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recently i put my name, if that doesn't sound too grand a statement, to the campaign, inspired by the booker's controversial swerve towards 'readability', to establish 'the literature prize' which would be awarded to novels which were simply great literature irrespective of their accessibility, an idea of which i wholly approve, partly because i enjoy being challenged and stretched by novels and partly because 'readabie' novels are well served by other prizes. but even at the time i found myself slightly at a loss to find many good examples of good, challenging, contemporary literary novels which might compete for the prize and be excluded by other prizes. no names, no pack dril, but even those recently published novels touted as 'experimental' didn't seem to make great demands on the reader. if that sounds snobbish, bear with me...
last week i took part in a talk, organised by the reading agency and based around the publication of stop what you're doing and read this (see the entry stop... below). the last essay in the book (which i disagreed with for various reasons, but don't get me started) sang the praises of 'deep reading' and raised the possibility that we were, as a society, in danger of losing this precious ability.
then i found myself reading middlemarch (again) and dombey and son (for the first time), and it struck me that, if anything, we have already lost, or simply fail to exercise, the ability to 'read deeply'. like many other popular victorian novels, they are (in many passages) more syntactically complex, have a wider vocabulary and are peppered with more arcane cultural references than pretty much any popular, contemporary, literary novels. i'm serching for counter-examples here but having trouble. david foster wallace, perhaps, though he was always rather niche. toni morrison, in parts?
of course, all of this also applies to many popular novels written before the nineteenth century. it also applies to poetry (try reading the ring and the book, all 21,000 lines of it, browning's best-selling work). it also applies to much theatre. not just shakespeare, but even victorian melodrama, the east enders of its day.
it's easy enough to find reasons why contemporary writers may not write in this way: a reaction against the supposed elitism of high modernism (though i've never really been swayed by this argument), the smaller proportion of time we are able to devote to reading (though some very thick books are incredibly popular and summer holidays are both more common and more devoted to lounging), the influence of the school of carver (though that influence was never universal)... more mysterious, to me at least, is the seeming difference in the reading experience. we now live in a culture with wider education and in which many more books are published and read. were nineteenth century readers more intelligent than us? surely not. did the habit of reading aloud (many of dickens' novels would have been heard, rather than read, by a large part of their audience) make challenging language more accessible? were readers satisifed by not comprehending every part of a text, and willing to persevere in spite of this? i'm still waiting to find the academic who can explain this to me, though i suspect that some of the mystery will remain, simply because the subjective experience of being a reader 150 years ago is largely irrecoverable.
two conclusions... one, i do wish critics, educators and defenders of the fine art of reading would stop patting themselves (and us) on the back quite so much and put the modern reading experience in a slightly more humble historical perspective. two, i would like to see a genunely literary prize established, but i'd like to see more novels competing for it by pushing the boundaries of 'readability'.
and one final thought, which is some small compensation, if compensation is needed. despite my lack of knowledge about the history of science, i suspect that, throughout the nineteenth century, most educated readers would have been able to understand most scientific papers, apart perhaps from those in mathematics and the more mathematical areas of physics. that's not true now, of course. but... the rise in popular science books in recent years has been astonishing. and whilst julian barnes might not stretch you intellectually (that's a fact, not a value judgement, and i'm choosing him only becaue the sense of an ending won the booker) you don't have to walk more than a few steps in waterstones to find books about particle physics, cosmology, biology or neuroscience which will make your head hurt. i don't think it's an exaggerration to say stephen hawking's a brief history of time or the emperor's new mind by roger penrose would make the ring and the book seem accessible to most readers.
perhaps 'deep reading' has simply moved to the other end of the bookshop...