A debate over the accessibility of the 2018 Man Booker Award winner, Milkman by Anna Burns, has caused The Guardian‘s Sam Leith to defend “difficult” works of literature, giving a lot of terrific examples and arguments in favour of the phenomenon. That perception of literature that breaks with popular concepts of “readability” is found across different art forms; I also find the article resonant, both of elements in my recent thesis, and of my own art practice. In the following I will go off on several tangents from the Guardian article, drawing parallels across art forms and … sports? In Leith’s paraphrase of Man Booker chair Kwame Anthony Appiah:
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.
I’d add that reading or watching a demanding work of art pulls you as a spectator into that exercise of overcoming, or even co-creation, challenging you to interpret and contextualise it in an effort to lock eyes and minds with the artist. The act of bending your mind to match or approximate the shape of an artwork is often a reward in itself, like the physical pleasure of a workout.
Although the term “ergodic literature” goes unmentioned in the article, the works in question do approach the criterion that “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”, posed by Espen Aarseth who coined the term in his 1997 book Cybertext. In a different but no less poignant perspective, author Nicola Barker is quoted as saying that
I see fiction as being divided into two categories. Work that confirms and celebrates and panders and work that confounds and perplexes and challenges.
This, too, reflects Aarseth’s ideas that “there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial”. That would well describe the greater mass of entertainment-tinged works of art (literature, film, comics, &c) that we consume on a daily basis, and which in their recognisable structures facilitate that consumption. We are moderately thrilled by horror movies because even as the masked killer sneaks up on his would-be victim, we know from previous films of the genre that she will make it eventually; the thrill is in the small variations on the familiar. However, works and writers that challenge the reader, Barker continues:
are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. […] Sometimes we need to try and describe the indescribable.
That last sentence in particular strikes a note with me, as an artist working in abstraction, often abandoning linear narrative as a consequence. It is commonly implied that abstract expressionism emerged from the second World war, artists turning away from figurative painting at a loss to ably express their latent anxieties and trauma. A similar notion is found in Barker’s statement, though the indescribable in question need not be on the scale of industrial warfare or systematic genocide.
Putting into word or image that for which there is no description, word and image deteriorate in the attempt, their corrosion eating away in turn at the artist’s certainty in established processes and conventions. Incoherence seeps into ordered art from a chaotic world. My 2015 book, When the Last Story is Told, poses an illustration of that dilemma, imagining narrative as a finite, exhausted resource, and the ruined scaffolding of the comics page draped only with torn paper, white-out and ink textures. It would be pretentious to say that I premeditated the work then and there as a visualisation of grappling with complex circumstance. I did feel the playing field open up to me as the rule book of genre and cultural connotation fell away, though.
The relatively new phenomenon of abstract comics suffers the double ignominy of adhering neither to the visual or genre conventions culturally expected of the comics form proper. One fine artist flipped through When the Last Story is Told, bewildered, before attempting a joke, pointing to a random page: “Is this the car chase?” A comics fan, browsing the book at a festival, pressed his fist into his solar plexus, telling me that “It hurts me all the way in here that you call this a comic.” One doesn’t deviate from the public perception of art without some scorn.
In his article, Leith proposes that “literary fiction” be considered a genre unto itself, citing its formal exercises as a generic trait equal to the femme fatale of noir thrillers, or bug-eyed monsters of science fiction. Genres are certainly sets of cultural tropes and familiar structures that enable digestion of the work, and genre work, to some degree, is a patchwork of well-known elements lifted whole cloth from previous sources, some dating back to ur-myths. In contrast, I’d say that “literary fiction”, or “fine art” for that matter, is often that which does not rely on those accustomed motifs and stories, but instead requires the audience to take active part in its unfolding. This is not a distinction between good or bad, high or low art, but on the level of engagement required.
The difficulty of these (medium-trivial effort) ergodic works, then, is in their lack of pandering to cliché, in their position outside of genre. They may toy with those elements, but in the end they are a game of form rather than of tropes, and that game takes its toll on the reader. At the same point in time that people gamify their daily chores and tasks at work, ie., assimilate them to a familiar structure of game narrative with “level-up”rewards and achievement badges, works of art that play by their own, original rules are found difficult or even impenetrable. Again, the key is in the ability of the audience to identify the structural rules of the game, a cognitive ability that relies largely on previous experience – and with it, recognition.
Coincidentally, games are intrinsic also to Aarseth’s concept of “cybertext”, a subset of ergodic texts that largely span the multi-threaded narratives of early computer games like “dungeon crawlers”, first made possible by basic hypertext technologies. More literally than the co-creative deciphering of a challenging artwork, the reader/player has full agency in those interactive texts (soon after transposed into the visual domain). Although authored by game designers as thoroughly as any writer would a novel, the player’s path through the game text inevitably leaves the rest of it unexplored, invisible, nonexistent.
The concept, at least ostensibly disengaged from the fictional realm, can aptly be applied to our current online environment, as pervasive into the physical world as it is. The playbook of the internet cybertext, however, is vaguer than the established structures would have us believe. In the face of complex world news narratives, it is soothingly convenient to resort to more facile, “alternative” but familiar structures that confirm and comfort.
In that sense, we are all living in Nicola Barker’s “world that [isn’t] straightforward or coherent or manageable”. Our shared means of understanding it, our structural narrative framework as we have been fed it through blockbuster or paperback genre fare, is insufficient to adequately describe it. We can not rest assured that the killer will disappear by the end of the film, vanquished, into the waters of the lake. What is certain is that our player avatar will not respawn at the latest save point.
Sure, there are other available narratives that might equip us to engage differently, perhaps even more resourcefully with the world. Ergodic literature and, by association, the merely “challenging” books mentioned in the Guardian article, allow us to rewire our brains to even briefly think and see the world through a different framework. The brain may not grow in size with effort like muscles do, but it does in complexity; through acquisition of knowledge, new neurological connections are created, allowing new avenues of problem solving.
There is much to be gained from the mental investment of engaging meaningfully with non-genre art works that break away from stagnant convention. They expose audiences not only to new perspectives but also to new ways of considering the world. They may open up the playing field by questioning established structures (both narrative and social). If only they weren’t so difficult.