Let’s try a slightly different tack this time. Here are the first two paragraphs of a review written by Clifton Fadiman and published in The Nation on January 15, 1930.
Probably someone has already remarked that the perfect enjoyment of great literature involves two factors. The reader should make an analysis of the methods employed by the artist to produce a given effect; and at the same time he should experience a synthetic appreciation of that effect in its emotional totality. The analysis must be almost instantaneous, almost unconscious. Otherwise the reader may become enmeshed in a tangle of aesthetic judgments, and experience difficulty in feeling the work of art as a whole.
Here, perhaps, lies the problem of comprehending the present-day revolutionary novelist. Frequently the intelligent reader can grasp the newer literary anarchies only by an effort of analytical attention so strained that it fatigues and dulls his emotional perception. He is so occupied in being a detective that by the time he has to his own satisfaction clarified the artist’s intentions and technique he is too worn out to feel anything further. This is why the Joycean method of discontinuity has been entirely successful only when applied to materials of Joycean proportions. For it is obvious that if the theme is sufficiently profound, the characters sufficiently extraordinary, the plot sufficiently powerful, the reader is bound to absorb some of all this despite the strain on his attention. But if after an interval of puzzle-solving, it dawns upon him that the action and characters are miniscular, he is likely to throw the book away in irritation. The analysis has taken too long for the synthesis to be worth the trouble.
Though it’s a cheap effect, here’s the reveal—this is a review of The Sound and the Fury (titled “Hardly Worth While”—he threw the book!), a book I was made to read in 7th or 8th grade. I would have been 12 or 13. I would have taken three or four short quizzes on the book (I think I must have done OK; I mean, here I am now) and then I would have written a short essay about something in the book. Something tells me my classmates and I aren’t what Fadiman was referring to when he wrote about the “intelligent reader,” though—who knows?—maybe I’m just failing to give us credit. Fadiman would almost have charged our wonderful teacher with child abuse: Think of all the worn out, fatigued, and just plain tired brains in that classroom! Probably not a single emotion about the book among us.[Putting this here for possible future consideration: When so-called “experimental” prose is accused of “coldness,” are readers proving Fadiman’s point? Are they exhausted by their own analysis of the methods used? Or are such readers only failing to learn from history’s (i.e., Fadiman’s) mistakes, looking at the work sympathetically (as someone else would) rather than experientially?]
When Fadiman writes about “analytical strain,” he’s writing about the struggle he endured to read a book that, a handful of decades later, 7th graders would be reading. For school. Alongside Hatchet.
I’m not suggesting that The Sound and the Fury be shelved with Harry Potter (though, um, maybe more people would read it?). I am saying that there is a particular strain of criticism and thought that insists that art and literature must have a quality I’m choosing to call “accessibility,” a quality that sometimes goes under other names. Fadiman does a decent job of explaining one version of it in the first paragraph, above; serendipitously, what he’s laying out there is the kind of reading we’re taught to do in school (some of us with the book he’s talking about), the kind of reading that subsequently intimidates some readers and makes it ever more difficult to get people in this country to read, or so I’m told.
I don’t think it’s wrong to ask people to bring some amount of focus and attention to bear on a work of art. I do think it may be wrong to ask artists not to demand their audiences bring some amount of focus and attention to bear on what they’ve made (more on that in a future post). That there are degrees of “demanding,” I willingly concede. That sometimes works may be unsuccessful because they are too demanding, well, on that I’m not too sure. I guess maybe that’s why I’m writing these posts.
Because the “point” of this post seems so apparent, it’s difficult to make that point without seeming to have missed some larger point. I think the point isn’t that what is “accessible” changes over time—do I really even have to say that it does? Clearly it does. (One may speculate that what people now consider most demanding may instead be most prescient.) No, I think the point might be that the claim that a work of art is too demanding may (MAY, dear reader) be selling one’s fellow readers short, a way of dismissing the intelligence of one’s fellow human beings, a close-minded caution we’d all be better off ignoring. I’m sure there are people who read to test their analytical skills, but me? I’m not one of them. I finished school years ago.
2 thoughts on “Tolerance and Accessibility II”
I bemoan the fact that in our schools presently, NO ONE would even dare to expect 12-13 year olds to read Faulkner–I saw people in their 30’s struggling mightily to read Faulkner in my graduate program! (I was much older than they were and I was re-reading Faulkner for the 3rd or 4th go around and believe me, it was richer in my 50’s than I could ever imagine!) Our present-day students are functionally illiterate and few of them could even read the actual words in a Faulkner novel, let alone endeavor to make “sense” of them, or even succumb to the work on a visceral, emotional level, which Faulkner was hoping for. He was an abstract expressionist in literary form so it helps if student readers are taught to understand the abstract expressionist movement and what it was doing with so-called 3-dimensional perception and reality. Be that as it may, it is amazing that you (and I as I am 65 now) were EXPECTED to read such great work at such a young age! It is never wasted, even if the young student does not completely understand the work. With a good teacher of literature, of course (and I had a magnificent and great one in High School) a young reader can enter into the magical world a great writer creates. That is certainly not the boring, dull, inane and totally flat narrative and stupid storyline of Harry Potter–perish the thought. In the 50’s and 60’s young people were expected to take their place in society as adults much sooner than we expect now–there was not this separate world of “childhood” that somehow sought erroneously protect our growing humans from the vicissitudes of life. They were plunged into it–remember a movie “Splendor in the Grass?” In that film Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty portray an exceedingly dark edge of love that comes to a young adult. In those classroom scenes students were reading some very demanding and heady literature, indeed. My memory is of a great education because we were all expected to read great writers like Faulkner and Hemingway and Joyce and Dickinson without complaint. Unfortunately, in our current times, our young people are unable to read well enough to do so. The only classrooms that can teach complex and demanding work are AP classes or classes in upscale private schools or neighborhoods where the parents are wealthy. Even in these places, many of these children’s parents are not readers themselves. Our world has changed.
Fadiman got it right in one respect. In a review of D. Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest a few years back, a writer (I’m not saying who) made an accusation that the characters in that work “Start out small and stay small”. I think this is an important point, and echoes what fadiman was getting at: There must be a sufficient payoff for deciphering difficult works.
In a scene from his novel, Walking to Hollywood, Will Self sets his character coming upon a rap group performing on the street. They’re dressed in suits and ties and look, he writes, “Like bankers”. The group’s name is N.W. Ph.D.s. Now, if you happen to know there was a rap group called N.W.A. (Niggers with Attitude) then you get the joke. The question is was it worth it? And how does it propel the character through the plot? This is one of the easier references in that novel. All of Will Self’s novels are to some extent difficult and the reader must decide if wading through a dozen references per page to pop culture, 17th century philosophy, classical literature, et al are worth it.