Book Discussion Time!!!! ON DIFFICULTY.
So, dudes, as I wrote in another thread, my final year dissertation is on difficulty in literature.
This has very very rarely been tackled before. George Steiner wrote an essay on difficulty, but apart from that and a few books on pedagogy, not much has been written on the subject.
Therefore, I'm starting almost from scratch. I wrote a draft of my introduction, which I'm posting here, even though it's a bit raw. You know you don't have to read it. The reason I post it is so that if you don't really know what I mean by difficulty in literature, the introduction to my dissertation should clear that up for you a little bit.
Now, what I want to know is what YOU think makes a text difficult. Sine Qua Non, a new member who's made some good contributions to the book club, has some interesting things to say about the difficulty of Ulysses, for example. I'd like to know which other novels you found difficult, and why.
Here's the introduction.
What makes a text difficult? Surely it is not sufficient to use certain formulas, like the Flesch-Kincaid index, to determine that elusive thing called “readability”; nor is it enough to say that there are “easy” texts and “difficult” ones and to assume that it is purely a matter of the reader’s education or intelligence that affects his response to a given text. Some argue that difficulty is little more than a social construct , enforced by educational establishments. This seems an insufficient argument on many grounds, some of which will be presently discussed. The notion of difficulty is an important one, since it permeates all of literary studies; yet there is a surprisingly modest literature on the subject. Arguably the most enlightening elaboration of the concept is found in George Steiner’s little-known book, On Difficulty and Other Essays. There are others; but as will be argued here, they each provide an approach to difficulty which, for one reason or another, seems unsatisfying. Writing about difficulty is in itself difficult, and it is little wonder nobody has succeeded in giving a complete answer to the problem of what makes a text “hard”.
To begin, then, it will be useful to consider some of the approaches taken to difficulty in the small body of literature dedicated to its exploration. Wallace Chafe, taking a purely linguistic interest in the topic, includes the following categories in his anatomy of the difficult: readability, ease of processing, differences of language and culture, interruptions in information flow, problems with reference, and paragraphing. As Steiner claims, it is often something other than conceptual difficulty that people complain about when they say a text is difficult. The language used can easily be considered “difficult” if it is not a kind of spoken writing, or the type of language employed in everyday speech. Yet Chafe’s essay is particularly good at showing that although linguistic difficulties play a major role in a reader’s reception of a text, they are not the only factor at work. “Language has many dimensions, and it surely would be wrong to view ease of processing as a goal that overrides all else.” Literary value clearly does not correspond directly to the ease with which one processes a text. If that were so, then one would be able to argue that Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare are of greater value than the actual plays of William Shakespeare.
Chafe’s claim that there is an “obvious and demonstrated commercial, not to mention political, value in being able to say that one piece of writing is more readable than another” is interesting, insofar as it highlights some of the ways in which Western society has evolved to strive for simplicity in communication. When trying to explain what I aim to do in this essay to a friend, for instance, I am tempted to simplify my argument in order for him to “get the gist” of things, and, if he declares himself interested, I feel more comfortable letting him in on the complexities of my argument. This is, supposedly, good pedagogy. The West, and the English-speaking West in particular, has little patience for the esoteric. Still, “ease of processing is not to be confused with literary value.” Some authors and philosophers have purposefully avoided the pedagogical clarity so cherished in the analytic tradition. Their motivations may be legion, but some commonalities exist. Jacques Lacan is undoubtedly one of the more “difficult” French thinkers of the twentieth century, and Thomas Pynchon, arguably America’s foremost literary problem child, writes novels so erudite that voluminous guides have been written to help the first-time reader of novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow. What Lacan and Pynchon have in common is their refusal to allow their readers easy access to their ideas. This can be infuriating, and some, like Sokal and Bricmont, decry Lacan’s work as little more than an orgy of obscurantism carrying little intellectual weight. More on this later. For now let it suffice to explain the goals of this essay. There are two main tasks at hand. The first is the most straightforward, and consists of a dissection of the various facets of the concept of “difficulty” in literature. This means pitting the few thinkers who have dealt with “difficulty” against each other, to see if it is possible to arrive at a solid definition of the term. This will have to involve a certain amount of pedagogy, not least because almost every book written on difficulty is meant to be used in a didactic context. The second task involves a close reading of some parts of Pynchon’s work, particularly Gravity’s Rainbow; for the novel is so overwhelming and resistant to interpretation that it serves as a perfect example of a difficult text.
thanks for sharing.blackhawk tactical pants.
"I could have done worse!" exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life. — Félix Fénéon