The Difficulty of (Reading) Difficult Writing: Revisiting a Recent Panel and Attempting to Trigger Consideration to Other Perspective Framings.

The general aim of this “reportage” is to begin to put in relief some of the ongoing conversations put forth by the experimental writing community regarding the perceived lack of “a more ambitious critical environment as it pertains to interpretation of contemporary literature” (Carla Harryman “Reading Difficult Writing” panel).

This professed lack of critical reception, as emphasized during a recent panel entitled  “Reading Difficult Writing,” held at l’Université de Montréal on March 15 2013, outlined the lack of “real criticism” in the mainstream, especially of those works that refuse clear genre boundaries.

Organized and mediated by former Tessera founding-editor and Montréal experimental writer Gail Scott, the panel included three authors – Prathna Lor, Carla Harryman and Rachel Levitsky – whose papers explored several modes and directions for approaching reading and writing difficult texts, sometimes glancing backward to the schools and poetry movements of the late twentieth century.

Beyond a general sense of indebtedness, there seemed to be an even greater desire to chart and situate the works and poetries (often theoretically informed, formally innovative, experimental and language-focused) of this new century by solidifying the critical framework, the very modes of inquiry and analysis that alter and extend one’s understanding of them. “In the academy,” reads a brief but no less provocative note by Gail Scott on the poster for the event, “when the teaching of poetry falls off, there is a risk of critical attention to a work’s moral or identitary qualities (for example), without adequate consideration of other perspective framings.”

Often written by women and other minority groups, the difficulty of much of these “difficult texts” is perhaps less the texts themselves than the profuse lack of consideration to how “in mainstream culture, the poem or the novel are often judged by their potential canonical or expedient qualities. By the same token, minority writing [feminist, queer, visible minority] can be deemed of limited interest to a majority of readers” (Scott). The panel, then, offered an opportune reflection upon the ways in which one has been taught to write and read – often, notes one of the panelists, at the expense of continuing misogynous and masculinist lineages, not to mention the lack of consideration for “how language codes and meaning shift as utterance shifts context is to recognize that reading a poem, or any piece of « difficult » or « new » or  « innovative » literary work requires attention to multiple potential language layers and vectors” (Scott).

Rather than having every new generation of writers and readers reinvent the critical wheel, the difficult writing panel emphasized the need to carve out the possibilities for a critical discourse that can flourish out of these difficult conditions/landscapes…Which lead me to ask Detroit poet, playwright and experimental essayist Carla Harryman if she would agree to publish her “lack of a critical landscape list,” in which she attempts to report on what she’s heard, if only to make accessible some of the concerns underlining the reasons for such a panel in the first place:

“the lack of viable critical language or the use there of in reviewing and public discourse,[1] the organization of criticism around groups and schools that construct affirmations or negations of avant brands rather than critical perspectives that multi-directionally approach the text as subject to criticism and object of layered, nuanced thought; the potential reviewer’s lack of time to read new work much less write considered reviews; the lack of venues for “serious” reviewing; the supposed lack of readership for serious reviews; the reviewers fear of causing offense within the context of communities that feel themselves to be persistently marginalized; the glut[2] of published texts of mediocre quality;  or, the lack of time for publishers to edit and respond to promising work they wish to publish such that interesting books come out perhaps before they are ready to appear; the dearth of good publishers who can advocate for the books… and so on.  There are also radical queries into whether or not writers should write for book publication at all in the current literary environment since there is the sense that people don’t have time to read.”

What to do now? There’s a list. That’s a start, but, really, what does that accomplish? My hope is that in sharing it here, the list might spark debates and discussions on the field of difficult writing as well as offer other perspective framings.

–Genevieve Robichaud is a contributor to Lemon Hound.


[1] More on this, states Harryman, as this is a complicated topic–

[2] I [Carla] am both serious and being a big tongue in cheek (especially around “glut” of publishing, but this is something one hears).