Literary quality vs. readability

I heard about this growing controversy while surfing various blogs over the weekend. Some people in Britain are pushing to have a Literature Prize, since they argue that the Man Booker Prize rewards sub-par works of art. Two quotes from the article:

And yet there’s a consortium of people, headed by literary agent Andrew Kidd and supported by a host of literary types, who last week announced they were putting together a prize, to be known as The Literature Prize, for “writers who aspire to something finer.”

The Literature Prize is looking to do the literary equivalent of applauding houses built with staircases that require mountaineering gear to climb them.

If you read this blog often, you probably already know which side of the debate I fall on, but I’ll say it again anyway, mostly because I feel so strongly about this issue. Readable books are good books. The sense of inflated ego that comes from getting through a difficult book does not make that book more worth than one that is accessible. And books and literature should be accessible, on the whole. Isn’t that why we create art? To be read and enjoyed?


  • tanya debuff wallette says:

    Right on, Kathryn. There are authors I read in grad school that everyone touted as THE authors to read, and I found them tedious as hell. Something about their writing just seems…cocky. Like they’re so good they don’t have to be readable. Well, maybe if they would have been readable I would have finished those three specific books (Franzen, Matthiesen, and Lopate)instead of reading parts so that I could pretend to discuss them pseudo-intelligently. I’m giving all those guys another chance, though, just to be fair. I feel like I’ve veered off the topic so I’m going to end awkwardly-

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      I know what you mean, Tanya, though I haven’t read any of those you mentioned. Cocky is an interesting word for it, too. I’ve known writers (and readers) who thought that anything that was good for the masses had to be crap. And I like awkward endings.

      And double endings, because I just realized that I wanted to add that I, too, am giving some hated reads another chance lately—like you said, just to be fair. I’m hoping that I like some of these second-chance books, because in the last few years, some books I used to adore feel flat to me now. And that’s sad.

  • Seth Marlin says:

    I don’t really think that good CAN fail to be readable unless it’s doing such innovative things that sticking it through is made worthwhile by the concepts explored within. I’ll tolerate difficult writing from guys like Danielewski, or from Pynchon, but I also have to acknowledge that as a writer I’m seeing things within the text that most can’t see. The best pieces are the ones that ARE readable while also laying down some science, in the hip-hop sense. Being “literary” is not a free pass to write cluttered garbage.

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      Exactly. I’m reading a book right now that I find incredibly dense, and I’m having a hard time reading big chunks of it at once due to the style of the writing, but it is still readable, absolutely. But making writing opaque because excluding a large portion of readers makes it literary…well, I can’t support that.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I love that you brought this up…I was just reading an interview with Stephen King where he refers to a time when he accepted a National Book award and defended popular lit & several authors, and then another award recipient took the stage and said “I don’t need a book list.”
    So in the interview he said:

    The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea—it’s constraining for the growth of literature. This is a critical time for American letters because it’s under attack from so many other media: TV, movies, the Internet, and all the different ways we have of getting nonprint input to feed the imagination. Books, that old way of transmitting stories, are under attack. So when someone like Shirley Hazzard says, I don’t need a reading list, the door slams shut on writers like George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. And when that happens, when those people are left out in the cold, you are losing a whole area of imagination. Those people—and I’m not talking about James Patterson, we understand that—are doing important work.

    • Cathie Smathie says:

      Sorry, what she actually said was “I don’t think we need a reading list from you.”

    • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

      That’s harsh, and, in my opinion, uncalled for from that author.

      Nothing else to add. I love what you’ve said here, and I’m always comforted to be reminded that it probably is just a select few loud voices causing these divides.

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