Every now and then, I run across the comment that too many books are written “for critics” and not “for readers.” Sometimes the comment explicitly states that books (or stories) ought to be entertaining, and fiction that is difficult to read, highly stylized or poetic or idiosyncratic in its prose, and/or requires some amount of previous reading or cultural knowledge, or has some complex structure, the apprehension of which enhances the piece but requires a fair amount of thought to puzzle out, or …books like this aren’t entertaining. They’re hard work to read. They’re just meant to impress “critics” who somehow, by definition, aren’t actually readers.
Now, I have absolutely no argument with anyone who says something like “These are the sorts of books that entertain me. These others, over here, they really aren’t my cup of tea.” No problem. “I tried to read [Abstruse Masterpiece] and really didn’t enjoy it so I put it down.” No sweat.
But I’ve got a problem when it’s stated as an absolute–“I find this opaque and hard to read, and am not entertained, therefore this sort of book is not entertaining and anyone who writes something like this intentionally has made the mistake of not trying to entertain but instead attempting to impress critics.”
You do see the difference between the two?
I get frustrated with the second sort because I actually find (some) of those opaque, difficult books entertaining. I find their opacity and the intricacy of their construction pleasing to work at. Not all of them, of course. I can think of at least one book that was up for a major award this year that had a prose style that put me off before I’d gotten a hundred pages in. I could. Not. Read. It. Not without major effort that, in the end, I decided I didn’t want to bother with. But I would bet real money the author didn’t sit down at their desk and say “You know what? I want to write something that’s really hard to read so that only a few people will really be able to get into it! Something critics will laud me for, who cares about readers?” And I don’t think the only people praising that book are “critics” or “pretentious” or whatever. They’re people who genuinely enjoyed that book.
Critics get to be critics because they like to read. Critics are readers. They may (or may not) be a particular subset of readers–they may or may not share tastes and predilections with other critics that they do not share with the wider set of readers. But they’re readers. And just like any other reader, each one has their own idiosyncratic personal taste.
For people who like those books, the ones that are “pretentious” or “written for critics,” those books really, genuinely are entertaining. I mean, seriously. When a critic says “This is a great book” that pretty much means they found it entertaining. It’s just that the specific nature of the entertainment they derived from that book isn’t the same as the sort you, or I, or some other random person, might want or enjoy.
Entertainment is whatever entertains you. And not everyone is entertained by the same things. And people who like difficult books do in fact find them entertaining. Really.
It happens with music, too, actually–I used to work for New Music Circle, and while we generally had very small audiences (the few exceptions were things like Stephen Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble–click on the samples and you’ll see why) the folks who came regularly to the concerts really, genuinely enjoyed the stuff. I’d see my boss in the front row really grooving to one or another free improv ensemble, and if it wasn’t someone’s thing, if they’d never really gotten a taste for that sort of sound, that someone might sit there watching him and think “He’s got to be faking this, so he can look intellectual or something. Because this isn’t music!” But it sure as hell was music, just not that incredulous watcher’s thing. My boss? The season ticket holders? They genuinely enjoyed it. The only “problem” with that music is, it’s not the kind of thing you like to listen to. It’s not aimed at you in particular. So, you know, shrug and say “not my thing.” Don’t write a diatribe about how the problem with this music is no one could actually ever enjoy listening to it. Cause I’ll point to my old boss, grooving away, one hundred percent sincere.
*If you’re feeling adventurous, try listening to some Kaffe Matthews, whose music I, yes, genuinely enjoy. (Her stuff is amazing live.) Or some Gunda Gottschalk.
If none of that appeals, here’s some more bowed piano.