The Pleasure of Difficulty

By Davis Smith-BrecheisenDecember 14, 2018

The Pleasure of Difficulty
IN A RARE AND BOLD turn, the novelist, poet, and literary critic Christine Brooke-Rose dedicates her final book of criticism — Invisible Author (2002) — entirely to her own body of work, beginning it with a question: “Have you ever tried to do something very difficult as well as you can, over a long period, and found that nobody notices?” It is a rhetorical question. Her career is defined, she says, by writing difficult texts under self-imposed constraints — for example, omitting subject pronouns or restricting her novels to particular tenses — with little attention.

Because of this difficulty, her reader, she thinks, finds her work “unfamiliar” — if not impenetrable — and so “dismisses it, the pleasure of recognition being generally stronger than the pleasure or puzzlement of discovery.” The distinction describes a stark difference between the kinds of readers there mainly are — readers who dismiss or ignore difficult fiction — and the kinds of readers she wants — those who not only read difficult fiction, but also derive pleasure from that difficulty.

To an American reader (actually, given the fact she has very few readers, to everyone), Brooke-Rose’s distinction will be more familiar in the difference defined by Jonathan Franzen, also writing in 2002, when he criticizes difficult writers for privileging difficulty over pleasure, framing the difference as one between “status” writers, like William Gaddis, and “contract” writers, like himself, for whom there exists “a compact between the writer and the reader.” He argues that contract writers assume “a direct personal relationship with art,” and work in “the discourse […] of pleasure and connection.” Meanwhile, for “status” writers “the best novels are great works of art,” such that “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.”

In a much earlier 1977 essay — written as a fictional dialogue between Brooke-Rose and a fictionalized authorial other, John — Brooke-Rose had already framed the difference between “contract” and “status” as the difference between the “House of Fame” and the “House of Fiction.” To make one’s home in the house of fame, as John does, is to be flattered by “the sweet smell of success” and to be all too “eager to please” the reader. Conversely, to make one’s home in the house of fiction, as Brooke-Rose does, is to reject not only success but the eagerness to please in favor of “another language” — or literary tradition — spoken most fluently by Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. As much as this fictional dialogue with John distinguishes the early success of Brooke-Rose’s good but traditional realist novels from the limited commercial success of Brooke-Rose’s later experimental novels, it no less acts a useful metaphor to distinguish between two models of art, one that is “eager to please” and one that is not. Where Franzen and, we will see, Gaddis, are happiest in the house of fame, that is “eager to please,” Brooke-Rose is not.

It’s not impossible to imagine difficult novelists who are nonetheless respected and well known for it. Indeed, some of Brooke-Rose’s difficult contemporaries are, if not popular, well-known, prestigious authors. One possible explanation for Brooke-Rose’s relative obscurity, then, is not only her experimentation but the fact that she was a difficult woman writer at a time when difficulty was (and largely remains) reserved for men. While her contemporaries — Misters Gaddis, Gass, and Pynchon, to name only a few — have benefited from their difficulty, Brooke-Rose has remained marginalized in conversations about ambitious late-modernist or postmodern novels.

This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, of course. At least since Mark Twain panned Jane Austen, readers and critics have long described the work of women authors in terms of the attractiveness of its characters or style, praising or criticizing their novels for failing to connect with their readership. And these are, no less, the criteria Franzen uses to praise his idea of a “contract” writer when he writes the aim “is one of pleasure and connection.” I don’t mean to call out Franzen for having a sexist theory of the novel (not here anyway). The point, rather, is to highlight the continuity between the contract model and the criteria by which works by women writers — from Jane Austen through Brooke-Rose and Lynne Tillman — are too often judged. These assumptions virtually exclude women from conversations about experimental or ambitious fiction. There are exceptions of course (Kathy Acker comes to mind) but they are rare. The goal here is to decrease those exceptions by at least one by taking another look at the work of Christine Brooke-Rose, “the great British experimentalist you've never heard of.”


After serving as an intelligence officer at Bletchley Park during World War II and completing coursework toward her PhD in the 1950s, Brooke-Rose published her first novel, The Languages of Love, in 1957 and her first work of criticism, A Grammar of Metaphor, in 1958. In 1969, she joined the faculty at Paris VIII. And around this time she became interested in the work of the literary theory of the Structuralists and the fiction of the nouveau romanciers, especially Alain Robbe-Grillet’s, whose Dans le labryinthe she would translate into English in 1967. Throughout her career she published 16 novels, two collected works of poetry and other writings, and five books of literary criticism, in addition to publishing numerous essays in New Literary History, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Poetics Today, among others.

No less, during her 20-year high-profile academic career she counted among her colleagues and friends, Hélène Cixous, Frank Kermode, Jean-Michel Rabaté, Tzvetan Todorov, and Julia Kristeva. Despite her inclusion in this coterie of intellectuals, however, Brooke-Rose continued to write in relative exile from the literary establishment, due in no small part to the difficulty of her literary experiments, which began in the mid-’60s after four relatively conventional and well-received novels.

The first of these experimental novels was Out, published in 1964; and it as likely as close as the English language will come to taking on the forms and challenges of the nouveau roman. Two brief but exemplary passages will be enough to illustrate the difference of her work before and after the experimental turn. First from her novel, The Dear Deceit, published in 1960:

The fog had lifted during the night, like a block of stone by Samson’s pillared hands, and she strode out into the pale sunshine with an incongruous joy in her heart, a tall and merry widow, in a café-au-lait winter coat, wearing a light felt toque.

Next, from Out:

Beyond the thick network of bare branches there is a finer network, closing in a little over the drive, and beyond that a finer network still. The network of bare branches functions in depth, a corridor of cobwebs full of traps for flies, woven by a giant spider behind huge prison bars.

In the first passage, the morning fog lifts like the mourning veil of a newly widowed woman while in the second, the branches become networks of different discursive systems woven together. And while the first passage takes us inside the character’s “incongruous joy,” whatever is in the character’s heart in the second passage would be gleaned from the almost-Gothic description of tree branches, which are like “cobwebs,” “traps,” and “prison bars.” In the second passage, too, the absence of “like” and the foregrounding of perception shifts the emphasis from the beholder to the objects, giving them a greater sense of immediacy (a sense that is deepened by the present tense). The net effect is that while in the first passage the lifting fog elucidates the interiority of the subject, in the second passage the subject viewing the branches is almost completely absent, or at most defined in relation to other objects. “Almost” because although Out is told from the point of view of the observer, it is written entirely in a subject-pronounless present tense, a restriction that Brooke-Rose enforced on herself. Ultimately, the shift in form produces a shift in emphasis — from interiority and imagination to interaction and perception.

The pronounless present tense is not the only constraint Brooke-Rose used during her career. For instance, in what is perhaps her best novel, Between, about a simultaneous translator, she retains the present tense and adds an additional constraint by omitting the “to be” verb form entirely. The novel begins with the unnamed protagonist on a flight, between languages, between countries, “[b]etween the enormous wings the body of the plane stretches its one hundred and twenty seats or so in threes on either side towards the distant brain way up, behind the dark blue curtain and again beyond no doubt a little door.” The absence of the “to be” verb produces a kind of syntactical propulsiveness and instability so that sentences often begin in one place and end somewhere else. And as is the case in Out the constraint guiding Between dissolves the observing subject into the material and discursive networks that imprison and define them.

Crucially then, the experiments and constraints that govern these two novels (and most of Brooke-Rose’s work) are a kind of syntactical working through of the novels’ thematic concerns, which is to say the particular rules of the experiment of each novel is internally motivated. Missing the point, The New Statesman describes these experiments (and others, such as her typographical experiment in Thru) as “resplendently unreadable.” Though they do not mean it as a compliment, Kermode does when he calls Brooke-Rose’s 1991 novel, Textermination — a pastiche of literary allusions — “wildly unBookerable.” Describing her as “always doing new and complex things with the novel form,” he suggests, without being so direct, that previous Man Booker Award winners were neither complex writers nor pushing the novel form “into the still vast terra incognita of fiction” as Brooke-Rose does. Put in Brooke-Rose’s own words, her experimental project, or commitment to constraints, is about “trying […] to alter or refresh the more fatigued conventions of a specific genre called the Realist novel.” But she doesn’t go quite far enough here, sounding more like John Barth in “The Literature of Exhaustion” than Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel. If, as Kermode puts it, her experiments “resemble the sinking ship that fired on its rescuers,” it is because her experiments aren’t so much intended to “refresh” the conventions of the novel, but to unapologetically reimagine the future of the form, readers be damned.

Here, the comparison to Gaddis is a useful one. No one could accuse Gaddis of making his literary home in the house of fame, or of pandering to a reading public, but it is equally true that he was obsessed with the ecstasy produced through and with the work of art. To take just one example, in the final scene of The Recognitions, a novel about substituting the ecstasy of religion for the ecstasy of art, Stanley, a musician and one of the many artists and critics that populate the novel, fulfills a life-long goal of playing his organ composition at the “Church of Fenestrula.” And “pulling all the stops,” he plays a chord that brings the temple down on his head, killing him. Most of the score is recovered, writes Gaddis, and though “still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard” it is “seldom played.” The vision of art dramatized in this final scene is of a work that is as ambitious to fellow artists as it is moving to the listener. It is, in other words, a vision for Gaddis’s idea of art. To be sure, Gaddis’s prose is distinctive and syntactically difficult — sentences are often truncated or turgid and long passages of dialogue are stripped of tags that would indicate who is speaking — but none of this is intended to confound the reader, at least not the right kind of reader. Just the opposite. The goal instead is to make a work of art, in Gaddis’s case a novel, that is so beautiful its audience cannot help but have some kind of “direct personal experience” with it.

If The Recognitions suggests that what the beautiful work of art should be is one that produces a “direct personal experience” of it — religious ecstasy or jouissance, J R is a lament about how capitalism makes that relationship impossible. This is to point out that Gaddis’s two most ambitious novels (to say nothing of Agapē Agape) are obsessed with dramatizing the audience’s relation to the work of art and to the author himself. There is a certain kind of irony, then, in Franzen calling Gaddis to account for his difficulty when in fact they want the same connection between art and audience, but for more or less sophisticated readers.

The reader looking for that kind of connection in the novels of Brooke-Rose will find no such comfort. Which is to say, that when situated alongside Brooke-Rose, neither Franzen nor Gaddis seems particularly difficult, at least not as far as their prose is concerned. Formal experimentation for Brooke-Rose is not an instrument of difficulty, or an appeal to the reader, as it is for Gaddis, but a principle of composition. Where Gaddis’s art, despite its perceived difficulty, fosters a “direct personal relationship” with its readership, Brooke-Rose’s idea of good art really is one whose value is “independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” The meaning of the work, in other words, is autonomous from the reader’s response to it just as it is autonomous from the market, governed instead by its own set of rules. The real importance of Brooke-Rose’s work in the history of the novel is not that she is a particularly difficult status writer, but that for her status and the appeal to the reader go hand in hand and are equally irrelevant. If there is a kind of recondite pleasure here, it emerges from meeting the work on its own terms. It is one thing, I mean, to write difficult fiction that appeals to a reader who “gets” difficult fiction — as Gaddis does — and it is something different to make a difficult work in which the reader’s relationship to the work is at best secondary, and at most irrelevant — as Brooke-Rose does.


For her commitment to experimentation Brooke-Rose had trouble securing either an agent or publisher, particularly in the United States. Farrar, Straus and Giroux took a pass despite a recommendation from Susan Sontag, and so did Penguin because, as they put it, Brooke-Rose was a “fiendishly difficult proposition” whose novels’ “distinction clearly exceeds their prospective circulation.” She was, as another of Penguin’s editors put it, “Just too difficult for us.” And not even James Laughlin, champion of the difficult text, could make the case for her at New Directions, though he did “mount a campaign in her favour,” according to her agent.

According to her letters, Brooke-Rose never bothered too much with the market. Rather, she was concerned more with how her body of work would be received. When she lamented to her editor at Carcanet Press that she was hoping for a “breakthrough” following the publication of her 1986 novel Xorandor, she did not mean a market breakthrough. Nor did she mean the Booker Prize; she “never believed in that.” Rather, she hoped for “a bit more discussion of [her work] in relation to [her] whole ‘oeuvre’ as the French say.” Of course, the desire for status and the desire to be taken seriously as an artist more or less inevitably overlap — but for Brooke-Rose the desire to be taken seriously as an artist was much more about what she thought art was and what she wanted her own to be than it was a desire for recognition.

Situated within the rise of literature’s contract with the reader and set against its market apotheosis, Franzen, it is perhaps not hard to see how Brooke-Rose’s aesthetic ambition has marginalized her in conversations about serious, or difficult, literature. No doubt, what Brooke-Rose’s confrontation with herself as the imagined author “John” knows is precisely what Franzen’s confrontation with Gaddis begins to suggest: the appeal to the reader — to markets — has become inseparable from what it means to write even a difficult novel. And Brooke-Rose’s commitment to the logic (puzzle) of the text rather than the pleasure of the reader has cost her with both “contract” (popular) readers and “status” (academic) readers.

This is an aesthetic point, of course, but part of the ambition of the fiction of Brooke-Rose is no less a political one, about the work of fiction and its relation to the world. I do not mean here the thematic concerns about race and gender that run through her work, though that is certainly part of it. I mean her vision of the novel as art entails a poignant political vision of an economic and social order structured by crisis.

To take just one final example, in Amalgamemnon (1984) Brooke-Rose restricts herself entirely to non- or unrealized tenses (the future, conditional, and subjunctive mostly) to narrate the life of a literature professor made redundant by technology. She spends her time reading Herodotus and listening to the radio, which leads to daydreams, often about her own uncertain future. She thinks: “Soon the economic system will crumble, and political economists will fly in from all over the world and poke into its smoky entrails and utter soothing prognostications and we’ll all go on as if.” The aim of this experiment with the future tense as Brooke-Rose puts it, is to “explore the pseudofuture we all now live in, the future of speculation about political events, violence, how people will vote […] and so on.” The instability of space that characterizes her protagonist in Between here becomes the instability of time, about what it is like to live in a state of uncertainty and precarity projected into the future. There is an obvious parallel between the content of her 1984 novel and our own present. Indeed, there is something portentous about the felt inescapability of the future tense here, which is not, or not only, about financial or political collapse, but the subsequent return to normalcy. The unrealized tense here suggests a rather bleak view of the future (our present) where the economy is in a state of perpetual crisis and where that crisis is perpetuated by the “soothing prognostications” of recovery so that, maybe, “we’ll all go on as if.” As if crisis and collapse is the new normal. Then again, the unrealized promise of the “as if” also suggests a future alive with the possibility of economic and political alternatives. To live in the “pseudofuture” is to accept the plausibility of both and the inevitability of neither.

This is a political feature of her novel — about what it means to encounter the future through the precarity of the present — but one made available through the caesura of unrealized tenses. It is the ambition of the novel, in other words, that produces its politics. The real force of Brooke-Rose’s willingness to experiment, then, is that in expanding what is possible in the novel, her work produces new ways of comprehending an economic and social system defined by the precarity of the present no less than its alternatives in the future.


Davis Smith-Brecheisen lives, works, and teaches in Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Davis Smith-Brecheisen researches and teaches literary theory, the history of the novel, and the history of political economy. His current project, An Audience-Oriented Art: The Novel in the Era of Theory, examines how in the late ’60s and ’70s competing attitudes about the reader have played a crucial role in reconfiguring our understanding of the novel as art.


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