Difficult Reading

Craft Chat The Deadliest First Page Sin - POV

Deadly First Page Sins

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I'm currently reading Richard Flanagan's 2014 Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Unusually, I've had to renew this library book beyond its three-week loan period, meaning I've now been reading it for a month.

Normally, I'll devour a novel of 350 pages in a week. My slow progress is nothing to do with Richard Flanagan's writing skills, for he's a brilliant author, it's more that the subject matter is distressing. The story details the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese against Australian prisoners of war, in forcing them to build the Burma Railway, and how the after-effects haunted them in civilian life. Man's inhumanity to man is always depressing, so I'm finding that I can only tolerate reading this sorry tale in 20 page chunks.

Richard Flanagan is a fascinating character, as he's immensely likeable when interviewed, with ferocious intelligence. I first became aware of him via this BBC documentary, which is worth a look if you have the bandwidth and broadband credit:

He writes in an accessible way, that's also deliberately literary, certainly so far as the internal dialogue of his characters goes, for they do way more thinking than doing. I've read two other novels by him, Gould's Book of Fish and Wanting, (if you're a fan of Charles Dickens, seek it out), and in both, the protagonists endured protracted suffering, so much so, that I started to wonder if Flanagan is sadistic—meaning, that it helps if his readers are masochists. :oops:

It's a common piece of advice, that we writers put our protagonist through conflict and peril—after all, if their life is perfectly rosy, why would we, or the reader, care what happens to them? But, how far should we go in portraying their unhappiness, and, perhaps worse, how difficult should the language be that we used to convey complicated situations?

The author of this article, Tegan Bennett Daylight, makes some good points about teaching students who don't have the habit of reading, as they're spoon-fed their information and entertainment by the media, especially social media. It's a real effort for her students to tackle anything that's not 'nice', which requires them to process uncomfortable concepts where it takes patience to read several pages to get the message:

"Spoon-fed, I hear you say? Don’t make me laugh. This is a feast of force-feeding, a Roman orgy of information and assistance, with students helpless and lolling while academics assist them in opening their mouths so the food can be tipped in, and then hold their jaws and help them masticate until it goes down. We keep asking ourselves why this generation are so anxious. They are anxious because nobody lets them do things alone: we intervene before they have had a chance to try, let alone succeed or fail. They never get to feel the limits, or the limitlessness, of their real selves."

I like what she has to say about writing that's hard to understand: "The difficulty is the point."

I've previously stated, that, for me, life is too short to labour through novels that don't engage me in some way, or that are so badly written that I want to lynch the author, literary agent and publisher involved, but my reticence is down to personal taste, not laziness or cowardice.

My own Cornish Detective novels contain gruesome details about the deaths of the victims, as well as complex moral arguments, that readers might dislike. In The Perfect Murderer, a career murderer, serving as a senior detective, had killed one hardened criminal a year for 40 years—murderers, kidnappers, arsonists, child abusers, rapists and drug runners—despicable scum, about whom most people would say "Good", when they heard that they were dead; does this make the murderer a bad man or a justified vigilante for justice?

Have you tackled difficult issues in your stories?

Is some of your writing hard to create and to read, because of what you're describing?

Do you have any favourite difficult authors or books?

This is pretty much off topic but I think there are several reasons why this generation and perhaps the next has anxiety and/or has difficulty. It's not only that everything was done for them and I think stating the issue in such a way is an oversimplification. I honestly believe their attention spans are shot. Part of the reason I believe this is because mine is certainly frayed.

I'd return that book. So what if it won the Man Booker Prize. Even difficult reading takes you on a ride. I'm too old for that sort of nonsense. But now that I think of it, there's never been a difficult book I've read that I didn't enjoy.

On to the questions...

Have you tackled difficult issues in your stories?

Yeah. That horrible dystopic I'm writing tackles difficult issues.

Is some of your writing hard to create and to read, because of what you're describing?

Yes. I often dislike that horrible dystopic story. The language and phrases the characters in the world use give me the creeps. The entire story gives me the creeps. It isn't what it was meant to be when I started writing it, that's for sure. I often actively hate it. I want to finish it so I can get rid of it.

Do you have any favourite difficult authors or books?

I'm sure there are difficult to read authors out there but I tend to use the word 'difficult' as a euphemism for 'I'd really rather not read this because it's not interesting'. Or, sometimes in critique groups I use the word 'dense'. I'll say, "This material is dense." But, what I really means is, "I hate this. Don't make me work so hard for the story. I'm pretty certain I don't need to know all of this."

Which brings up an interesting point. There's a difference between interesting and difficult. Also, interesting and entertaining. I don't need to be entertained as long as something interests me.

But again, the older I get ... the more difficult it is to catch my interest.
I'm not sure I find any writing difficult anymore, though I certainly remember doing so as a child. I always read more fantastical stories as a kid, wanting to see new worlds and new horizons and having no time for the mundanities of everyday life, and that is something that still holds true. I simply cannot read general fiction, as it were, as it bores me rigid.
As a result, I grew up on Sci-Fi, and more specifically, the vast glut of Penguin and Pan etc Sci-Fi books that dominated the market in the 50-70s. My dad used to come home from book faires with fruit crates full of the things, and we'd devour them. My reading age kinda leapt along after that.
That being said, I did always relish the easier, funnier stuff. I'd always leaf through short story collection for the really zingy ones that lasted but a few pages and I simply adored frothy stuff like Hitchhikers Guide.

All that being said, I do still stumble across the odd book that has been written in a very terse manner, but as they are rarely in a genre I would read for fun, it doesn't phase me. I enjoyed reading things like the Silmarillion or Simulacra and Simulation, both of which are fairly chewy, but I am not well read or highly educated type!

I do note, on the rare occasion I get to talk with other human people about books tastes, that some find my favourites hard to swallow. I find most Sci-Fi to be fairly fluffy and easy to read, but the uninitiated can find it a little overbearing, I am told. Horses for courses, and all that.

As to my own work: interestingly, my partner called me on this a few times when writing the trilogy I self published. It had very grand, highly imaginative themes with huge, elaborate set pieces filled with very serious characters, and often times I would try a little to hard to deliver the bombast and gravitas I sought. Normally, it was best to pare down and allow the emotion to come from characters, rather than from the narrator. I do confess, I get very strung up in detailed description, despite the fact I know full well no bugger reads it!

Difficult issues I've had to write? I still pale to think of this, but in my first novel, a scene was required in which a small girl was brutally raped and left for dead. Obviously, there was little description, but simply writing it, feeling the emotions of that broken little child, made me rather unwell. It took a good run up and a firm snifter before I could put finger to keyboard!
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Craft Chat The Deadliest First Page Sin - POV

Deadly First Page Sins