In his 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen recalls “Mrs. M.,” an angry reader who is outraged by Franzen’s sophisticated vocabulary and overall level of difficulty in his fiction. Presumably, Mrs. M. represents the “average person” who is just looking for a pleasant reading experience, and the purportedly elitist Franzen has failed her and the reading public in general with his “fancy words” and highbrow phrases.
Franzen, who grapples with a conflicting desire to be both intellectually superior and popular with the majority culture, attempts to relate to Mrs. M. and readers of her ilk by admitting his own struggles with the heady works of William Gaddis – books that the average reader ostensibly would not likely even attempt to read in the first place, thereby surreptitiously affirming his place within the literary elite. Referring to his arduous reading of J R, Gaddis’s second novel, and his self-assessed failure as a Status reader, Franzen still manages to sound smug: “I love smart fiction […]. If you can’t even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?”
This issue of reader connection and marketability is similar to the ongoing debate regarding the traditional literary canon’s lack of multicultural and multiethnic representation. The literature is secondary to the ideologies and political agendas of Marxists, feminists, and other “radical” critics. It is an important argument that warrants examination; however, there is a critical distinction between this debate and Mrs. M.’s (and Franzen’s) reproof of lofty narratives. Unlike gender and race, intellect can be transformed, and it is, ironically, through reading complex and challenging books.
The idea that one needs to write simply and consensually in order to reach readers and avoid literary obscurity compromises artistic vision and integrity and contradicts the very essence of what represents good writing. In his essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction,” Ben Marcus summarizes this concept perfectly: “Literary language is complex because it is seeking to accomplish something extraordinarily difficult: to engrave the elusive aspects of life’s entanglements, to represent the intensity of consciousness, to produce the sort of stories that transfix and mesmerize.”
Rather than simplifying literature and art to make them more readily comprehended by the majority culture, why not raise the level of the reader?