Against Readability

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.”  What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk?  That it won’t kill you?  That it does not taste completely terrible?  That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright?  “Bud Light keeps it coming.”  Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable.  It’ll do, I guess.  The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients.  Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure.  One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist.  (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.)  Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it.  “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.

covercovercoverI have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise.  Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.”  Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.”  The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include).  A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read.  What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read?  Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend?  “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it.  Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences.  They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process.  Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor.  Not too much description, or abstraction, or style.  A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary.  To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up.  A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix.  (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)

“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to.  But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in.  Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention.  Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming.  So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?).  Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell.  Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.

It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads.  But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all.  “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard.  Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one.  Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say.  But now it’s time to name names.  The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer.  All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable.  None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught.  A provisional definition of literature: that which does.

covercoverIt is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow.  Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels: “compulsively readable.”  You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished.  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.”  Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.”  Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose.  (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.)  Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary.  For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another.  The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead.  But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment.  Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation.  Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.”  “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.

covercovercoverWhat novels are not readable?  Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs?  (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.)  Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish.  William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it.  Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable.  I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think.  After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it.  These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.

covercovercoverReadable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is.  Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel.  There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones.  Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however.  It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need.  Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world.  Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages.  A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world.  But these are the sorts of books we need.  To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser.  But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had.  It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available.  The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill.  So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller.  So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should.  It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too.  Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser.  Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders.  Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics.  Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory.  Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass.  Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon.  Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters.  What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world.  They have new ideas, and images, and phrases.  What matters is that they are good.  You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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