Against Readability

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. I 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. 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.  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. What 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. 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.  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.

Poetry, Jarmusch Style

During college, two of my English-majoring friends had a running argument, years long, about whether "Pale Fire,” the 999-line poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, is good or not.  The poem is attributed to the fictional writer John Shade, and the rest of the novel takes the form of an unhinged and digressive commentary on it by Shade’s neighbor.  There’s no doubt about the quality of the commentary (as commentary, as opposed to a satire of one), nor about the quality of novel, but what of the poem?  Usually, fictional works of art are framed as clearly good or bad by the larger works they are within, but occasionally their status is more interestingly ambiguous. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson, a Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver.  (Many of its jokes are of this sort.)  It is admirably quiet and prosaic, refreshingly so in a time when it can feel like 50 percent of films include the computer generated destruction of a metropolis.  It is also remarkably thought provoking, raising questions about why people write poetry, whether they need readers, and who merits the label “poet.”  More than any other, however, the film left me with the question of whether it -- and Jarmusch -- thinks Paterson’s poetry is any good. Paterson writes, if the week we see is typical, about a poem a day.  We witness him thinking through the first lines over breakfast and his walk to work, then writing in his “secret notebook” (as his wife calls it) as he waits to set out on his first route of the day, on his lunch break, and at his basement desk at home.  Certainly the film seems to celebrate his words: paired with Driver’s voiceover, they are inscribed on the screen, both as they are being drafted and in apparently finished form.  Yet Paterson is uninterested in showing his poetry to anyone.  His wife seems to have read, or heard, a few of them, and constantly hectors him to make copies and share them with the world, but he is clearly reluctant to do so. The counterpoint of Paterson’s wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), suggests all the more that the film thinks Paterson’s poetry is good.  She flits from daydream to daydream about how she will become famous -- for her cupcakes, or as a Nashville singer with her newly bought guitar -- and the film gently mocks these dreams, as well as her many design projects around the house.  Yet no such mockery is pointed toward Paterson’s work. Films can make any poem seem greater than it is, and of much deeper significance -- or go too far in such a direction, turning it into overwrought bombast, as Dead Poet’s Society did for Walt Whitman and, more recently, Interstellar for Dylan Thomas.  Despite this, Paterson’s poetry still seems, at best, merely mediocre.  It is styled after that of William Carlos Williams, son of Paterson, N.J., and hero of both Driver’s character and the film.  Williams is repeatedly discussed, Paterson recites “This Is Just to Say” at his wife’s request, and his book Paterson is obviously visible on the main character’s shelf (along with other collections of poetry and Infinite Jest, a book I cannot imagine Driver’s character reading, which Jarmusch also visually fetishized, more convincingly, in Only Lovers Left Alive).  Unlike Williams’s poetry, however, Paterson’s seemed to me unnecessarily baggy, occasionally finding a good line or two, but only after far too much preamble, not just conversational, but plain in its diction and rhythm to the point of banality. I was surprised to learn, then, that Paterson’s lines were in fact written, some especially for the film (others have appeared elsewhere), by the poet Ron Padgett, an award-winning member of the New York School (itself name-checked, via Frank O’Hara, in the film).  Unless Jarmusch means to insult his friend, this makes me think he means to present the poems as good.  Otherwise, why not write them himself?  Poetry of Williams’s sort is not hard to write, only hard to write well.  Did Padgett, in the poems written for the film, take on the persona of a lesser talent?  The film features one other poem, written by a 10-year-old girl with whom Paterson falls into conversation.  This one was actually written by Jarmusch, and the film presents it as no worse than Paterson’s (that is Padgett’s) work: Driver’s character seems genuinely moved by it, and he recites its opening lines to his wife later that night.  Does Jarmusch intend to lower Paterson’s status, or to elevate the young girl? Paterson exists thought-provokingly, though I am not sure fully purposefully, in the space created by the ambiguity of whether Paterson’s poetry is any good.  If it were clearly bad, then the film would become cruel.  If it were clearly good, then the film would become something else, a hackneyed gem-in-the-rough story.  Twice in the film, Paterson is presented with the opportunity to call himself a poet.  Neither time does he.  He is interested in poetry, likes poetry, but he doesn’t even admit he writes it, neither to the young girl, nor to a Japanese poet on pilgrimage to the hometown of William Carlos Williams.   Where Williams was a doctor, Paterson is a bus driver and thinks of himself merely as that.  Unlike Williams, he writes only for himself. Near the end of the film, Paterson’s notebook is destroyed (a move so heavily telegraphed that this really isn’t a spoiler).  His wife is devastated by the loss -- clearly she daydreams about his future fame as well -- but Paterson’s own reaction is opaque.  He says almost nothing: is he in shock or remarkably stoic?  Does he not especially care, or perhaps even feel a little relieved?  We briefly wonder if he will stop writing or, alternatively, now write to publish, his juvenilia swept away.  Instead, he simply returns to his routine, it seems: his poems, it is suggested, are for him, and him alone.  They help him find meaning in his otherwise routine life, and that’s enough -- anything else would be too much, too grandiose, too, well, poetic, for his merely prosaic existence.