don’t, you’re a racist”

    I don’t know what sad part of the country you’re from, but over here no one thinks that. You seem a bit hysterical. One can still denounce pretension and faux-erudition without breathing from the mouth at a Trump rally. One can still claim that Lydia Davis is the most overrated writer in history without thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rocks. Chill.

  16. Yeah, I don’t see anything especially sinister, as Steven puts it, in proposing a thesis, i.e. that “readability” has become a standalone metric for the success of a book, and that there are some writers primarily praised for this very metric, then naming some of those authors. While I don’t happen to agree with some of Roth’s examples–the intense reiterative social preoccupation of Ferrante’s novels is kind of the point and anyway if you’re damning a novel for being built on love triangles you’ve got to damn about half the canon including The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, and Madame Bovary–and I half-disagree with his premise, I don’t think he’s wrong to make his case. Let’s hear *why* he’s wrong rather than *that* he’s wrong.

  17. I agree with much of what Pete R. has stated above. The elitist overall tone is off putting and immediately puts the reader on the defense by insulting so many beloved and respected authors. Although I love craft beer and normally don’t go any were near a Budweiser, the beer analogy did not hold up well for me either.

    However, on a second reading I found myself agreeing with the central thesis which is somewhat hidden beneath the distractions of all the author derision and canon flag waving.

    If you were to read this central paragraph first, as a lens through which to understand and appreciate the whole article I think you might allow yourself more patience while consuming the rest of Mr. Roth’s potentially aggravating opinions.

    “Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. “

  18. I for one am glad to get back to arguing about the books!

    Pete, I guess I can see your point re: not wasting time with bad books. But I think it’s vital for the intellectual development of a critic and writer (and reader for that matter) to be able to coherently elucidate why they like certain books and why they don’t like others. Simply saying “Franzen sucks” doesn’t suffice, but a thoughtfully critical piece a la C Lorenzen is not only important but necessary for literature’s long-term health. If quality is ignored – if negative reviews are shelved – then books suffer the Lego disease (Everything is awesome) and tend toward commodity rather than art.

    Also – “Is Dubliners inferior to Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake?” *Opinion alert* Yes. Yes it is.

    Jenny – “If you skimmed it and got nothing out of it, then maybe you need to go back and read it again. The problem lies with the reader, not with the book.” This is a remarkable statement. Art is not a math problem!

    Dave – “Let’s hear *why* he’s wrong rather than *that* he’s wrong.” Cheers to that!

  19. toad – Thoughtful criticism is indeed vital, both positive and negative. I think we’re in agreement. Although I’m sticking by Dubliners. “The Dead” renders the human condition with such poetry.

  20. This is rather puritanical. Are Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen lessened by being readable? Someone is confusing the input for the output. Readability is about style, not substance. A car can have a smooth ride, but also have great performance. Some cars offer neither.

    It’s surprisingly easy to be a “puzzle writer”, especially when writing in the literary genre, because a lot of people confuse hard to read with worth while reading. I’m always impressed when a writer can offer a serious work in accessible language. It’s harder than it looks.

  21. Jenny Shanks, thanks for your comments re Zadie Smith. Also I am reading Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, and am finding it stingingly readable, a delight. So I think readability is subjective. I get Ben’s point that one must work hard at reading and that quantity is not always quality, and that a novel must be of such substance that one ruminates on it, like a dream that stays with you through out the day.

  22. This essay feels half right.

    “‘Readable’ has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to.”

    Sadly true.

    But that doesn’t mean the “readable” books aren’t good or worthwhile. As other commenters have noted, you invite accusations of elitism as soon as you start equating difficulty with literary merit. And if you want to pass aesthetic judgement, a more sophisticated critical approach would help – the diss on Knausgaard (that his work contains “remarkably little self-reflection”) has an echo of the Victorian notion that good literature must be morally improving.

    Instead of “Against Readability,” I would propose “Against Distraction” – let’s reclaim more time for reading all kinds of books.

  23. Some thoughtful points by everybody here. I’m also pleased that I have a few more authors to check out that I’ve been meaning to, like Dana Spiotta. All I’ll say is that while I agree with the thesis of this essay, but throwing Smith and Ferrante “on the other side of the fence”, like a smart comment said above, without any real criticism, (and no, using love triangles isn’t enough as a criticism), seems like just a way to get a reaction. I’d like to hear more about why these authors are set aside so easily.

  24. Re: Elitism: the social (class and/or race-based) version is an obvious evil, because it traps people in arbitrary hierarchies according, largely, to the accident of birth. To be elitist to the extent that one only values people or things in a certain price-range is be a fuckwit. But to be meritocratically Elitist… that is, to have high standards regarding ability… that’s not remotely the same thing. And how can it be bad? Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is better than Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop This Feeling” (there, I’ve said it)… it’s a deep, rich, always-surprising chunk of beauty to Timberlake’s disposable money-maker; if I had to save the last existing copy of one or the other from a fire I wouldn’t need to think about the decision. To put them on the same plane (as some would, with “De Gustibus…”) would be to indulge not only in sophistry but to indulge in a kind of Nihilism, too.

    This is an Elitist site because it focuses, largely, on the upper range of artifacts in a category of cultural production that is, largely, not exactly Populist: and that’s great. I’m not rich but I have access to things as fine or finer than the average billionaire can afford… through the (recent) revolutionary social program of bringing Literacy to the Masses. No endangered-species-sandwich served on a platinum dish on a private jet can be more exquisite than my familiarity with Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a familiarity the jet’s owner may be deprived of: how is this not one of the most radical things in the world…?

    To invite people of all classes/ income levels (including the vast bulk of us: Serfs) to be concerned with an unambiguously Intellectual tradition of cultural production and to focus on its fine points in order to develop a nuanced sense of discrimination between its artisans and artifacts: this is the perfect opposite of Elitism-the-Evil. It is Elitism-as-Social-Leveler. It is way, way Good.

    Everyone who takes Lit seriously enough to think some books/writers are better than others is being Elitist. Why not own it? Why bother accusing a fellow Elitist of being Elitist? It should be a badge of honor.

    I want to see kids in “The Hood” walking around being vociferously Elitist about Books. That would be something.

  25. In my opinion, writing extremely simple on the things extremely complex takes way more effort than playing with all those LSD metaphors and sophisticated words. Posh language doesn’t make a book great, neither do its length, sentence structure, and time spent on reading. Ideas and the message do; everything else is pure package decor (which is great, too, in case the package is engaging and challenging).

    While reading, I am constantly asking the author what their point is, or how the text is even relevant to the current stage of my life. I do this because I read to improve my thinking, find necessary answers, or get a whole new perspective on the problem. If the text helps – that’s great; if it doesn’t, well, that’s great, too, as at least I know what does not seem to work.

    And thank you for mentioning few of your favorites. However, I don’t think the strategy of engaging based on read-shaming and arrogance will work.

  26. What you consider readable progresses with experience. It’s not set in stone.

    I first read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet with the book in one hand and a three-pound Chambers dictionary in the other. Now it’s a cinch. No longer a labour of love; just a love.

    You get better at reading by reading.

    BTW I’ve read before that Franzen couldn’t find the commitment to finish Gaddis. JR is a rollicking read. I’ll grant that The Recognitions is indeed a challenge but it’s also bloody hilarious. I loved it so much I immediately read it again. Sad but true.

    Now, what is not readable? Dan Brown. Hard because offensively bad writing. But… he spins a yarn and I want to finish a story. So I finished it with some effort.

  27. I think that quality of being too willfully clear is what keeps me away from a lot of contemporary names, as if they took communication for granted. Not that I’m dying their intelligence. Although linguistic pleasure isn’t only in a narrative that can hold itself together. Also I’m real sick of Zadie Smith’s empathy-mongering and Lethem’s cultural commentary.

  28. “What you consider readable progresses with experience. It’s not set in stone.”

    One great point.

    “Although linguistic pleasure isn’t only in a narrative that can hold itself together.”

    Another.

  29. A thought provoking piece published on a site where the vast majority of staff and contributors aspire to the level Roth condescendingly calls “middlebrow”. A site which contains a weekly Top 10 occupied by middlebrow authors, and a readership who puts them there, making them, I suppose, middlebrow readers.

  30. Thanks, Steven. And to be fair, an endangered-species-sandwich sounds pretty good anyhow. You have to take the most rarified experiences you can, whether reading or gastronomical. That’s my motto: excellene and enjoyment, sworn to fun, loyal to none.

  31. @Hal Inc

    Even Phil himself didn’t produce what I’d consider “highbrow” stuff; he’s about a 6.0 on the Beckett scale. But his stuff works extremely well in that register, delivering some powerful sensations (especially in an avalanche of sensation like “Sabbath’s Theater”). Highbrow morality plus middlebrow language: parfait. Middlebrow morality plus middlebrow language: meh.

  32. Sort of exemplary comments section here! Good points from both aesthetic sides. It’s nice when the comments expand on the article.

    Steven, I especially liked your Elitism v Elitism comment above, good stuff…

  33. @Dave

    It’s been unusually pleasurable and interesting, yeah. I think the article-writers, in general, though, should mix in the comment threads a little more frequently; it can only add to the conversation, eh? It would have been nice to see a follow-up response, for example, to the comments in defense of Zadie Smith, Ferrante and Knausgaard in the thread.

  34. I loved this essay. It parsed out why the concept of readable is not simply something that is grammatically easy to read. You can be a writer of simplicity and clarity and yet be the sort who makes your reader lower the book, stare out the window, and make a connection that wasn’t quite there before – or even better, was half-formed and fuzzy in your head before and now pop, it’s come together from several different facets and blown your mind just a little.

    And then, to increase the magic, you look down from gazing out the window and return to the book. You don’t want to break the sense of wholeness by picking up one of your bloody devices. You want to go back in.

    It’s a different kind of readability and it’s harder work for the reader than page-turners. Which doesn’t mean page-turners are bad. But they are quite often forgettable.

  35. An interesting article but I think ‘readability’ implied that the prose was well written and that readability meant that the prose flowed from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph etc…

    At the end of the third paragraph Roth writes “Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books”.

    Now I know what a long book is- lots of words, loads of ’em, but ‘difficult’? Whats that about then?

  36. Novels are not easy to write; there are many nuances involved in completing one, all of which make a root canal seem much more preferable.

    All of these I’ve dealt with in one way shape or form over the years, including the dreaded passive voice, which involves removing every instance of the word was (barring quotes and emphasis, of course), and the word that (barring quotes, emphasis, and places where it cannot be avoided). It also involves the apt removal of anything unnecessary to the plot, such as rambling sentences which appear to go nowhere, elaborate layers of purple prose, past-tense sentences, words such as very, maybe, like, as, then, and whittling down your fifty thousand or five hundred and fifty thousand word manuscript into something as short as possible because most of the critics nowadays are minimalists who cannot possibly write anything more than Cat-in-the-Hat level writing before lamenting their novels are getting top-heavy. In fact, every work can essentially be narrowed down into four words:

    Stuff happened. The end.

    Of course, if you really want to be a writer you cannot be listening to the critics anyway, because if the critics had anything positive to say they would not be critics.
    But they are critics because they cannot possibly come up with anything worthwhile to write, and they lash out at writers by saying ‘I don’t have anything to contribute to the literary world, so you don’t either.’

    Yap, yap, yap.

  37. As someone who has spent nearly 20 years recommending the work of Evan Dara to receptive readers–especially since I’m convinced that “The Lost Scrapbook” is the best novel of the past 25 years–I’m cautious about the readability quotient as a critical criterion in an age of bingeing. Talented writers and cagey editors are more attuned to the idea of flow, sculpting prose that provides a sufficient level of challenge to their readers while reducing friction wherever possible, in an effort to keep the pages turning. The downside of flow, however, is that this kind of pleasurable immersion slashes the time our brains need to pause and reflect. As Roth writes above, he barreled through The Goldfinch and Franzen’s most recent offerings in about two days. When dealing with 500-page novels, i’m not sure if this is a sustainable pace.

    In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen takes Gaddis to task for making things too hard in “JR,” for requiring too much from the reader. no matter how active or intelligent they are. He also derisively questions the novel’s defenders, as if they are focusing on what he sees as explicit flaws and turning the lemons into lemonade. He even quotes William Gass by saying, “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.” Franzen, alas, doesn’t agree.

    From my perspective, readers need to remain vigilant, and stay alert lest the writer seduces them to put down their pencil. 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.

  38. In recent years I have been employing Nancy Pearl’s “Rule of 50” (based upon one’s age, you read a certain number of pages before abandoning a book) – and have not been slogging through books that I’m just not crazy about. Life is too short, and there are soooo many books.

  39. It’s funny that you (or your site) insists on providing Amazon links for the books you champion…I think Amazon (esp. Amazon Prime) has a lot to answer for in feeding the TL;DR/instant gratification culture which is rapidly supplanting the old habits of longer reading and attention spans.

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