It is so frequent, isn’t it … that we start thinking about a topic, or learn a new word, and suddenly it is everywhere. I was musing here a couple of days ago about character accessibility (can we relate to them??) and how it has become a wildly distorted expectation or demand of fiction, and then this morning I came up to a chapter in the book of essays I’m reading …
Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner, novelist, columnist, commentator, very funny man, has a collection out called (wonderfully, after a Chico Marx line): Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It. I just read the piece entitled “If It’s ‘Readable’ Don’t Read It.”
His take-off point for this short, smooth flight is a neurological study showing that the brain is triggered, engaged, all the lights go ON when subjects confront challenges in Shakespeare’s syntax; the need to process, adjust, absorb surprise in language and the illumination that follows. (Yes, I know, a pun, electrode-wired lights go on, etc.) Words that don’t just dully mirror back our ‘usual’ ways of speaking and writing.
Howard (I’ve met and corresponded with him, does one need ‘full disclosure’ in a journal post?) exults amusingly about this, but goes on to make core points, akin to what I was riffing on earlier this week. (Told you, major coincidence … or maybe just receptivity.)
Try this: “‘Then thank me for it,’ I always say, should the charge of ‘difficulty’ be levelled at one of my novels … ‘Struggling with a book has more of reading in it than flicking through it at a predetermined rate… And laying it aside to scratch your head does greater justice to a book’s contents than never laying it aside at all. They also read who are not turning pages.”
I’ll add (Kay, not Jacobson) that laying the book aside to absorb and respond to emotional intensity, real, unexpected feelings induced in us, is another sign of something reaching deeply into our lives from a book. Passages that take us off cruise-control. We pause to think, to grieve or celebrate, or be wrapped in mystery…
And then (Jacobson again), there’s this: “… those other reading-group inanities – ‘I can’t identify with the characters’ or ‘I don’t find the hero a very nice person’…”
I hate to say it, but he’s right (and not just because I wrote this two or three days ago here!). I suspect Howard hates to say it, or see it, too. The idea that books demand nothing of us implies that they offer nothing to us. Or, worse, that the measure of excellence in a novel is how swiftly and smoothly it slides past us (and then, as often as not, is gone forever).
Books that have a reader up at night but then also stay long after, that’s what some want to achieve as writers – and search for as readers. I want a great book to change me, not just make a plane ride pass. It doesn’t happen often. I always say that excellence is rare, in everything – that is why we value it so much.