[Note: This post is based on a few notes first published in Notes on Notes 1]
For my 100th post in September I wrote a haiku summarizing each of those 100. One was my 2017 review of the 1000-page modern classic novel Infinite Jest.
I read a long book
It was an experience
Not a lot to look at, granted. It’s just 11 words, most of them quite short. However, like a haiku should, it’s a good encapsulation of what I thought of the book. It was indeed better afterwards; despite an at-best mixed review I look back fondly on it five years later2.
It’s not surprising, necessarily. Nostalgia is a well known thing. We edit out unpleasantness (and most of all boredom) from our memories, give the rest a moodful soundtrack, and boom! — those certainly were the days. But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that makes me appreciate having read it. Infinite Jest had themes that made an impact and that I keep coming back to, and the question I’ve been asking myself is this: would that have been the case had it been less of a struggle to read in the first place?
I’m curious because my experiences with some other “serious literature” has been similar. Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game all felt way better afterwards (not sure about Crime and Punishment since I never finished it, but probably that too). Each was thought-provoking, clever, impressive, and rich, but also kind of a slog. Nothing made me eager to pick up and continue reading. They were about as far from The Da Vinci Code as a book can be.
“Well, good! It’s only natural that writing with substance is the complete opposite of cheap schlock.”
I understand the sentiment, I do, but it’s not obviously that simple. I don’t buy that “enjoyable in the moment” and “rich and thought-provoking” need to be opposites. I can easily imagine Infinite Jest or any of the others being as complex, profound, and full of details while also being easier to get through.
Or can I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. I can imagine the 100th decimal of pi being a 3 but it isn’t. It’s a 9. It was always completely, 100% impossible, for it to be anything else and my intuition that it “could just as well have been a 3” is a complete illusion. Is it also an illusion that profound, impactful books could just as well be easy to get through?
Let’s get one option out of the way: it could just be me. These books may not be arduous and boring to their target audience. Maybe some do find them riveting on a page-by-page basis. I don’t know. But since many posters on the book forums I visited who said they loved Infinite Jest still found it a struggle to get through, I doubt it. And conventional wisdom is on my side: everyone understands the joke “a classic is a book everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read”, suggesting there’s either 1) an inverse relationship between classic-worthiness and enjoyability, or 2) a bias towards the unenjoyable when granting books the status of classic3.
And another one: I don’t buy that “deep” ideas has to be a struggle because they contain advanced, difficult ideas. I’ve read about difficult ideas in many texts that were not boring at all, and if you think you cannot possibly write about complex things in an engaging, comprehensible way you’re either lying to yourself or not a very good writer. I’m also not convinced fiction writers are trying to do this and fail. If they did the problem would be more of “this is boring because it reads like a philosophical tract” and I wouldn’t make that complaint because I like philosophical tracts.
Now, let me ruminate on this for thousands of words. I’ll do my best to make it worth it.
If the lasting value of these book are the ideas, the themes, the overarching message, then couldn’t you just deliver that more efficiently? They don’t need hundreds of pages of decidedly non-pageturner narrative to be expressed. Short stories would do in most cases — and, for example, Jorge Luis Borges did communicate fascinating ideas in that format.
The Glass Bead Game4 in particular felt to me like a Borges short story inexplicably inflated into a full novel. Interestingly I read that it was supposed to be a short story at first, but grew bigger and bigger as Hesse worked on it. While I can identify with that (the same happens to most of my posts) I struggle to understand this particular case since the material he was unable to resist putting in felt to me like filler.
“Literature isn’t about just getting the point, it’s about the journey!”
Right, ok, absolutely. But then make the journey enjoyable! Why make it arduous and boring?
Well, I can think of a few reasons.
It’s supposed to make you feel like that!
Sometimes struggle or discomfort is an intended part of a work of art. Art is about inducing experiences — unique and interesting ones if the art is any good — in clever, stylish, and effective ways. If we limit ourselves to only the pleasant, we leave whole continents of artistic possibility unexplored. It could be that books treating “heavy” ideas must also feel heavy, or it comes off as insubstantial, incongruous, and fake.
The middle line of the haiku (“it was an experience”) has a meaning on its own, besides leading in to “better afterwards”. The reading experience was the point, even more than the story or the philosophical content. I’ve read somewhere that Wallace intentionally told major parts of Infinite Jest in endnotes, sometimes many pages long, in order to simulate the fragmented attention characteristic of modern media. That’s obviously grown far worse since then, and he should be credited for his prescience.
I also read that his unfinished (he died in 2008) book The Pale King is about boredom. That doesn’t exactly make me itching to read it, to be honest, but it is a legitimate artistic achievement if he managed to illustrate boredom in a nontrivial way.
Hell, I hear some people even enjoy certain kinds of unpleasantness, which explains the popularity of horror movies and “misery porn”. I guess such enjoyment is the emotional equivalent of your body producing endorphins in response to pain when you eat spicy foods. It’s likely part of the answer to my question, but I’m not feeling it. I don’t like neither horror movies nor misery porn, or even those gloomy murder mysteries where the weather is bad. At most I can ~enjoy being moved to tears by emotional songs, but they’re not as long as novels (or movies). A few minutes is about as much as I want.
I’m worth listening to
Like depression and ~ADHD are inherent parts of Infinite Jest, you can argue that the weariness and confusion caused by an overload of medieval conspiracy lore that made my eyes glaze over during Foucault’s Pendulum5 is part of the point Umberto Eco wants to make about conspiracy theories and how they screw with your sense of reality6. That’s not the only reason for it, though. It’s also about Eco wanting to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of medieval history and secret societies. It’s definitely impressive, but does it legitimately make Pendulum a better book? Maybe it’s simply that Eco proving how much he knows about the subject gives it a hard-to-fake mark of authority that, while technically irrelevant to the purely subjective quality of the reading experience, elevates it to a higher level by making it a generally impressive achievement — a major facet of art.
By demonstrating skill and expertise, Eco makes establishes himself as a person to take seriously and listen to carefully, and a message, any message, coming from him will appear more profound by virtue of that. The effect is general, as we can see with the popularity of otherwise banal quotes attributed to Einstein, the Dalai Lama or whomever, borrowing heft from them. Wallace impressing by mastering a variety of tones and idioms, making obscure references to physics and mathematics, and writing labyrinthine sentences requiring the use of a dictionary, does make us prick up our ears and await his musings on Life, the Universe and Everything with eager anticipation. Richard Powers carefully going through how DNA and its translation into proteins work over the course of The Gold Bug Variations likely does a bit of the same.
Struggle is its own reward
Let’s say boredom, confusion, or discomfort is not a necessary part of the artistic vision. Then why would something good, written by a master writer, be boring? No matter how much I appreciated The Glass Bead Game I found it (and The Gold Bug Variations to an extent) dull in terms of story. I barely remember most of what happened, and that seems so unnecessary. Wouldn’t a more engaging plot have worked even better to bring out the interesting ideas?
Maybe struggle just does something for us. If emotional discomfort grants us the equivalent of painkilling endorphins, maybe a reading experience that requires pushing through despite a lack of tangible reward is like getting worn out by strenuous exercise. I hear some people enjoy that. I don’t, and maybe we’re getting, piece by piece, an idea of why I’m asking these questions.
Doing hard things can make you feel good because it makes you better at something, and focusing on not-very-engaging texts for long periods of time likely improves your self-control and concentration. Generalized and perhaps overstated, the rule becomes “if it’s a struggle it must be good for you”. It’s obvious how the rule can be abused (intentionally, unintentionally, or semitentionally). For starters, it renders any complaints of the type “this is needlessly boring” easily dismissible, even when valid. It’s not supposed to be “fast food”!
Here lie the most cynical theory of the connection between being a slog and apparent profundity: only books off-putting to casual readers may earn the “serious and profound” label in the first place, because social status is based on exclusion. For a book to be serious literature it must be impossible for the plebs to enjoy, otherwise liking it wouldn’t mark you as a person of taste and intellect. The cynical theory makes me think of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s complex and with significant musings on the human condition if you care to look for them7, but it’s not seen as serious and I think a big part is that it’s fun and popular.
Ok, I should give the “it’s not supposed to be fast food” viewpoint a fair shake. If we make something enjoyable on the surface, does it distract us, like a shiny trinket? Does it make it harder for us to discern the subtler but ultimately more rewarding qualities underneath?
I did write this in Rant on Arrival, about tugging on emotional strings:
It’s become a shortcut for adding “depth” to a story, but emotions aren’t deep just because they’re strong. Physical pain is also strong but similarly straightforward and uninteresting. Powerful but uncomplicated feelings are cheap tools, overused because they’re easy and reliable, the storytelling equivalent of sugar and butter. Use them to bring out flavors, sure, but they can’t be the main ingredient and drowning food in them to make it taste better is rightly considered vulgar.
Discovering the unknown and coming face to face with an alien intelligence is emotionally subtle, like a flute melody above slow-moving string harmonies. Arrival’s first half made us feel awe in the face of something vast and alien. It showed us the thrill of discovery, of finding out there is intention behind something inexplicable. /—/
The blunt force of a dying child story was like adding a thumping bass drum over the flute or pouring a pound of sugar and cream onto a dessert with rare exotic fruits. Power and subtlety are hard to mix right.
Immediately engaging story elements8 can be annoying and feel like they’re in the way if you’re there for the less obvious stuff. That’s especially true if content on different levels clash in terms of message, theme, aesthetic, or sensibility. Truly great works have coarser and subtler meanings that don’t interfere with each other and thus manage to be enjoyable on first run and then gradually deepen for every subsequent revisit.
Time makes the head grow fonder
Sure there are reasons why you wouldn’t want to pack The Glass Bead Game with an exciting action-adventure plot. But we have to return to the question of why pack it with all the filler, then? Why all the story that mostly seem to drag on, that isn’t just “not exciting” but doesn’t seem to add much to the subtler themes either?
“Maybe you just don’t get it?”
Again, maybe. But I don’t think so, not for the most part. I feel I do get what these books are going for, on the whole, and reading reviews hasn’t convinced me there’s a lot there I haven’t noticed9.
No, there’s something else. I said that The Hitchhiker’s Guide isn’t taken that seriously because it’s funny (and the wrong people like it). And humor, in general, tends to hide its serious content. Cartoonists and comics make observations and spin meditations on the human condition, similarly to what many novelists and artists do. The packaging is less intimidating but it’s far from obvious that they’re less accurate, valuable, or profound as a rule. For instance, the total wisdom referenced in the archive of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic dwarfs any great work of literature in the canon (a good hill for me to die on) but it’s all camouflaged as crude and silly jokes.
Aren’t I just retreading the cynical theory? Yeah, but there’s another point: the SMBC comics are short. Most take less than a minute to read and then you go about your day. And that matters because while some books could’ve been much shorter without losing any important content, I imagine they wouldn’t have as big a psychological impact without the filler.
Length — including filler — makes you to spend more time with a text. Big books become a part of your life for an extended period, and so their worlds, ideas and moods take up more space in your head and make a stronger imprint. In People Are Different I wrote:
‘Words of wisdom’ go into one ear and out the other, and I suppose this is a reason why a novel, a painting or a song can be more effective than a philosophical tract. Successful idea-driven art doesn’t simply supply us with ideas to use whenever we want to (which isn’t necessarily when we ought to), it burns them into our minds through repetition, elaboration and strong emotion. That way they won’t fade away like fragments of the last dream before you wake up and we won’t have the option to not use them.
Maybe those famous Borges short stories — Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius, The Lottery of Babylon, The Library of Babel, and Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote — would have made an even bigger impact had they been full length novels instead? Now that I think about it I’m almost sure of it. Maybe wisdom needs to be titrated and not downed like a shot of tequila. Things need to be mulled over — slept on, for many nights — and this is a legitimate reason for even strictly speaking meaningless filler, and specifically for filler boring enough to not hog all the attention.
The exception that proves the rule (and I used that phrase correctly) might be Dave Eggers’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?10 that I read right before Foucault’s Pendulum and tellingly didn’t think to mention here. It’s a thought-provoking book and has a lot to say about society and humanity, but it’s 200-ish pages of very readable pure dialogue (like a play) and I finished it in two days. I spent six months carrying Infinite Jest around, literally feeling its heft. Of course the second is going to have an order of magnitude greater staying power with me, even if its ideas aren’t, fundamentally, an order of magnitude more profound (my best estimate is “about the same”).
Tell me without telling me
Like many others I read more nonfiction than fiction and I’m accustomed to writers being relatively straightforward about what they want to say. It’s necessary when you have to communicate precise, detailed, and complex ideas that aren’t always right next to what the reader already thinks and feels. Vague hints and prods aren’t enough for that, you need high-fidelity transmission. But fiction isn’t like that. Its wisdom isn’t meant to be transmitted as information, but communicated as the psychological imprint of a significant experience.
It’s supposedly a rule for confidence tricksters that the victim should propose the key transaction themselves. Make them take the initiative and they’ll be more committed and less suspicious. There’s something similar going on with ideas: you want the pieces to fall into place in the mind of the reader themselves, not just spoon-feed them, because that isn’t as effective. It’s an overused expression, but “show, don’t tell”.
However, those of us used to the lucidity of good nonfiction often experience the indirectness of artful, philosophically ambitious fiction as making needless and irritating demands on our mental resources. I was also sometimes irritated back at school when they tried to be pedagogical and teach us things through live demonstrations, lab exercises, and group tasks. “No thanks, seeing electrolysis, buffer solutions, or the periods of pendulums with my own eyes doesn’t help it make more sense to me than it already did. I believe you, you don’t have to show me. Just explain it and I will understand. I’m perfectly happy to be helicoptered to the shoulders of giants. Just tell me right away so we can get somewhere! This is taking forever.”
…at the same time I appreciate indirectness a lot when it works on me. That is, when a writer is pushing just the right buttons to make me follow along with a minimum of steering. Reading is like dancing: you want communication to be as subtle as possible to not ruin the flow. Perhaps we get irritated when gentle pushes aren’t working quite right and it’s making you bounce around mental space irregularly and jerkily instead of smoothly gliding along the intended path11. Failure here isn’t the same thing as “not getting it”, exactly, but rather not having it come together as nicely as it’s meant to.
This becomes a problem for me, who’s curious about and want to read books by people very different from me, but can’t enjoy them correctly because of this sort of mismatch. Communicating over greater mental distances means you need to be more explicit and literal, but that’s frowned upon12 (because it makes it worse for those who don’t need it).
For every valuable thing there’s a cheap imitation
Then cynical theory suggests that making something off-putting weeds out the riffraff, making it appear sophisticated without necessarily being so. The somewhat less cynical theory suggests that certain ingredients (emotional power, struggle, length, indirectness) help give whatever insight they deliver an air of wisdom, regardless of how much it deserves it. Like the addition of salt or sugar to food it may be used either to bring out flavor or to cover up the lack of it.
For example, we struggle for worthwhile achievements, but once this understanding is established it can be used to create counterfeit worth. “Oh here’s a mediocre story, let’s make it difficult to read so people who finish it feel they’ve achieved something and thus think of it as valuable.”
Counterfeit emotional power is melodrama. I remember thinking during Infinite Jest that Wallace was painting some seriously shocking pictures. The book is on occasion nauseating; it is frequently absurd, and even more frequently tragic. Sometimes it all seems excessive, almost (almost) bordering on the melodramatic practice of adding more emotional intensity to a story than it can carry. In good drama, strong emotions helps hardening new understanding in a flash of fire. But to lend heft legitimately, the emotional content has to be intimately tied up with and justified by the message it supports. Melodrama merely turns up the dramatic volume to make the audience think they’re having a meaningful experience (and therefore that the message they’re receiving is meaningful13).
Similarly, padding a text with filler to make you spend more time with it works. But if the filler content isn’t intimately and inherently tied up with the message, I’d argue it’s as fake and hacky as melodrama. The same goes for impressiveness.
Given this, at least part of any books’s reputation for profundity can be counterfeit, because for every good reason difficulty/struggle and profundity are connected, there’s a fake version. In theory you can put in “slog factors” as additives to whatever crap you’ve got and make it look worth taking seriously.
But there’s one factor left, the indirectness factor. And here I think there’s isn’t just one way to fake it but two, and they’re each other’s inverses.
Convergent fake insight
In the good version of indirect storytelling you make the reader fully comprehend an idea by having them come to it themselves. Couldn’t you do the same thing with that as you can do with emotion? Evoke an experience and redirecting it towards an idea, implying it was the idea that caused the experience?
Yes, a reader will have an “insight experience” of things falling into place and making sense when reading something genuinely insightful about the world, but can also have one by just solving a puzzle14. If we wrap a mundane observation in writing so convoluted that it becomes a puzzle to extract its meaning we’ll have an insight experience when we finally do, and we might easily think it was the content of the observation itself that caused it15.
It’s not just literary indirectness that can be exploited this way. Making something opaque so it seems more interesting is a common trick16. I remember an ad once that was just plain text written upside-down. Of course that makes you wonder what it says, so I wound up carefully reading some boring ad copy about a new yoghurt brand or whatever. Well played. And I’m sure we’re all aware of the trope of hiding important information to make a story seem more interesting17.
Divergent fake insight
A puzzle is a set of clues set up to be put together in a certain way to reveal a given, specific solution. The meaning of the pieces converge towards an intended target. What if you set up a bunch of pieces whose meaning diverge? I.e. they point in all kinds of poorly defined directions and don’t come together to reveal a particular, clearly intended message?
You can do this by exploiting the habit of literary indirectness. You bring up symbols and concepts and stir them around the reader’s mind a little bit and see what they come up with. Even doing it randomly or semi-randomly gives decent results, like the artistic version of banging the side of the TV (TV:s used to have sides). People do tend to find art more meaningful when given some random conceptual prodding, and for a mind sufficiently prepared and receptive, any prod at all, even the smallest possible one, will produce an interpretation that feels significant, even if there’s no intent on the other side and thus no communicated content at all18. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think this was a major reason for the popularity of weird and incongruous images in art and literature.
Art is wholeness
Where do we end up? I’m not sure. I doubt there’s a sharp line dividing helpful from obfuscatory difficulty. You can use various difficulties to make an idea feel bigger in the mind of a reader, and whether this is deceptive or not depends on how valuable the underlying idea actually is. If it’s as wise as its presentation suggests, it’s legitimate art, but if it’s not it’s pretentious bullshit and the means used to “dress up” the idea are fake and tacked on.
That doesn’t leave us a lot to go on. What ideas are “actually” profound??? Perhaps the phrase “tacked on” is the key. In good literature there’s an underlying wisdom to be communicated, and to bring it home (and make it art rather than a lecture), one or more of the methods are used and they combine naturally with the subject matter. The defining quality of artistic merit, as I see it, is not any one thing but the skillful and harmonious combination of elements — intellectual, emotional, and stylistic. In other words, wholeness19. In a great work the various components and dimensions imply each other, fuse and form a whole, where nothing feels superfluous or contingent, almost as if it had been discovered somewhere in the fabric of the universe rather than made up.
- I was just going to put a few notes together with a minimum of connective tissue (free quick new post!) but of course I thought of more ideas, ooh and let’s develop this… wait I think there’s a system here… and a Grand Unifying Theory yada yada yada now it’s suddenly six times as long and some of the starting material doesn’t even fit that well with the new narrative and gets relegated to notes… again. ↩︎
- I kind of predicted that. I even predicted I might be tempted to read it again. I am, very slightly, but I probably won’t. ↩︎
- There is a third option. Classics tend to be old and may have been enjoyable when they were new but for various reasons aren’t any more. I’m sure this, like everything else, explains some but not all. It’s not relevant for most of this post since the books I focus on are all fairly new. ↩︎
- If you haven’t read it, the premise of book is (per Wikipedia):
The Glass Bead Game takes place at an unspecified date centuries in the future. Hesse suggested that he imagined the book’s narrator writing around the start of the 25th century. The setting is a fictional province of central Europe called Castalia, which was reserved by political decision for the life of the mind; technology and economic life are kept to a strict minimum. Castalia is home to an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools, and to cultivate and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school in Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to—they are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. The game is essentially an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.
- The premise, according to Wikipedia:
Foucault’s Pendulum is divided into ten segments represented by the ten Sefiroth. The satirical novel is full of esoteric references to Kabbalah, alchemy, and conspiracy theory — so many that critic and novelist Anthony Burgess suggested that it needed an index. The pendulum of the title refers to an actual pendulum designed by French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate Earth’s rotation, which has symbolic significance within the novel.
[T]he novel may be viewed as a critique, spoof, or deconstruction of the grand overarching conspiracies often found in postmodern literature, and indeed its very title may well allude to one of post-modernism’s key exponents, Michel Foucault. Although the main plot does detail a conspiratorial “Plan”, the book focuses on the development of the characters, and their slow transition from skeptical editors, mocking the Manutius manuscripts to credulous Diabolicals themselves. In this way the conspiracy theory provided is a plot device, rather than an earnest proposition.
- And you could argue that the confusion and disorientation that results from losing track of characters, story, and parallel realities sometime in the third and fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide books is also part of the (chaotic and nonsensical) artistic intent. ↩︎
- I’d for example argue that it excellently illustrates the postmodern condition in both form and content (and published two years before the book with that name). ↩︎
- Whatever those elements might be. Personally I don’t find pasted-on, cookie-cutter tragedy or romance engaging but the market suggests I’m in the minority. ↩︎
- There’s an exception: I found in a review that the two love stories in The Gold Bug Variations are structured like the melodic lines in a canon, i.e. repeating at a distance. That was neat. ↩︎
- This book has the worst title of anything I’ve ever come across. Yes, its a Bible quote but still, it’s a sentence so uniquely, magnificently awkward that every single time I’ve tried to remember it (including when I wrote it down here) I’ve struggled to get it right. ↩︎
- To appreciate artistic “effects” you need to read writers that share your own sensibilities and associations. ↩︎
- The hatred and disdain towards “spoon-feeding the reader” is palpable in writing forums. I do get it. To have something further explained to you when you already get it is remarkably irritating. And, crucially, it makes it feel like what you’re reading is beneath you. ↩︎
- It’s like noting that music tends to get louder at its climactic moments, and then write your own songs to be maximally loud all the time, thinking that will make it feel climactic from start to finish. This ~exact thing does happen, and it’s not a mark of artistic excellence. ↩︎
- David Chapman has a post called “fake insight” that’s about ~this. It points out the problem with puzzles, which are arranged to have neat solutions but mislead us about how real problems are solved:
It was fake because the problem had been set up to be artificially easy, not artificially difficult. Most similar problems could not be solved the same way. It was possible only because exact details made that substitution possible.
My friend and I had been trying to solve it using the general methods that should work for any problem of that class. I think we were right to do so. In the real world, hard problems rarely collapse into trivial ones because constants happen to fit together. /—/
Some personal development seminars are carefully crafted to produce fake insights of this sort. They deliver an aha moment that feels really good at the time and makes you think you accomplished something significant. You believe then that the insight will totally transform your life—but it doesn’t. The actual scope of the insight was quite limited—perhaps even only to the context of the seminar.
- It works for jargon-heavy nonfiction too. Pack your simple thesis (or unconvincing argument) in complicated verbiage or an opaque presentation, and presto, it’s profound (or much harder to refute). The counterpoint is that unusual jargon can cause defamiliarization, which I agree can be valuable. The golden mean is combining new jargon with relatively clear explication. ↩︎
- There’s a whole genre built on the “insight high”. Mystery novels exploit it like a drug. I don’t mean they’re bad, like melodrama they can be good at what they are, but without strong meaningful ideas at the core they’re not exactly high art, just good craft. But without such pretensions they’re more honest for NOT trying to project the insight feel onto some pet idea. They should also get credit for actually delivering the hit in the end, as we always find out who the murderer is. The worst of both worlds is the currently popular “mystery box” storytelling where it doesn’t come together at the end because the (hack) writer doesn’t care, and the dangling promise of payoff is just there to get you excited for the journey and stay on it (don’t ever talk to me about Lost). It’s like going a restaurant where you just get to smell the food. ↩︎
- And occasionally overdoing it. I’m looking at you, Westworld season 2. ↩︎
- Everybody remembers that teacher who insisted that everything was symbolic. ↩︎
- Incidentally, this is also the qualities of a good glass bead game. ↩︎
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8 thoughts on “The Importance of Being a Slog”
Always a fan of discussions of ‘difficulty’ in art. You might like my piece on Rain World, where I explain in detail why the game had to be meaningfully unfair in order to tell the story it tells: https://experiencedmachine.wordpress.com/2019/09/16/rain-world-reaching-enlightenment-through-unfairness-introduction/
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Thanks! I’ll have a look.
This doesn’t resonate with me.
I’ve finished many a classic doorstopper, but never anything that felt like a slog to me. If anyone isn’t having fun reading The Brothers Karamazov or Foucault’s Pendulum, I endorse them dropping it and finding something else.
(As I did with The Name of the Rose, which is more tractable than Foucault’s Pendulum but less interesting to me.)
And there are books I treasure, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being*, which read so smoothly that I can’t really imagine a person who likes it but sees it as a slog. (I can always imagine someone disliking any particular work, but that’s different.)
Infinite Jest is a slog, I’ll grant you that. But I’m also doubtful in retrospect that it was actually worth those hours.
*I note with amusement that this book is my best example of developing heavy ideas in a non-heavy way.
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Interesting. So, you don’t really experience this? When you read, say FP or BK, do they feel like page-turners? I’ve been looking for things I enjoy in the moment and find substantial and interesting (and that has some cultural recognition, crucially, because that matters to me, I want to be hooked up to the weltgeist) for quite some time but it’s harder than I feel it should be. Hence this post.
Maybe I should look up The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
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Bizarre question, but do H-bombs (specifically, the Teller-Ulam type) feel like art?
By this I mean, they have several parts that serve multiple functions, in ways that seem like a coincidence. The primary provides both the energy to compress the secondary, and a shower of medium-energy neutrons. The lithium is both a very practical way to store deuterium, and it releases tritium when showered by the neutrons coming from the primary. Depleted uranium turns out to be an excellent choice to make the casing of the whole assembly out of, since that both needs to be heavy, and the scary-high-energy neutrons produced by D-T fusion can split the U-238 nuclei, so much so that a large majority of the yield comes from the depleted uranium casing’s fission.
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This essay was thought provoking, thank you! I don’t have anything to say regarding your main point yet. Instead, here are some random comments.
First, The Pale King. I’ve read all of DFW’s work. (I really like his essays and some of his short stories, though I wasn’t that fond of Infinite Jest). The Pale King is definitely really boring at times. Yet somehow it’s still… fun?… to read the boring parts. Maybe this is possible because these parts are boring in a sort of impressionistic way. By ‘impressionistic’ I mean, to use your words, that it communicates “the psychological imprint of a significant experience” — namely, a particular genre of boredom. I feel like the boring sections of Pale King gave me some new appreciation both for boredom and the lack therof. That’s super vague, I know, but I’d have to think for a while to be able to put it better. (It’s also worth noting that Pale King contains some veritably un-boring sections as well!) (Just thinking about DFW makes me slip into some of his weird stylistic quirks, like the parenthetical and self-consciousness. Fun!)
Second: “For a book to be serious literature it must be impossible for the plebs to enjoy, otherwise liking it wouldn’t mark you as a person of taste and intellect.”
My favorite media — books, movies, music — is that which is both artistically good* and superficially enjoyable. This ‘superficial’ aspect (which is of course important for its own sake) is dependent on the medium. Approximately speaking, music is enjoyable if it sounds good; movies are enjoyable if they are entertaining; and books are enjoyable if they are engaging (‘page-turners’).
My favorite author is David Mitchell, who writes what I would call ‘literary genre fiction’. His books have super compelling action-y/coming-of-age-y/mild-supernatural-y plots, which make them entertaining and easy to pay attention to. At the same time, he does some cool, unconventional literary stuff; his stories say a lot about ‘the human condition’ in the same way that James Joyce’s do; and also he just has so many delightful sentences. Anyways, I think his books don’t get taken as ‘seriously’ as they deserve, which is a point in support of your theory.
Third: “I said that The Hitchhiker’s Guide isn’t taken that seriously because it’s funny (and the wrong people like it). And humor, in general, tends to hide its serious content.”
I think ‘serious’/’intellectual’ people take certain stand-up comedians seriously. The best example of this is probably Dave Chapelle; [being black in America] is really what most of his comedy is about, and I get the sense that people find what he says about this insightful. (I agree that Hitchiker’s Guide is really good, isn’t taken very seriously, and should be.)
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Your mention of confidence tricksters reminds me strongly of this bit from John W. Campbell Jr.’s criticism of Starship Troopers:
I feel that Bob’s departing from the principles he himself introduced in science fiction —”Don’t tell the reader about the background; let him gather it from what happens.” In this yarn, there are several sections of multi-page preachments of his thesis. Some of the preachments I agree with fully; they still strike me as being ineffective because of the technique of direct-statement presentation.
The real suasion power of fiction lies, and always has lain, in the non-logical solution to the old logical paradox, “Epaminondas, the Cretan, says `All Cretans always lie.’”
The more fiction is kept at the level of fiction, the more the reader is forced to accept that any conclusions he reaches from the words of a professed liar are his own, personal conclusions, and that he, not the author, has reached that conclusion.
Jesus used parables –fictions— because what any listener derives from a fiction is the listener’s own thought. And that sticks far deeper and tighter than the ideas of an external mind.
Taken from: https://www.heinleinsociety.org/2004/06/campbell-on-heinlein-selections-from-the-john-w-campbell-letters-2/
It’s that second-to-last paragraph which gets at the same issue. If you are using writing to communicate an idea, you can state it plainly, but you face problems. One is that your readers may not hold your idea very tightly, as Campbell mentions. Another is that the readers will see only the words, not the idea, and the words are not the idea. The idea is communicated better if you can foster the environment in which the reader will have the idea. In some sense this is what you’re trying to do by stating the idea plainly in words, and I guess it just becomes a question of effectiveness of different styles. It would make sense to me if some fields (as in, literature) had developed an aversion to plain expression out of a mix of belief in reduced effectiveness and aesthetic preference.
For what it’s worth, I read the first page of Foucault’s Pendulum, thought “what the heck is this impenetrable mess”, and set it down for a couple years. Picked it back up in a different mood and then was disappointed that the rest of the book didn’t have the same breathless-incoherent style as the first couple pages. I don’t recall ever thinking of it as a slog. As I remember (it’s been a few years), it was the sort of book where I enjoyed the writing on the page (the way sentences are laid out, the way words are used, that sort of thing) in addition to the story.
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I think this is a case of the classic “not understanding that others are different than yourself”. Personally I don’t mind clear explication, I largely prefer it, in part because it allows for more detailed transmission as I said. I’ve been very affected by nonfiction writing and I don’t quite see why others wouldn’t. However, it seems to be the case that a lot of people (“the literary crowd”) has a to me weird aversion to explication, and basically considers “explain” a dirty word. I struggle with respecting that because it seems so limiting and intentionallt woolly-headed.
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