My post on ‘Difficult Novels’ is available to read on the Ploughshares blog. Read an extract below, or find the full post HERE.

The supposed difficulty of Burns’ novel speaks to the relative paucity of working-class critics and journalists working in the industry today, as well as to that brand of literary elitism for which genuine, deserving “difficulty” is the reserve of those with a very particular pedigree.

What makes a novel “difficult,” and why does that label matter? When we think of traditionally “difficult” writers—James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, for example—the answer to the first part of that question may seem obvious. Their “difficult” fiction is long, experimental in both language and form, and contains an encyclopedia of cultural references that may not be easily accessible to the “general reader”—or, in their entirety, to any reader. Yet, I am skeptical of the idea of “difficult” literature, and indeed of the idea of a “general reader.” As the reception of Anna Burns’ Man-Booker prize-winning novel, Milkman, serves to demonstrate, these are relative and imprecise terms that often harbor deeper motivations relating to class and other modes of privilege.

In Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets series, published in three volumes between 1779 and 1781, he writes the following of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader, for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The ‘Churchyard’ abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.


The history and continued legacy of “readability” in literary culture is grounded in this fundamental bifurcation of the reading public into a literary elite, which, however chastised by Johnson’s remarks, retains its aura of superiority, and the general masses, for whom—if we are to follow Johnson—relatability and emotional connection triumph over matters of style, and, arguably, substance. Within this framework, “readability” is the exclusive domain of the “common reader.” There is something incredibly patronizing about this, and about the way it continues to inform aspects of literary criticism…continue reading

Difficult Novels
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