Bill Long 11/15/05
Putting the "Blame" of Difficulty Where it Belongs
One of the benefits of working at a law school which is attached to an undergraduate college is that you run into a lot of interesting people in the College of Liberal Arts ("CLA") who spend their time thinking about things that don't even cross my mind. Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to English Professor Michael Strelow read from his recent novel, The Greening of Ben Brown, which was a finalist for this year's Oregon Book Award in the fiction category. In this book Strelow tells the story of how a man turned green from an electrical shock lives his life in the context of a small Oregon town. When introducing his reading, however, Mike took us on a wonderful tour of his inner spaces, spaces which produced the book, and some essays and books he finds helpful in the task of reading and criticizing literature. One essay he thought everyone should read was Goerge Steiner's "On Difficulty," which explains why understanding of literary works can be such a difficult task. I decided to read about Steiner, summarize his thesis briefly and then give my "take" on what makes some reading so difficult. Not surprisingly, I differ almost completely from Steiner.
Steiner's Thesis Summarized
I will summarize his view as portrayed in two English graduate program web sites. In Steiner's 1978 essay, "On Difficulty," he identifies four forms of difficulty apparent in literature/poetry. The first, contingent difficulty, arises because of the reader's lack of familiarity with terms or historical references in a text. This makes Shakespeare, Milton or Spenser difficult, for example. The second, modal difficulty, comes from a reader's lack of familiarity or comfort with the mode or form of literary expression. "Some people have a "modal difficulty" with film; they simply do not like going to plays, regardless of the appeal of any particular play. Others like to read but are resistant to detective novels, popular romances, or war stories. Some people who like poetry do not like ballads, limericks, or dedication poems written for a special occasion. The problem here is that the modal difficulty may irrationally block the appreciation of a poem because of the form it is in."
The third difficulty, tactical difficulty, isn't particularly clear to me from the summaries, but is defined by one site as "a difficulty, withheld information or an unusual perspective on action, that the poem or poet places before us on purpose to create a certain effect or to direct us in the way to understand a poem." The other site defines it as the author's attempt to "disrupt the readers' accepted world view." Finally, the ontological difficulty of a text is how it points to a cultural gap between author and reader. The author might be (or might present) a culture completely unfamiliar to the reader; the reader, therefore, must make all kinds of imaginative leaps and learn lots of things in order to be at home with and in the narrative/poem.
Whereas Steiner may have isolated a number of factors that make reading difficult, it seems like these all put the onus on the reader for making things clear. I have no objection to making the reader work hard or being a hard-working reader as I try to understand what someone else is saying. My beef with Steiner's approach, however, is that it tends to ignore what I think are the real issues in writing--that the author, rather than the reader, is generally at fault for not taking the effort to make him/herself clear. In other words, I think that most authors fail what I consider to be the ethical text of making themselves accessible to people. I think they do this for three reasons.
The Problem with Authors
Many "difficult" authors are this way because either: (1) they lack the capacity to make themselves clear or aren't quite sure what they want to say; (2) they are rude to their readers and don't really care to be clear; or (3) they don't provide the kind of autobiographical information necessary to understand where a poem/idea "comes from" in their personal experience. In fact, much writing is only the awkward tip of an iceberg of life which is really lived at a completely different level from the written word. Essays/poems/books produced by a person often actually are distractions or only partial conversational tools to help understand what an author is really trying to say or really feels.
With respect to the first point: I think it is exceedingly difficult to make yourself clear when you write. The major difficulty in clear thinking and writing is to know how to put an issue in perspective or how to "set the stage" for the idea you want others to hear. Setting the context requires knowledge of which historical facts to narrate, which people to introduce, which words to use to summarize complex issues that are doubtless behind the issue you want to describe, etc. The most difficult part of writing is the first sentence or the first paragraph because by writing these words you constrict and constrain the world; you do violence to the world; you force it into your own interpretive mold. The task is too much for most people, and we shouldn't criticize them for that, because the task is almost too great for any of us. Thus, when difficulty arises, I think first that the author probably hasn't taken the time or effort to make him/herself clear.
Second, there is a whole species of authors who really are rather rude people, who don't believe that they have any ethical obligation to make themselves understood. Some feel this way just because they are "great," and the cost of the world's tolerating their greatness is that the world will have to slog through their works uncomprehending. I think I recall a statement attributed to Hegel which said that he felt this way about his writing. Under this approach I ask whether the author is, in fact, a discourteous person.
Third, I think the major reason for difficulty in reading or understanding what is written is that the author doesn't explain enough of his/her autobiography to let you know what s/he is about in the "difficult" text. One of the reasons I liked Bill Moyers' little book on poets, which I have reviewed elsewhere on this site, is that he tried to connect their poetry with their autobiography. When you know why a poet has produced not simply a particular poem but specific lines in that particular poem, scales fall from your eyes. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, we live in darkness, not because of a "Steiner difficulty," but because the authors have just not told us enough about themselves.
I propose, therefore, to demystify writing by making authors "come clean." Certainly every idea cannot be explained with the limpid clarity of Crater Lake. But most things can be. And, they can be clearly explained if we understand the relationship of autobiography to writing, as well as my other two points. Let's put the difficulty in writing/reading where it belongs...back on the authors.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long