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#42: Managing Difficulty in Fiction
Ben Marcus, Lance Olsen, Paul Kingsnorth, Eimear McBride, David Mitchell, Marlon James, Brian Evenson, Catherynne M. Valente, George Perec, Peter Turchi, Claire Dederer, Jack Driscoll, Yan Ge
It’s once again the first week of August—somehow!—which for me means it’s time to start making the turn from my summer schedule toward the approaching semester. It’s also a good chance to reflect on the summer’s writing, which always includes wishing I’d gotten more pages down. (More pages, yes, and better ones too…) But the truth is that it’s been a solid couple months of writing and reading, even if little is “finished” of what I started. But I had a lot of fun writing and reading this summer, and that’s more than enough to call it a good effort.
Summers are also a perfect time for nostalgia reading, and this summer that meant rereading The Lord of the Rings, which I hadn’t read in twenty years, as well as some other fantasy novels I loved as a teenager. Not everything holds up as much as I’d like, or in the ways I’d like—although Tolkien certainly did, for me—but I think there’s still a lot of energy to be found in returning to first literary loves. It’s good to be reminded of what it is I first loved about books, and to think about how I can recreate or expand upon that feeling in my current writing. In so many ways, the writer I want to be now is inextricably bound to the reader I was back then—and I have a feeling that this isn’t so rare a thing.
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing!
What I’m Reading:
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer. Dederer’s book about what to do with the art of “monstrous” men (and a few women) is an excellent personal exploration of the tension between “the biography of the artist that might disrupt the viewing of the art” and “the biography of the audience member that might shape the viewing of the art," among much else. One thing I really appreciated about this book was its point-of-view: Dederer works hard to avoid broad pronouncements, preferring to collapse the critical “we” into a personal “I,” foregrounding the subjectivity of her response and inviting the reader to do the same with their own.
Elsewhere by Yan Ge. Last year, I had the pleasure of reading this new story collection by Chinese writer Yan Ge—the first she wrote in English—to write a blurb, and I read it again this year before joining her for one of her launch events. I loved Ge’s last novel in translation, Strange Beasts of China, and this collection is an excellent companion volume for fans of that book. Her writing is incredibly smart and always surprising, and she’s got an admirable range: the stories in this book are far more different from each other than is usual in a contemporary story collection. Give it a read!
Twenty Stories by Jack Driscoll. For decades, Jack Driscoll has been one of Michigan’s great contemporary writers, someone who should probably be better known nationally than he is. Last month, I reviewed his New and Collected Stories for DIAGRAM, and I hope that you’ll check out the review and the book, if you have any interest in the Midwestern realist tradition and the people and places it contains. This is a very solid selection from an admirable life’s work, and the new stories included here are absolutely as good as anything collected from his previous books.
#42: Managing Difficulty in Fiction
All summer, I’ve been thinking about the level difficulty in the novel I’m writing, specifically the difficulties I’m asking future readers to navigate. Mostly what I’m wondering is this: Assuming I’m writing for readers of the best faith—which are the only kind of readers worth imagining—how much work is fair to ask of the reader? Where does the difficulty cost of a artistic choice start to outweigh its benefits? (An easy guide that might let you skip this whole essay: if you wouldn’t put up with something in someone else’s book, don’t try it in yours.)
Because I know you may right now be objecting that difficulty in fiction is good for readers, let me agree in advance! I don’t have anything against difficult books, when that difficulty is essential to the book’s effect. I believe the right sort of challenge can produce outcomes that aren’t otherwise available, and of course the trouble of reading a difficult book is often part of what makes it memorable. (I remember reading Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String in my early twenties and swearing I could feel Marcus’s choices actively reshaping my brain, loving every minute of it.) As Lance Olsen, who’s written and championed many difficult works of fiction, once said:
[I don’t] understand why many people seem to believe texts in general should be more rather than less accessible. Whatever we may think of when we use that word, texts in general should be just the opposite. They should be less accessible, not more. Why? Because texts that make us work, texts that make us think and feel in unusual ways, texts that attempt to wake us in the midst of our dreaming, are more valuable epistemologically, ontologically, and sociopolitically than texts that make us feel warm, fuzzy, and forgetful.
With that caveat out of the way: What do we mean when we say a novel is difficult? What kinds of common difficulties are there?
One sort of difficulty is that of prose style, where the writer is relying on unusual syntax, complex sentences or paragraphs, or challenging vocabularies. For instance, a writer might decide to tell their story in an invented vernacular, as Paul Kingsnorth did in The Wake, which is written “in a tongue which no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.”
Here’s the opening of The Wake, which begins: “songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocen apart.” If you’re like me, you can feel your brain shifting into higher gears as you make sense of this: it’s certainly not impossible to read, but it does require more effort than reading the New York Times does.
I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.
I’ve read and enjoyed both of these books, but there’s no argument that their styles are probably not for everyone. Reading them demands intense focus and attention, and I’d say it’s up to the writer to offer up rewards commensurate with such an ask. (In this case, I think both books succeed.)
Difficulty could also be a matter of structure, with the writer weaving together many timelines or using a nonlinear chronology. For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is arranged in a nesting structure, in which its storylines repeat as follows, with each letter representing one storyline:
A1, B1, C1, D1, E1, F, E2, D2, C2, B2, A2, A1, B1, C1, D1, E1, F, E2, D2, C2, B2, A2
That’s not impossible to sort out—lots of people have read and loved Cloud Atlas—but it’s certainly harder than the more typical and then and then and then of the single stream chronological tale. I know a few people who can’t read or watch anything with a nonlinear structure: I once watched the movie Memento (which proceeds mostly chronologically, but backward) with a very smart friend who still had to ask, after every scene, When is this happening? It is harder than most movies—but again, the difficulty of Memento leads directly to the reward.
Difficulty can also be a matter of plot, either because the write has chosen to write a very complex story, or because they’ve abandoned expected plot markers or genre tropes for something else, or because they’ve given the reader a large cast of characters to track. A few years back, Electric Literature published a handy infographic showing some of the famous novels with the most named characters, a list topped by the 600 named characters Tolstoy introduces in War and Peace, a cast so extensive it warrants its own Wikipedia page. I haven’t read War and Peace, but I have read some of the others on the Electric Lit list, like James Clavell’s Shogun (61 characters), Stephen King’s The Stand (463), and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (218), with the last made even more confusing by half the characters having names that look and sound similar, like Bran, Brond, Brienne, etc.
Point of view can be a source of some difficulty too: for example, all unreliable narrators ask for extra mental work from the reader. Then there are narrators like the kind you might find in a Brian Evenson short story, where protagonists frequently lose track of their own identities and become someone else halfway through the story, leaving it up to the reader to remember and resolve what’s really happening. But point of view doesn’t have to be that twisty to be hard! Many readers seem entirely unable to read anything in the second person, which I personally think shouldn’t be that challenging to deal with but I know somehow is, for certain folks.
If your novel isn’t set on Earth in contemporary times, that’s another often unacknowledged level of difficulty. A fantasy story set on an invented planet with invented sorts of humanoids and invented politics and a complex magic system is asking the reader to learn quite a bit just to understand the context of the story, much less what happens in it. Even if the plot is kept very simple, there’s additional work to be done in imagining scenes set in outer space or dealing with nonhuman protagonists or whatever. Certain readers love to look down at fantasy or science fiction as less “literary” than other genres and so perhaps less challenging, but I’d argue there’s some heavy lifting on the reader’s part to imagine SFF’s unreal material that isn’t necessary to enjoy books set in, say, contemporary Brooklyn. (I realize that Brooklyn might be as unimaginable as Middle-Earth for many readers. I think the point still stands.)
There’s also a difficulty of subject matter, although this is so highly subjective that I will probably mostly skip over it here. But obviously there are certain subjects that many readers find challenging to read about, including but not limited to graphic violence: if you ever want to ensure a large swath of people will refuse to read your next book, violence against children or animals will get the job done. (When I used to teach Brian Evenson’s “Two Brothers,” there were always students who told me they just skipped the part of the story subtitled “The Dog,” because they knew something bad was going to happen to the dog. They weren’t wrong.)
Finally, there are durational difficulties, as when a book or series is simply very, very long. Stephen King’s Dark Tower books are some of my favorites of all time, but I spent ten years thinking about rereading them before I finally committed to again taking on all 4,300 pages the series has to offer. (If nothing else, a very long book asks you to give up reading other books in favor of it: the prospective reader always asks: Is this 1,000-page novel better than three other 350-page books?) Interestingly, the Guinness Book of World Records awards its award for Longest Novel not by pages but by character count, including spaces—but I’d guessed the winning title right in advance of looking it up, just by reputation: it’s Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, whose thirteen volumes weigh in at 9,609,000 characters. (Wikipedia puts the page count of the whole at 4,215 pages.)
Let’s put all of these kinds of difficulty together and see if we can imagine one book to rule them all, perhaps a very long fantasy novel with a large cast of characters set in an invented landscape and/or a reimagined past, written in complex sentences delivered by an unreliable narrator, with a complicated plot arranged in a nonlinear or repeating structure.
Again, this doesn’t mean it’s not great! I really enjoyed reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which I found exhausting in the best sense of the word—but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tougher go than almost any other book I read in the year it came out. I’ve got the sequel sitting on my desk, waiting for me to work up the will to take on James’s next challenge—which I plan to do as soon as I finish Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, another famously difficult book.
Let’s bring this back around to writing, instead of reading. Sometimes, especially early on in a novel attempt, the difficulty I’m imposing in the text is of one or more or all of the varieties listed above, and often these difficulties are not yet implemented in a worthwhile way. (For difficulty to be worthwhile, it has to produce rewards commensurate with its challenge. This is an easy thing to forget.) Partly this abundance of difficulty arises because the urge to try something no one else has ever done is very strong in a first draft. It sometimes happens because early on I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I also think of first drafts as exploratory, playful places, where I should try anything that comes to mind and see what sticks, and some of what doesn’t stick is what is simply too hard to write and/or read.
All this can add up to a difficult-to-write, impossible-to-enjoy project! Thankfully, a lot of the accidental difficulty that comes into the manuscript in early stages gets naturally sorted out in drafting and revision. But some of it sticks around for draft and draft, in the text and in my conception of what the book is and how it works.
It’s this second difficulty I’m most interested in, where difficult elements get valorized in my own mind as essential parts of the project, without which I claim the book couldn’t exist. Or where difficult elements that I have no particular attachment to become permanent fixtures just because I haven’t questioned their necessity or tried to find a friendlier way to proceed.
How to escape this trap? What are some of the ways we might evaluate the difficulty in the books we’re writing? How might we find solutions, if and when we decide the difficulty isn’t warranted or useful?
One of my favorite ideas for sorting out how much difficulty is too much is Catherynne M. Valente’s concept of “Team Mundane,” which she describes as follows:
My rule of thumb is that given Plot, Structure, and Style, one of them has to tap out and play for Team Mundane. The reader needs something to hold on to while the author experiments with something that excites them: a linear, straightforward structure, unvarnished, solid prose, a plot that lines up with their cultural expectations of narrative. Most really good books pick one of those things to go wild with. Books that pick two are called avant-garde, and those that don’t call any quarter for readers without obscure degrees are more often than not called remaindered.
A good example of a “difficult” book that still fits the Team Mundane scheme is Oulipo writer George Perec’s A Void, which famously doesn’t use the letter “e” anywhere in the text. If the style is unusual, the plot and structure are not: it’s a parodic noir novel, which means that many of the story beats will be familiar to readers, even those who don’t normally read experimental novels in translation.
I frequently pass Valente’s Team Mundane concept onto my students, and the responses is usually universal relief. Creative writing students—maybe especially MFA students—put a lot of pressure on themselves to not only reinvent the wheel, but to reinvent every kind of wheel that has ever been wheeled. This often gets in the way of them writing fiction that they themselves would like to read! (To repeat an early point: if you wouldn’t put up with something in someone else’s book, don’t try it in yours.) But following the Team Mundane scheme is a way of innovating while also taking advantage of tradition and readerly expectations, and I think many, many good and innovative books fit this model.
The other thing I frequently suggest to novelists with particularly difficult manuscripts is to find some way to make a five percent move toward the reader. In other words: Can you make your fiction slightly more accessible without giving up its essential nature? Not to undo useful challenge or worthwhile difficulty but to help grow the book’s potential audience?
Here’s an example, from the difficult books already mentioned: If you flip through Kingsnorth’s The Wake, you will find not only that invented language of his but also (if I remember right) that he’s provided no chapter breaks, only the occasional white space. There’s not really anywhere to rest from what the book is, or its demands on you. But he does include three pieces of aid at the back of the volume, at least in the Graywolf edition that I have: a “partial glossary of terms,” a “note on language,” and a “note on history.” The two notes are the only place plain prose appears in the book: they may not make reading the body of the book that much easier, but at least they give you some context for what Kingsnorth has written. The glossary is more directly useful, as long as you realize its there before you finish—but of course audiobook listeners are still on their own here. (I actually think the audio is a good way to read The Wake: I enjoyed having it wash over me more than I enjoyed trying to make sense of it on the page.) These three helpers are not strictly necessary, but I’d guess that some number of readers wouldn’t have finished The Wake without them. That’s a good 5% move, and one that doesn’t diminish what the book is trying to accomplish. (In part because the addendums are entirely optional: they’re as easy to miss as they are to skip.)
Here are just a few of the many possible 5% moves you might make, all of which are suggestions, not rules, and may or may not be appropriate for your particular project:
Adjust chapter length to ease comprehension and to offer clear stopping points. Many readers flip ahead to see how long the next chapter is before committing to it: a ten-page chapter is often more inviting than one that goes on for another eighty pages. (When I did a survey of chapter lengths for Refuse to Be Done, ten pages or so was my far the most common chapter length I found in contemporary American novels.)
If you currently have multiple POVs inside a single chapter, consider switching POVs by chapter instead of section (and definitely instead of within sections).
In fact, if you haven’t already done so: include chapters! (At one stage, my first novel was a 500-page scroll with no chapters and no page breaks. It was not the best version of the book.) Such organization gently aids the reader’s comprehension: breaking a 300-page novels into parts, chapters, and other subdivisions has very low cost and high upside. It is organization that guides the reader through a book, not plot.
Consider chapter titles, especially if you’re frequently switching narrators, locales, or timelines. Even chapter titles that are simply the name of which character is now narrating can go a long way toward easing the reader into the next chapter.
The two most important pieces of information a reader needs at the start of a new chapter or scene are: A) Where are we now? and B) How long has it been since the last event? The first grounds the reader. The second helps the reader understand the emotional logic between scenes. You are rarely penalized for writing something straightforward like, “Three weeks after his divorce, Joseph found himself at the laundromat alone for the first time.” For some reason, writers are often resistant to doing this in early drafts, perhaps because this kind of table setting prose feels boring.
If you’re employing a nonlinear structure, just be sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. What would be lost by presenting the materially more chronologically?
Revise to vary sentence length and construction. There’s nothing wrong with long, convoluted sentences, but be aware of how much such sentences ask of the reader. Look for places to break some of them up without loss, or to include shorter, punchier sentences. (In general, the number one thing you can do to increase the effectiveness of your prose style is to vary your sentences.)
Vary paragraph length, for more or less the same reasons. The multi-page paragraph has its uses. It also has its costs.
Use white space and section breaks to break an extended, multi-scene sequence into smaller units of action and sense. Consider other ways to use white space to give the reader places to rest, reflect, and recharge for what comes next.
Reconsider multi-page italicized sections, which many people find infuriating or difficult to read, especially at the beginning of books. Is there some less eye-straining way to present this material as different than the main text, which is the usual reason for such italics?
If you’re doing something atypical with the basic parts of the sentence—multiple kinds of invented pronouns or new tenses that don’t normally appear in English, for instance—you’re may need to keep the rest of your sentences simpler than you might otherwise. The short sentence or paragraph is often the helpmate of an atypical style.
When looking at your book as a whole, consider what you can gainfully steal from well-known or recognizable structures like the detective story, the romantic comedy, the hero’s journey, myths and fairytales, even historical events. All of these might provide a “skeleton” to hang an odd story or an unusual prose style on. (This is Team Mundane again.) There’s a reason there are so many Shakespearean retellings, for better or worse: Shakespeare gave us so many sets of good bones.
Block off potential confusion or misdirected questions by indicating what the reader is supposed to be focused on and what they can just let go. (Do not let them waste time on the mystery of which mystery is worth solving.) Often you can do this simply by having a character acknowledge a likely reader question or objection, then dismiss it as unimportant.
If necessary, include glossaries of invented terms, family trees, maps, author’s notes, and other kinds of supplemental materials, offering readers a hand in understanding the world of the novel without bogging the body down with unnecessary or unlikely exposition and explanation. (Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James opens with seven full-page maps and a four-page list of characters….)
If you’re writing a novel with particularly heavy or serious subject matter, survey the places where you’re providing places to rest, as well as moments of tonal difference. A book that is nonstop grimness is hard to read for emotional reasons instead of structural ones, but this isn’t an unsolvable problem. There’s a reason that that some of the darkest writers are also the funniest: Kafka and Beckett cut the bleakness of the work with an abundance of absurdity and humor.
Finally, a brief word of caution: many of the suggestions that confused or overly challenged early readers make (maybe especially in workshop settings) will be requests for more: more backstory, more explanation, more information to help them. But I truly believe very few problems in fiction are solved this way. A profusion of explanation and exposition are more likely to be symptoms of a problem with your novel than a sign of its success, even if they make it more readable: they will reduce difficulty, but not in a way that’s good for the book. If anything, it’s the removal of all challenge that irritates me most as a reader: I hate a writer who hasn’t left me anything to do.
Which is all to say that while adjusting the difficulty level of a book is its own challenge, it’s one worth getting as right as you can. As Peter Turchi once wrote:
Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn't intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release... It isn't enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.
An ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions. It’s a goal worth pursuing, on the page and off.
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.