I can’t remember ever encountering reader’s block. My own problem is usually the opposite: other life duties that prevent me from spending as much time as I’d like to spend reading.
Nevertheless, Emily Petsko asserts:
“Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable …
Of the eight approaches she offers to overcoming reader’s block, I especially endorse #5. In fact, I think the liberating discovery—which hit me at about age 40—that I don’t have to finish every book I start is probably the reason why I’ve never felt reader’s block. If a book isn’t doing something for me, I simply put it aside and pick up something else.
Which is another reason for keeping one’s bookshelves well stocked with unread books …
This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?
Sam Leith argues that “ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.” The criterion by which a novel should be judged is “how successfully it answers whatever challenge it sets itself.”
Leith quotes novelist Nicola Barker on why some novels are difficult: “Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.” Fiction becomes difficult when it attempts to engage with a world that isn’t always straightforward, coherent, or manageable. The metaphor Leith uses to convey the benefits of tackling a difficult book is that of a challenging mountain hike: The hike is difficult, but the amazing view at the top is worth the effort.
The article ends with a list of “ten difficult books worth reading” compiled by Lara Feigel.
I admit to watching avidly every episode of Criminal Minds, even though one of the team’s solemn pronouncement of “We’re ready to give the profile” almost always makes me laugh. Dylan Matthews wonders why popular culture continues to feature criminal profilers when “ It’s a real, honest-to-God bummer, but criminal profiling doesn’t appear to work. At all.” He cites research that concluded that experts “do only slightly better than random people at predicting traits of offenders” and that “profiling is a ‘pseudoscientific technique,’ of limited if any value to investigators.”
And, Matthews continues, all this emphasis on psychological profilers may be detracting from efforts in areas that psychology could effectively help with, most notably predicting future events:
The social consequences of being able to forecast the future better are immense. “If we could improve the judgement of government officials facing high-stakes decisions — reducing their susceptibility to various biases, or developing better methods of aggregating expertise — this could have positive knock-on effects across a huge range of domains,” Jess Whittlestone notes. “For example, it could just as well improve our ability to avert threats like a nuclear crisis, as help us allocate scarce resources towards the most effective interventions in education and healthcare.”
Sarah LaBrie arrives at a definition of future fiction by examining several contemporary novels:
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
- The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Here’s how LaBrie describes her notion of future fiction:
If My Year of Rest and Relaxation serves to capture a moment in history, novels like The Mars Room and The Overstory might be examples of a kind of future fiction, one that teaches readers to think of themselves as elements of larger systems. They might help set the foundation for a literary fiction that regains its place in a political conversation from which it has long been dismissed. If Powers’s and Kushner’s novels do nothing else, they show us that fiction, more powerfully than any other technology, provides a map for navigating the world even at its most confusing and unbearable.
I’m guessing that LaBrie would say these novels fit Sam Leith’s description (above) of difficult books.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown