Two Very Basic Tips For Reading A “Difficult” Book

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about “difficult” books today. This is mostly because I recently read William Gibson’s 1993 novel “Virtual Light” and it took me a while to get used to his (awesome, but something of an acquired taste) writing style again.

This reminded me of my very first attempt at reading Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi classic “Neuromancer” when I was about seventeen. Back then, I just couldn’t get into the book and abandoned it after one chapter. Two or three years later, I read the whole novel and was astonished by it. So, yes, sometimes books can seem “too difficult” to read. But, luckily, there are ways around this.

1) Let it wash over you: One of the simplest ways to handle a book that is written in an experimental, archaic or unusual style is simply to keep reading even if you don’t understand literally everything. Just let the words wash over you and don’t try to make too much sense of it. Not only does this help you to get used to the writer’s style but, after a while, you’ll probably find that some parts of the story will begin to make sense too.

Yes, this doesn’t work with literally every story. But, if the novel has an interesting idea behind it or if individual sentences are interesting enough that you actually want to read more of it, then this is the way to deal with it. Just let the words wash over you, don’t expect to understand literally everything and, gradually, at least some parts of the story will begin to make sense to you.

The best thing about taking this slightly “open” approach to reading is that it makes you better at dealing with these types of things in other books.

For example, between my abandoned first attempt at reading “Neuromancer” and my successful attempt at reading it a couple of years later, I read a few 1950s-60s “beat literature” novels (which sometimes include almost-incomprehensible plots and/or experimental writing techniques). So, when I returned to “Neuromancer”, I felt a bit more confident.

2) Practice reading widely: First of all, if you can’t get into a “difficult” book, then there’s no shame in putting it aside and returning to it at some later point. One of the best ways to deal with a “difficult” book is simply to get more practice at reading before you read it. But, remember to read books by lots of different authors and to take chances on authors you haven’t heard of and/or haven’t read before.

This is important for several reasons. Firstly, it gets you used to reading lots of different writing styles, which means that adapting to the style of a “difficult” book is a bit easier. Secondly, and most importantly, it means that you might encounter milder versions of the writing style you’re having trouble with – which means that you’ll have a better chance of understanding the “difficult” book when you return to it.

For example, reading 19th century-style narration became a lot easier after I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories at the age of seventeen. Since these stories are short, really compelling and have clearly defined plots, they are a fun way of acclimatising to (and appreciating) these older writing styles. And, it also has the side-effect of making other 19th century novels (and modern 19th century style ones) more readable/understandable afterwards.

Likewise, when I read Gibson’s “Virtual Light” recently, it was a lot easier than the time I managed to read “Neuromancer” for the simple reason that I’d read a lot more books in the meantime. I could see how Gibson’s style was similar to “hardboiled” 1930s-50s American detective fiction, how it took influence from thriller fiction, how it was similar to other cyberpunk authors etc…..

So, practice reading widely and you’ll find that “difficult” books become a bit less difficult to read.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Authors Write Books That Are “Difficult To Read”

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 🙂

Why Readability Matters

2015 Artwork Why Readability Matters article sketch

A few months ago, I read a couple of really thought-provoking articles (one by Joanna Scott and one by Paul Mason) which argued in favour of fiction that is difficult to read. Long-time readers of this blog will probably already know my views about “difficult” fiction, but I thought that I’d approach the topic slightly differently this time round.

The reason that I am mentioning these articles is because of a part of Scott’s article (which is also referred to in Mason’s article too), where she basically argues that “readability” is a bad thing, especially when taught in writing courses: ‘But despite the fine-arts degree they confer, the credo of “craft” predominates in these programs, especially in the genre of fiction. The goal is to produce a solid, sellable product—a “good read” distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing—rather than a work of art.

My response to this quote was simply ‘Well, yes. This is a good thing!’

At the end of the day, if a story is to come alive in a reader’s imagination (which I would argue is the definition of “art”, in the context of writing) then it needs to fascinate that reader. It needs to grip that reader. It needs to be a “good read”.

A good writer needs to make sure that the reader is as close to the story as possible, so that it can take root in his or her imagination as easily and quickly as possible.

Putting lots of needlessly descriptive, needlessly dense and/or needlessly experimental writing in between the reader and the story is like putting an intricately-patterned wooden screen in front of a beautiful painting. The wooden screen may look beautiful, but it’s blocking out something even more beautiful.

The internet is filled with fan art and fan fiction. Every piece of it shows that someone’s story has come alive in someone else’s imagination. It is very telling that most of this fan art and fan fiction is based on things that aren’t designed to be “difficult” to read or watch.

In other words, you’re probably going to find a lot of “Star Trek”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Doctor Who” and/or “Harry Potter”-based fan works on the internet – but you’re probably not going to find that many James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Richardson or Will Self- based fan works on the internet.

Scott’s article also quotes Virginia Woolf whilst arguing how reading “difficult” fiction allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us: ‘When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

From my own personal experience, I haven’t really had many of these moments when reading “difficult” fiction. However, I’ve had more than my fair share of them whilst reading comics, reading genre fiction, listening to punk and heavy metal music, playing computer games, reading online articles and even watching TV shows and Youtube videos.

Or, to quote a Wingnut Dishwashers Union song [NSFW]: “A punk rock song won’t ever change the world/ But I can tell you about a couple that changed me.

In other words, this quality isn’t something that is only ever found cleverly hidden within dusty old novels and modern “literary fiction”. And I think that I know why.

If a story is the kind of great thing that shapes a reader’s worldview and gives them a better way to understand their own feelings and their own thoughts, then it needs to be something that they feel comfortable spending time with. It has to be something that welcomes the audience like an old friend, rather than something that austerely gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, your story won’t “enlighten” anyone if they don’t read it.

This doesn’t mean that fiction can’t be intelligent, it just means that it needs to be easily accessible. It needs to be written in a way that actually makes people want to read it. It needs to be written in a way that makes them want to read more.

People tend to focus more intensely when they’re enjoying something. If your readers are fascinated by your story, then they’re probably going to be thinking and daydreaming about it for a long time afterwards.

In other words, instead of sternly requiring your readers to *yawn* “study” your story in order to understand it, if you tell a suitably readable story, then your readers are going to want to study it. They’re going to want to think about it, to write fan fiction and to debate it with other readers.

So, yes, don’t make things needlessly difficult for your readers.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂