Yesterday a piece by Ben Roth in The Millions caught my eye – ‘Against Readability’. It annoyed me, and I am going to write about why here in order to assuage my feelings. The premise of the article is this: Roth has noticed that ‘readable’ is a word often used on book jackets as a term of praise. He claims this is meaningless:
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel.
Well yes, in so far as all novels should be ‘readable’ to at least some people (we might differ in what we consider readable), then to describe a book thus is indeed meaningless. It should, after all, be a central tenet of most fiction – if nobody can read a novel because it’s so poorly written or so obscure, then it has failed. (But not for Roth, as we shall see.)
Although Roth claims that ‘Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel’, he also argues that actually it does tell you something after all:
What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style.
To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix.
(I must say, he makes the experience of reading sound rather joyless.) So for Roth, at the most basic level, ‘readable’ means that you will finish reading it. But then he goes further – readable books are familiar and clichéd, they are unoriginal and unchallenging. Authors who fall foul of his literary standards and produce ‘readable’ yet unmemorable fiction include Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who are approved include Tom McCarthy, William Gass, Lydia Davies and Michel Houellebecq.
Well I have a lot of problems with this. My first is his definition of ‘readable’. For one thing, this seems quite fixed but surely varies from one reader to another and at one moment to another. I find Colleen McCullough’s novels unreadable, but Virginia Woolf’s eminently readable; the comparative sales of their books suggests that other people disagree with me. I have immensely enjoyed Georgette Heyer’s fiction on some occasions and yet also cast aside the very same novels as boring on others. (Since Roth’s argument proceeds at the level of anecdote, so shall mine.)
But more importantly, Roth seems to equate ‘readable’ novels with ‘bad’ novels. That is not at all the same thing (and it’s certainly inconsistent with his argument that ‘readable’ tells you nothing about a book). He complains about novels that demand your attention and absorb you for a couple of days, like The Goldfinch (one of his so-called ‘readable’ books that I found impossible to finish), yet he does not explain why such a bad novel hooked him. This is because he’s put himself in a position where he cannot: having already stated that such books can only ever have ‘familiar plots’, he cannot then admit that we read them to find out ‘what happens next’ – if the plot is really so familiar, that compulsion won’t exert much power. Equally, a good plot doesn’t exclude interesting ideas, characters or style. To my mind, Bleak House is a great deal more compelling than The Goldfinch and works on every level – ideas, characters, style. On the other hand, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room is not linguistically exciting but her revolutionary characters and ideas have been immensely important to several generations of women. A lack of ‘self-reflection’ in the novel itself does not preclude the reader from reflecting on its contents.
(Guardians of culture fighting back the tidal wave of readable books, or, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562), Musée des Beaux Arts, Brussels; found here)
What is the opposite of a ‘readable’ book then? Well, Roth mentions some ‘unreadable’ titles such as Finnegans Wake, some Samuel Beckett and William S. Burroughs. But for him, unreadability is not bad and his tone is approving when he writes: ‘Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.’ The implication is that their very unreadability, their difficulty, signals that they must be of high literary quality. Yet he hasn’t read them, so he can’t actually judge.
Difficulty is therefore something to be applauded (that’s also the inference to be drawn from his characterisation of those pesky ‘readable’ books, with their lack of anything to slow you down). Style also seems important: Roth praises Don DeLillo’s style as ‘gnomic, aphoristic sentence[s], each one calling for your attention’, and derides Knausgaard’s ‘style-less prose’. What does he mean by ‘style’? Every writer has a style, surely? It seems from these examples that he means ‘linguistic difficulty’. We’re back to those unreadable books again. But clarity or simplicity of expression is not the enemy of complexity of thought, and ideas can be promulgated through plot as well as through language (if the two can be separated). The later novels of Henry James would probably meet Roth’s approbation as they are extremely complex in both thought and syntax, but what of the works of his contemporaries Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling, which are much more accessible, dare I say ‘readable’? Are Heart of Darkness or Kim really less worthy than The Golden Bowl? Where would Roth place Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver on his scale of readability?
Roth laments that our obsession with reading ‘readable’ books is a reflection of the poverty of contemporary culture:
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
Oh for goodness’ sake. Pre-2016 Helen might have accepted that, but now I want some evidence for this assertion. (In the original article, Roth links to precisely two websites that warn you how long it’ll take to read them, and to precisely no studies of reading habits.) Were we really all settling down to read long articles in the London Review of Books before the year 2000? Are clickbait articles all we read these days? Were the dock workers and accountants of the 1960s skipping home to read the fiction of B.S. Johnson? Which long or difficult books are not being assigned to students? I’d like some actual facts, please.
What annoys me most about pieces like this is that they try to box in literature and dictate what it should be. Every work – every poem, every novel – should be read and judged on its own merit and by its own standards, not by what you think they ought to be. If you read NW and expect it to be John Henry Days, then I am sorry but you are not only bound to be disappointed, you’re actually an idiot. The joy of literature is that it embraces both Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead and doesn’t force them to be the same or produce the same sort of work.
It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world.
Now that I do agree with. But it doesn’t preclude readability.
Edited to add: Sarah Perry has written a much better and more elegant rebuttal of the article here. I expect you wish I had written that at the beginning of this post, eh?