Thursday, September 8, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop: Must literature be difficult?

Literary Blog Hop
Every month The Blue Bookcase host a Literary Book Blog Hop for blogs that feature classics and literary fiction. This week, the question for discussion is

Must all literary writing be difficult? Can you think of examples of literary writing that was not difficult?

This question ties directly into the book I reviewed this week, Beowulf. I enjoyed the story itself, but the language Grummere used in his translation was so difficult that it took away from the beauty of the work. I've listened to some samples of Seamus Heaney's translation and think I would have gotten more out of the same poem listening to less difficult, but still well-crafted, writing. The confounding effect of translators on a literary work is a difficult problem to avoid, since the translator has the often conflicting tasks of making the writing clear and conveying the style of the original. Therefore, I'll limit the rest of my answer to English-language authors.

Literary writing need not be difficult to be literary. I find the books of E.M. Forster, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck to be clear and easy-to-read (links go to previous reviews). These writers sometimes slip into a lyrical style, but the images they project are crisp.

I appreciate the work of writers like Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville and William Faulkner, but I'm always reluctant to pick up another one of their novels, since it means I'll have to fight through difficult prose. I'm not opposed to the idea of putting in some work to unravel meaning from a piece of literary fiction, but I more greatly admire writers who can engage my intellect without breaking it first.


Risa said...

I like the whole 'translation' take. I never really thought about that. I was under the impression that Seamus Heaney's trans of Beowulf was one of the easier ones...I've been meaning to read this for ages!

I haven't read any Forster, Cather or Steinbeck...but then I understand what you mean with Woolf and Melville being difficult.

Shann said...

I tried so hard to read Beowulf but could not get through it. I read the Seamus Heaney translation along side another version and the Heaney was much more beautiful and poetic. Maybe part of my problem was trying to read two Beowulfs simultaneously lol.

LBC said...

I think when "difficult" refers specifically to the quality of the prose, it is pretty obvious that a work doesn't have to be difficult to be literary. Steinbeck is a lovely example. Heaney's translation of Beowulf is pretty great. I never enjoyed reading Beowulf until I picked up that translation. He and Simon Armitage are pretty great contemporary translators.

Here is my post.

CHE said...

You are very right about the translation affecting the simplicity of the prose. I didn't consider that in my answer.I've only read Foster's Room With A View and its definitely not difficult. Woolf on the other hand takes effort and patience,but I've found her rewarding.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

You're definitely right that a work of literary fiction isn't more difficult because of the way its reason. Like all genres, some books are easier to read than others and this will vary from person to person. There are other elements to literary fiction that make it more challenging than other genres I think, like the themes and ideas underlying the stories.

You're brave reading Beowulf, can't say Ill be rushing out to read it :-)

Melody said...

I really enjoyed Heaney's Beowulf, but can easily see how big a difference the translation would make. Willa Cather is a great example of an author simple yet evocative prose.