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Hard fun

Reading the Q&A with Jonathan Franzen on, it occurred to me that maybe writers aren't the best people to turn to for theories about why people read. Talking about Joyce's Ulysses, Franzen says:

The problem is not so much the difficulty of the book itself as the particular status the book has acquired. I mean, it's now our leading model of a work of great literature. It's the iconic modern text; it routinely tops lists of the best novels of the twentieth century — which sends this message to the common reader: Literature is horribly hard to read.

Now, this may very well be; I at least have no good reason to dispute the view. But I have no idea who the "common reader" is. Is there such a being? We all read differently, it seems to me. And Franzen certainly hasn't just described the common literature reader — he seems to be talking about the common nonreader.

So, I was thinking, wouldn't it be better to ask an actual reader? Franzen, of course, is such a one, but as a writer he has additional concerns; we can't trust his perspective to be pure. And, just my luck, simultaneously published a Q&A with New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar concerning her (print only, alas) profile of Harold Bloom, a professional reader if ever there was one. But his view isn't exactly that of the "common reader," either, to judge from what MacFarquhar says:

Reading, in [Bloom's] view, is a difficult pleasure. It's not sinking into a warm word bath — it's not soothing or encouraging or uplifting in the Oprah sense. Reading well is a terrible struggle, not only with the writing itself but also with the sensation of miserable inadequacy and belatedness that you feel when encountering a great mind of the past.

Ack! I guess we shouldn't ask him, either, after all. (I mean, who cares why someone like Bloom reads what he reads? Does anyone outside of academia actually read like that? With any consistency?)

I don't think anyone who actually reads literature and isn't Harold Bloom doesn't enjoy it. But for some reason we all like to talk about it like it's hard. This is a silly sort of thing to do; it makes people who simply enjoy reading feel like they're missing something, or somehow doing it "wrong" (whatever that means). Reading, for almost everyone in the real world, is a purely personal activity: The only way to do it wrong is to not enjoy it. For us, it makes no sense to say literature's "hard." The fact that some people walk on their hands doesn't make walking on our feet any more difficult for the rest of us.

September 29, 2002 6:07 PM


I think it all depends on the type of reader. I think most people read for entertainment and relaxation. These are folks not looking for any type of challenge. Then there are people who read for a flow experience, where they want to expend more mental energy engaging the text.

It's not that either method is the "right" method, it's just the different intent of the reader at the moment.

Posted by Mr. Nosuch on September 30, 2002 12:51 PM

I think good literature is hard, or should be. "Hard" doesn't have to mean "unenjoyable", though. Good art of any kind should be challenging. Easy art may take less work to understand and enjoy, but the total experience is less worthwhile and less rewarding for the lack of effort.

Usually, anyway.

Posted by Dave A on October 1, 2002 2:37 PM

I think good literature is hard, or should be.

But what's wrong with reading good literature just for entertainment, as Mr. Nosuch (if I understand him well) describes? I mean, yes, good literature does reward additional effort. But that doesn't mean it's hard to read, it just means it can be read on more levels than bad literature, without falling apart quite so badly.

We may, of course, simply be disagreeing about the meaning of "hard" here, but I just think it's a bad word to describe works that are often quite enjoyable even without any undue exertion on the part of the reader.

Posted by M on October 1, 2002 9:37 PM

But what's wrong with reading good literature just for entertainment, as Mr. Nosuch (if I understand him well) describes?

Nothing at all!

We may, of course, simply be disagreeing about the meaning of "hard" here

Probably. You described what I probably meant well with the idea of appreciating it on many levels. Of course, good art doesn't have to provide the easy levels either.

I don't know what my point is anymore. Maybe that good art has to have the deep, difficult levels, and sometimes the lack of the easy layer is essential.

Posted by Dave A on October 2, 2002 10:18 AM

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