I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before, but I thought that I’d talk about the topic of “difficult to read” books today. I’m not talking about books that cover grim or depressing subject matter, but about books which are written in an unusual, experimental, formal and/or avant-garde way that might leave the reader feeling confused and/or having to read the book at a much slower pace than they would normally expect to.
Since, believe it or not, there are actually good practical reasons why some authors do this. When it is done well, it can really add a lot to a story. But, why?
1) Atmosphere: All novels contain a balance between descriptions and actions. If a story focuses more on actions, then it often tends to be a lot more fast-paced and easy to read. This comes at the cost of some characterisation and atmosphere, but it results in a much more freely-flowing, informal, fun and gripping story. If you find a book that is easy to read and relax with, then it probably focuses more on actions than descriptions.
On the other hand, there’s also a lot to be said for focusing on descriptions instead. Descriptions are the things that make characters seem like real people and which make the “world” of the story feel deeper and more immersive than even the latest virtual reality technology. However, descriptions are slow-paced and will often involve more complex, formal and/or poetic language, which can be more “difficult” to read than matter-of-fact descriptions of actions can be.
So, sometimes a book can be “difficult to read” because the author has chosen to focus more on the atmosphere and characters instead. Think of it like the graphics settings in a computer game. If a game is running on the highest graphics settings, where everything looks crisp and hyper-detailed, then it is probably going to run slower than if the graphics settings are lowered to the absolute minimum.
2) Clever stuff: Simply put, books can do a lot of stuff that no other storytelling medium can. Authors can do all sorts of clever stuff that film directors, game designers etc… can only dream of. But, if you aren’t used to this, then it can sometimes come across as confusing. So, if you see something a bit weird or confusing in a novel, then there is usually a good reason for it.
To give you a famous example, take a look at Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“. The novel’s narration jumps around between time periods with very little warning and, whenever the main character appears, he is often just referred to as “he” without being introduced by name. At first, this will be confusing to read, but there are good reasons for it.
“Wolf Hall” is a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, so calling him “he” (rather than introducing him by name) whenever he appears creates both a feeling of intimacy and also helps to remind the reader that Cromwell is the focus of the story (eg: he’s so important that he doesn’t need to be mentioned by name).
Likewise, the random flashbacks-within-flashbacks and time jumps mirror how memories work. After all, we rarely remember things in a logical order. So, when you get used to these quirks, the story gains a level of depth that you probably wouldn’t find in a film or TV show.
Another famous example is probably the cyberpunk genre. In these sci-fi stories, the reader will often be bombarded with lots of futuristic jargon with barely any time to work out what it all means. Although this might seem really confusing, it is done for a really good reason.
These stories are set in chaotic, dystopian, hyper-capitalist technology-filled near-future worlds. As such, the best way to get all of this stuff across to the reader is to “drop them in at the deep end”, leaving them reeling at the sensory overload of the futuristic world they’ve found themselves in.
You’re meant to feel overwhelmed and disorientated when reading a cyberpunk novel because this is what the characters have got used to living with. After all, if a time traveller from the 1950s appeared today, they would probably be extremely confused when they heard people talking about social media, hashtags, smartphones, videogames etc…
3) Challenge, effort and prestige: As bizarre as it sounds, some of the most enjoyable things out there can be the most difficult. Anyone who is a fan of fiendishly difficult 1990s computer games like “Final Doom”, “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War“, “Blood” etc.. will know what I’m talking about here. That feeling of victory when you beat a level of the game through sheer determination, perseverance and practice.
And, sometimes, the same is true for books. If a book is good enough, then grappling with any confusing parts of it is part of the fun. It is what makes reading the book such a rewarding activity. All of the extra mental effort you put into reading it will also mean that the story will probably linger in your imagination for long after you’ve put the book down too.
Plus, of course, there’s also the matter of bragging rights too. Seriously, finishing a “difficult” book really gives you a feeling of achievement.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂