Reading Challenge

This week featured–as seems inevitable lately–someone telling people they should be ashamed about what they read. You probably surrendered, as I did, to the lure of Slate’s clickbait and discovered that if you’re an adult, you should be embarrassed to read YA books, because they are simplistic dreck for children. There have been lots of good rebuttals and I’m not going to repeat them here. But I’m interested in the idea that reading YA (and presumably a lot of other popular things) is bad for adults because it means they aren’t challenging themselves. I’d like to challenge some of the common ideas about what “challenging” reading means, or what makes a challenging book.

This week, Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the style of which is widely described as “difficult,” and which was inspired in part by McBride’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I requested the book from my library. And then I read this comment from McBride:

Her experience suggests publishers have been underestimating readers, says McBride. “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”

She hopes her success might lead to the publication of other seriously ambitious novels. “There is a readership there, they deserve to be catered to, and literature needs new blood pumped through it all the time, or it becomes stale and purposeless. It’s not a museum piece. It needs to be pushed forward.”

(Am I the only one who sees some irony in a brand known for a sweet “girly” liqueur sponsoring the prize this woman won?). These comments, though less dismissive, are reminiscent of the furor provoked by Jennifer Egan’s comments about chick lit when she won the Pulitzer a few years back.

I agree with most of what McBride and Egan say: I think women should aspire to write ambitious, avant garde literary fiction (if they want to), and I think publishers should be putting books like that in the hands of readers. Not only those books, certainly, but also those books. Publishing is a business, but it’s a culture business, and in general culture thrives when there’s a high/elite/experimental/challenging end as well as a popular end, for all the reasons McBride mentions, even if the market for the “high” end is niche. Do I think readers should challenge themselves by reading these books? I’m not in the business of prescribing anything for readers unless they are enrolled in my classes; but like to challenge myself this way sometimes–hence my library request for McBride’s book.

I do wish, though, that these writers could make the case for ambitious literary fiction without putting down other books as inherently unchallenging. I realize that doesn’t sound very logical; let me try it another way: I wish that McBride and Egan would recognize that they are arguing for a particular kind of challenging reading and not the only kind of challenging reading. Books can challenge us intellectually or emotionally in many, many different ways: the kind of fiction Egan and McBride write–ambitious, “difficult,” somewhat experimental literary fiction–is not the only kind that offers readers a challenge.

And what about the fact that in any act of reading, there are two parties? (I’m not counting the author here). The book, and the reader. There are many readers whose response to “beach books” is far from passive, whose comments on those books show that they have approached them in a “challenging” way and found some intense emotional and intellectual experiences in those readings.

And no matter how daunting the challenge a book offers us, there are readers who refuse to pick up the gauntlet, who lie back on their beach towels and pass their eyes over the pages of Ulysses and do not engage with it at all. A book cannot force a reader to have a challenging experience. If we are determined to be passive consumers, we can be.

But I think what bugs me the most is the notion that the reader of beach books and the reader of Joyce (or McBride) are necessarily different people. Of course they aren’t! Many of us seek more or less challenging books, or reading challenges of various kinds, at different times: it depends on our mood, on what else is going on in our lives, on what we read last. And that’s how it should be.

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25 Responses to Reading Challenge

  1. Jessica says:

    Great post! I agree 100% that “challenging” can come in many different flavors. Personally, I do very well with abstract stuff and have a hard time with complex concrete relations. This makes spec fic very *very* challenging for me. I had such a hard time getting through Bujold’s Shards of Honor that I had to buy it in audio, and I’m still going to be looking for an index of proper nouns in the Vorkosigan-verse on the web before I get through this thing.

    I hate the idea that readers have some obligation to challenge themselves. People choose where they want their challenges in life. Sure, I often challenge myself in my reading, but I play it quite safe in many other areas of my life. Is someone keeping score?

    And, like you, i hate the assumption that a reader of Type A book doesn’t read Type B book. The vast majority of people I know in both real life and o the interwebs read across genres. I think that assumption says a lot more about the people making it than any readers I know.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, soem of these posts on books make it seem as if books are the whole of life–and as if people don’t consume any other kind of culture. Maybe they listen to avant garde music and do complex math and want to unwind with a beach read. Maybe their lives are falling apart and romance or mystery or fantasy is comforting to them. The vast majority of all culture is popular culture–why do “we” expect books to be different just because we’re readers?

      I find it interesting that books are given this special status. I don’t see a lot of articles chastising people for enjoying superhero movies, for instance. (Although I’m sure there are people ready to condemn any popular taste).

      • Erin Satie says:

        Hmm. I see lots of articles condemning HOLLYWOOD for making superhero movies. Though it might be couched in different ways–Hollywood only makes sequels, Hollywood ‘s pursuit of blockbusters has lowered the quality of movies across the board, Hollywood is trying to please the foreign markets so they make movies with fewer words and more flash-bang.

        And then, of course, I can’t remember the last time I saw Michael Bay’s name mentioned in a serious or respectful way.

        It’s an interesting comparison, though. Because with movies I think there’s a sense that we’re locked in this downward spiral and, for the most part, the creative professionals don’t much blame for that. Nor do audiences, really.

        In any case–most of the time, when I see anyone write anything about movies these days, it’s very much about an industry in crisis.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, absolutely. But I don’t think people ever expect most movies to be “highbrow,” where as some articles about books/readers seem to suggest that ALL our reading should be highbrow, rather than a mixture. That’s the distinction I’m seeing–and less direct shaming of AUDIENCES vs. industry, for sure. I appreciated McBride’s comment because it avoided any direct attack on people who liked beach books and just pushed publishers to cater more to those who like something else.

  2. rmaitzen says:

    I love your point about there being two relevant parties sides in the whole “challenging” process, readers and books. And it seems so odd that the point even has to be made that many (sure, not all, but probably most) readers embrace many kinds of books, at different times, for different reasons — or read the same ones in different ways.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I think a lot of these posts are written about readers in the abstract. Do the people who write them actually talk to any other readers? As we were saying on Twitter, when you teach literature–or if you spend any time reading book blog–I think it disabuses you pretty quickly of the notion that people read the same book in anything like the same way, or that there is anyway to ensure someone takes up the challenge a book offers.

      It was challenging for me to learn to read romance as something other than escapist trash–to find the complexity in (some of) it, which looks different from the complexity in canonical/literary fiction. And a big part of that learning was discovering readers online who were reading these books in challenging, intellectually engaged ways.

      And since I’ve taught children’s lit and have read some of the criticism in the field, I just don’t recognize the characterization of children’s/YA lit in these articles. It’s far less “simple” than it might appear. (There’s also a really problematic dismissal of children/teens going on in the dismissal of their literature. We are not “different people” from our child selves, however much we’ve changed.)

  3. merriank says:

    I always feel that when writers and publishers talk about how we should be reading ‘challenging’ books they are not acknowledging the reader but putting down readers. Like Jessica I make choices about where and how I’m ‘challenged’. I already live a challenging life and I have no energy or fucks to give to be grist to someone else’s mill, I need to be grinding away at my own challenges. I might be doing my ‘challenging’ thinking in an activist/political space and want reading to be a respite or have me think differently about things than I do when I’m sitting on a reference group or advocating.

    In it’s politest form I think of ‘challenging’ books as books that make me think. It’s just that I want to choose what that’s about. I read and enjoyed Betty Neels’ Pineapple Girl a couple of days ago and have done some lovely thinking. I’ve taken the plot and situated it in different sub-genres (in my head) to see if it holds and whether that changes the characters. the story works as a Regency novel and I think as a D/s story. I reviewed the publication year of 1977 to compare it with the feel of the book and to see if the times impacted on the characters in any way (they don’t) e.g. Diane von Fürstenberg’s jersey dresses are not Betty Neels’ nor would her characters choose to see Saturday Night Fever at the movies or hit a disco for a night of dancing. I am now reading my Neels books as if they were written by Elsie J. Oxenham in an AU England stretching from the 1930’s to 1950’s. That’s a lot of thinking and active brainwork! It extended me and extends the book at the centre.

  4. sonomalass says:

    I’ve encountered similar snobbishness (snobbery?) in dealing with theatre and film. It’s especially humorous when the “classics” get drawn in, since so many of our classics were the popular entertainment of their day. I think some of this is, frankly, envy; in publishing, film and theatre, the sale of the popular is what subsidizes the “highbrow,” and the producers of the latter often resent that.

  5. Erin Satie says:

    I enjoyed this post.

    I guess I’d like to think more about how the challenges differ. I mean, my instincts suggest that ‘experimental’ fiction is more intellectually challenging, while commercial fiction is…what? Morally challenging? I’m more often asking myself, “Is this right, is this a good way to live….”, while with more high-brow books I tend to have an attitude of pure acceptance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s maybe my experience too, but I wonder if it’s because a more intellectually challenging book distracts me from the moral kinds of questions you mention. Am I so busy decoding I don’t think about those other things? Surely highbrow fiction can’t all be in line with my values?

      • Ros says:

        I think that’s one of the great things about reading genre romance. Generally the text itself is not so intellectually challenging that it requires all my concentration, and so it allows the freedom to be challenged emotionally and ethically and so on. I do think about those questions when I’m reading other books – I found Wolf Hall challenged me in all kinds of ways, for instance, but there’s more space for that with romance, in my experience.

  6. Sunita says:

    I definitely see the same kind of popular v. highbrow discussions in other art communities. Certainly in music, where people distinguish between complex and more easy-to-follow works. The difference is that you can have relatively simple, straightforward music that is still honored for its sheer beauty (think Puccini in opera).

    I guess I’m going to push back a bit and say that “intellectually challenging” is an important category and a lot of people *don’t* engage in it when they read. Merrian’s way of reading Neels is the former, so it’s clearly about the interaction of reader and text (as you say), but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that most people don’t read Neels that way. It doesn’t mean they don’t think at all, but it’s easier not to think when you’re reading Neels than when you’re reading a lot of litfic.

    A person can have a very challenging life and not want to compound their burdens by introducing challenges into their pleasure time, but there do seem to be connections between mental acuity in later life and the habit of being intellectually engaged. If reading is an important part of their life and one of the ways in which mental acuity can be sustained or even enhanced, maybe there needs to be a middle ground between “read James Joyce” and “read Violet Winspear for the 20th time,” and we need to spend more time looking for it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with you about the value of intellectual challenge–in all kinds of ways, including the practical. But things like sudoku and crosswords are also good for your mental acuity, so I guess I’m still wondering why these articles put so much of a burden on reading to be *the* place where people get their intellectual challenge, or should be getting it.

      You’re right about things like music, of course, but have you ever seen an article telling adults they should be “embarrassed” for still liking pop music (which is, after all, associated with teens) and should have graduated to opera and avant garde art music now?

      I don’t really whole-heartedly believe in my own post, because I absolutely see value in reading more challenging books, and I certainly think there are things I might want to read about that YA, by virtue of its intended audience, does not address. I certainly don’t think we can get anywhere by hectoring people, though, which is why I liked McBride’s positive comments about offering readers who want a difficult book what they are seeking.

      • Sunita says:

        Oh sure, if you think about the attack on adults reading YA as basically being an argument about reading “dumbed-down” material that adults should have grown out of. Entire music magazines have been founded on this premise and half the debates over bands (and music of a given band across time) in college, grad school, and the internet are about the relative quality & complexity of one music act v. another. Catchy pop tunes are scorned for adults generally, no matter how accomplished those tunes are musically. Hornby’s High Fidelity presents one of the purer expressions of this approach.

        I’ve been reading romance too long and have been criticized for it too often to tell people what to read, so obviously I’m in agreement with everyone on that. I just think that the polar opposites that the debates devolve into obscure the advantages and drawbacks of any particular approach to cultural consumption.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          You’re right! Probably the only difference is what I pay attention to. Possibly also what gets clickbait attention in mainstream venues.

          I think the polarization is what I am circling around: if people like McBride and Egan could advocate for the importance, the pleasures, of “difficult” reading WITHOUT implicitly/explicitly criticizing beach books/chick lit/etc. and their readers (and implying those readers were a different species from those reading Joyce) then the discussions wouldn’t get so quickly derailed into attacks. We might even have a productive discussion about why so many adults enjoy reading a lot of YA fiction, and what that says about our culture and what other kinds of books/stories are being offered them, if we didn’t start with “you should be embarrassed.” Because at the heart of all these posts, much as some of them annoy me, there are ideas I find worth discussing.

  7. Nice discussion here. The more I think about it, the more I don’t really know what a “challenging” book is. If I decided to read a romance in French it would be more challenging than Virginia Woolf in English. So what? I think it’s a pity if readers don’t sometimes step out of their comfort zone because they may miss something they’d enjoy. It’s analogous to trying a new kind of cuisine. I am very glad that when I was young and energetic I read everything I could lay my hands on from Mills and Boon to Turgenev, simply because I had time on my hands, liked to read, and didn’t really much care what. I didn’t enjoy everything but I don’t remember DNFing much. I am now less adventurous, have a good idea of what I like, and mostly stick with the latter. To me a “beach read” is the opposite of the usual definition. I make a point of taking something different on vacation, usually long though not necessarily “literary,” because I have the time and energy for immersive reading. After a hard day on deadline I am more likely to rot my brain (judgmental statement alert) with an episode of Chopped or Toddlers and Tiaras.

    • Isobel Carr says:

      THIS! My “beach reads” tend to be heavy non-fiction tomes. In fact, I’d say all of my “challenging” reading is non-fiction (because I haven’t ever really found fiction of any kind–whether it be romance, science fiction, or something “lit fic” like Bulgakov–“challenging”).

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        I have to chime in because, yes, my beach reads are often longer, darker books that I don’t necessarily want to deal with at other times of the year, for either emotional reasons—I have to be in the right mood for grittier mysteries or a certain kind of mainstream book—or I feel I don’t have the time for a long book.

    • willaful says:

      I’m just the same. Vacation is the time I can concentrate on a longer and/or more challenging book, and read more widely. My goal for this summer will be Bujold’s Cryoburn, which I’ve been putting off for years now.

  8. Brona says:

    As a lifelong reader and rereader I have read highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between.

    Like so many of us in blogger land. I read for comfort, I read for laughs, I read for the challenge, I read to get lost, I read to get found again, I read to learn, I read to forget and I read to remember.

    Rereading has also shown me that a book i read first time around for comfort, is a lot more challenging or reveals a lot more with a second/third/fourth read. A first time challenge can become a comfort read later. Experience, maturity & mood also influences how I read a book at any particular time.

    We need ALL these books, ALL these movies, ALL these theatre and cultural experiences.

    McBride’s comment and your post has helped to clarify this issue.
    Thank you

  9. Lil says:

    Good discussion. I am frequently depressed by the either/or thinking that seems to pervade so much of life these days, not just the arts but also politics, fashion, food social life, whatever. Am I not allowed to enjoy both a formal ball and a backyard barbecue? Why are people objecting to diversity in matters of taste?

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