This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?
“The fascination of what’s difficult,” wrote WB Yeats, “has dried the sap out of my veins … ” In the press coverage of this year’s Man Booker prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, we’ve read a good many commentators presenting with sapless veins – but a dismaying lack of any sense that what’s difficult might be fascinating.
“Odd”, “impenetrable”, “hard work”, “challenging” and “brain-kneading” have been some of the epithets chosen. They have not been meant, I think, as compliments. The chair of the judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, perhaps unhelpfully, humblebragged that: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy, so by my standards this is not too hard.” But he added that Milkman is “challenging […] the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging. It is definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.”
That’s at least a useful starting point. Appiah defends the idea – which, nearly a century after modernism really kicked off, probably shouldn’t need defending – that ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed. We like to see sportsmen and women doing difficult things. We tend to recognise in music, film, television and the plastic arts that good stuff often asks for a bit of work from its audience. And we’re all on board with “difficult” material as long as it’s a literary classic – we read The Waste Land for our A-levels and we scratched our heads as we puzzled it out, and now we recognise that it is like it is because it has to be that way. So why is “difficult” a problem when it comes to new fiction?