Monday, December 5, 2011

Rant #1 - Accessibility

Hello! I am currently wading my way through Malcolm Lowry’s "Under the Volcano" for you - expect that by the end of the week. Tonight, however, I’m going to kick off a new periodic feature here at Modern Librarians.

So welcome to the first of the Modern Librarian Rants. You see, although we are both naturally charming and pleasant persons, from time to time K. and I are afflicted by some annoyance in the world of Letters. These irritants wedge themselves in our brains, and we return to them again and again - sometimes passing them back and forth between us, sometimes brooding upon them in solitude. And as we pass over and over again across these obnoxities, always the cerebral vitriol accumulates.

So here, then is the place where we will spit out our bilious pearls for examination. We will not promise carefully constructed or 'fair' arguments - these are over-rhetorical ventings of spleen, not forensic cases. But at the least, we may inspire a thought here or there - or better, a discussion. Please feel free to have a look at them and let us know what you think!

Today’s subject: A brief piece In Praise of Difficulty.

Or rather: I am sick to death of demand for "accessible", and the anointment of accessibility with positive aesthetic character - and the concurrent condemnation, by implication, of difficulty.

The irritant that set me on this subject was a single passage in the Nov. 24 issue of the New York Review of Books. The wonderful Helen Vendler, in an article dismantling the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, wrote
"[The editor] also decides (except in certain obligatory moments) for the more "accessible" portions of modern lyric. Not to be "accessible" is now to be chastised. [...] But a poem can communicate while it is still imperfectly understood (said Coleridge), and Dove trusts her readers less than she might
The article goes on to talk about other matters, and is really quite good - though such as Prof. Vendler do not need a literary Turk like me to recommend them. But that quote was the part that stuck with me.

Of course, sometimes, accessibly simple diction - when it is natural to the idiom of the author - is grand. There has been no more engaging, accessible, and utterly appropriate take on family relationships than Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse. Hemingway's iceberg prose is justly famous on this count. And authors who attempt to imitate Ezra Pound or David Foster Wallace without the genius, talent, and copious learning necessary to keep a common thread running through the complexity will produce nothing but mud.

On the other hand, there are few books more difficult than Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake - few novels less immediately approachable than Nabokov's Pale Fire. And yet how beautiful they all are! These are authors whose natural idiom was not plain-spoken, Mark-Twain vernacular sentences, but something more intricately worked - and they are just as worthy as your Hemingway, your Larkin.

And yet, how many times have I heard readers complain about having to read Joyce, and Nabokov, and (travelling back) Milton, and Dante, and all these complicated Greats? (I worked in a college bookstore - so lots. Frequently they were pursuing degrees in English... a rant for another day.) And always the same complaint - that he's too hard, he's not 'accessible'. And the complaint never hast the character of a person realizing his own unworthiness and underpreparedness - the irritation is always outwardly, not inwardly directed.

One senses these students (formal and informal) have a certain sense of solipsistic entitlement. "The great literary artists, if they are truly great, must surely conform with my taste. They must be universally approachable. If these authors were so great, then I must come be able to come to them with my palate, cultivated on Patterson and Steele, Rowling and Meyer, and must find them delightful. If they do not speak to me, then they are inaccessible, outdated, irrelevant."

But the great authors, the authors whose works and styles have stood the test of time, have established their aesthetic worth by the acclamation of generations. They do not have to offer their secret joys freely to every browser walking the bookstore aisle. It is on the Reader to make the effort, not only to read the work but to study it, and find the greatness within. For some of the readers, some of the works will be too hard to understand in their entirety - but see Coleridge's point cited by Vendler above. For any student willing to expend the effort, even the most difficult works will yield some treasures.
And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed. (Flannery O'Connor)

One of our wiser Anonymouses has said that there is no arguing about Taste. If some, even many, people say that they prefer texts which are easy to those which are not, of course, I am not going to rap their knuckles. Besides - a glutton who always takes only the most difficult path on every literary endeavour is not going to master anything but masochism. But I hardly think it polite or good for swimmers content with the shallow end to jeer at the very existence of the diving board.

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