Essay: Charlotte Woodon uncomfortable books

Reading Isn’t Shopping

A few months ago I found myself spending the weekend with a collection of paintings I didn’t much like.

I’d volunteered as gallery attendant for a friend’s group show. The paintings were chosen by a renowned contemporary artist I loved, and I trusted his judgement – I knew that the works, many by highly respected painters, were understood by him and other gallerists and artists who visited the show to be ‘good’ pictures.

Nevertheless, I found myself disturbed by many of them. I was not disturbed because the images were of disturbing things; they were portraits, abstract works and landscapes. So my unease was not to do with what they were, but rather how they were: the colours often seemed murky, or garish. Some of the pictures looked to have been painted too quickly, felt unfinished to me. Sometimes the composition was inelegant. A few seemed almost violent in their chaotic application of paint. Quite often they were just too strange, too mysterious to me: I simply couldn’t understand what the hell they were doing.

When I found two or three pictures I liked very much, the relief I felt was substantial.

Ordinarily, when I see pictures I don’t like in an exhibition, I just walk on by and don’t think about them again. When I see pictures I love, I don’t question why. But sitting there in the gallery in silence, with nobody but the odd visitor stepping quietly through the space, I had time to interrogate my conflicting feelings about these works, to think about what was causing my unease, and my relief. What was it that made me feel either good, or bad, on looking at these images?

One aspect of my discomfort was to do with the fact that people I respected had judged these pictures to be good. I had to acknowledge that beneath my dislike was a feeling of shame, that they could see something I couldn’t. This led to a kind of loneliness, and I think on some level, fear. And I was alarmed to find that lying deep beneath all of this was a distinct, fine but primitive layer of anger – anger born of the fear of something I didn’t understand.

After a little while, I realised that the level of either discomfort or relief on first looking at an image was a result of how recognisable the picture was to me. The ones I liked were more familiar to me in style, in subject matter. They were the kinds of paintings I have on my own walls at home. Interestingly, they were also generally the smaller works – perhaps more containable for me in some way, not only physically, but psychologically. The paintings I found most repellent, by contrast, were those most unlike what I might buy for my walls. Not only in subject matter but in size, in style: they were huge, often dark, with a presence that felt almost hostile.

As I broke these feelings down, I was forced to see that what was going on inside me was a kind of visual xenophobia. I don’t know much about art, but I like what I know.

A few days after my duties as gallery attendant, I received an invitation to another group show in another gallery. This was an exhibition of landscapes, and I could see immediately that they were serenely beautiful. But when I looked through the catalogue of paintings, I was surprised to find something new at work in me. It was as though the ‘ugly’ pictures had somehow entered me, and these new paintings, which I would ordinarily have liked very much, now seemed to lack some strength or energy. They were too calm, their colours and composition too familiar.

I realised I’d undergone some transformation in the presence of those other pictures. It was as though, without the grit of discomfort and disorder – even the strange, shameful anger that formed in me while I absorbed those other images – I could no longer find real pleasure in a tasteful, orderly painting. Looking at the new landscapes now made me feel slightly tranquillised; there was a short-lived surge of initial pleasure as I saw, and recognised, and appreciated, but the feeling quickly faded, leaving an empty sort of outline. I can’t now remember anything much about those images.

I found this whole experience interesting, and it made me want to take a closer look at what’s going on when a work of art, a work of literature, has the capacity to make us feel bad, and how we respond to this as individuals, and as a culture.

MONA tunnel. Photo: Sahra. Distributed under Creative Commons license.

That weekend was revelatory to me, but in fact I’d experienced this same turmoil before – the unease, confusion, even anger and disgust, followed by the hunger for those very emotions once they were gone. It was after my first visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, where your own response to the work is the first response. There’s no mediation or comforting description by way of sign or authoritative guide, and even when you seek out explanation on the museum’s device, you’ll find competing, contradictory interpretations – or sometimes none at all. The building itself, with its labyrinthine darkness and tilting surfaces, intensifies the discomfort. It can be frightening to have no way of locating your responses to the works, or even your own body in space.

I imagine many of you have been to MONA, and I imagine some of you felt the same things I did. I reeled in horror at the cruelty and violence of some of the works I saw there, and wept in awe at the beauty of others. After MONA, for some time every other gallery I visited seemed as anodyne and bourgeois as a department store. And it was a strange understanding that dawned on me when I had to ask, could I have experienced the awe if I had not also felt the horror?

Those who criticise David Walsh find his shock tactics cynical. They charge that his provocative collection with its wall of ceramic vulvas, the videos full of puerile sexuality and violence, his giant shit machines and inverted Christian crosses, is not born of any sincere impulse toward examining the human condition, but of nihilism. Walsh himself promotes this view, then denies it, then changes it again.

I don’t pretend to know what Walsh’s motives are (and I don’t care – I’m an unapologetic fan) but as a writer, I do think the question of motive in asking people to engage with a violent work of art is an important one. It’s a personal question for me, because my last novel, The Natural Way of Things, occupies some ethical territory that I found extremely difficult to negotiate. The question of how to write about the exploitation of and violence against women without myself exploiting or causing psychic harm to women troubled me deeply. I drew certain lines for myself – ruling out graphic descriptions of violence, for example – though veracity demanded that I write very close to, if not across the edge of that line. I hoped I was treating this material sensitively, though as I wrote, the novel seemed to be demanding that I be bold, even fearless, that I abandon sensitivities in favour of a tough statement.

It’s not for me to say whether the novel manages to stay on the right side of the line, because I don’t know where it is, and it moves for every reader. More than a few women have told me they’re too too frightened to read my book because of their own experiences of misogyny and violence. Some think the book would make them too angry, others too upset. I respect these decisions entirely. But other conversations have left me feeling rather more depressed.

One of these took place at a recent festival in Western Australia, where a doctor introduced himself to me, then confided that his friend, another man, had warned him not to read my novel ‘because it’s too gruesome’. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say; I made an evasive noise and began looking for an exit. Then the doctor grinned and asked, with what felt to me like ghoulish relish, ‘Well, what’s it about?’

I didn’t know how to answer; something about the way he asked his question bothered me. I said it was true the book was not a pleasurable read, because it was about women being mistreated. I must have looked as glum as I felt, because then he tried to cheer me up. ‘Oh, but it’s very fashionable to write about that sort of thing,’ he said, ‘so there must be some kind of market for it!’

Having thus encouraged me, he turned away and our conversation ended. But his words did not leave me, because they cut deep. Of course I hate the idea of my book being ‘too gruesome’ for anyone to read – I’d hoped it had poetry and beauty along with the darkness – but more appalling was the suggestion that I deliberately sought out the degradation of women as a trending topic, in the certainty it would pull in a few more bucks.

That exchange is the most recent example of someone implying that my motives were less than pure, but it’s by no means the only one – plenty of others have more or less told me they feel the same way. A fellow writer once told me that she refused to read my book because she disapproved of ‘trading in violence’.

‘Trading. ‘Fashion’. ‘Market’. These words all hurt, of course, because they’re precisely the the sickening motives I worried about so much as I wrote my book. Provocation for its own sake, titillation, violence as entertainment were anathema to me, and I tried very hard, in the process of writing and in the content of the book itself, to avoid this very sensationalism. There are reviewers who’ve approvingly referred to my book as literary horror – that, too, concerns me, because (perhaps wrongly) I’ve always understood that genre to be characterised by the deliberate activation of fear and revulsion. I like to think my motive was exploration, not exploitation, so of course the fact there are people who think I chased sensation or even simply failed in what I tried to do, is painful.

But so what? I’m adult enough to know that trying to control what others think of you, or wanting readers to believe in your good intentions, is a not just a fool’s game but an infantile one. And what’s more important, I think, is to acknowledge to myself that painful as it is, these sceptics might be right. It’s possible my good intentions don’t exist. My beliefs about my own practice, my motives and the result, could be entirely wrong.

Over the past decade, the word ‘relatable’ has come up in discussions about reading. ‘Relatability’ is a word that elicits a groan from those of us who see ourselves as sophisticated readers.

I’ve mostly heard ‘relatable’ said among book club readers or festival audiences, who use it as a compliment, to show they have connected with a work. A harmless shorthand, surely. But casual conversation isn’t the only place ‘relatability’ is cited. University teacher friends report its widespread use in essays about books and reading, even by postgrads, in subjects that are supposed to be about analysis and interrogation of literature.

It’s easy to sneer, from the pages of literary magazines, at those readers who like books to be ‘relatable’. But what’s wrong with wanting to connect a book with one’s own experience? Why exactly do we sneer?

It’s worth teasing out what spins out from this word relatable, because I don’t think it’s as simple as it might first appear. And the sentiment, if not the word itself, is not expressed only in the utterances of dummies and philistines. As far back as 2014, Rebecca Mead was bothered enough by its use among journalists and film reviewers, to write a New Yorker piece titled ‘The Scourge of “Relatability”’. She was provoked by the adored public radio host of This American Life, Ira Glass, who had emerged after a performance of King Lear to tweet, seemingly without irony, ‘No stakes, not relatable … Shakespeare sucks!’

‘To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation,’ wrote Mead. ‘Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading … though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends.’ There’s a distinct difference, Mead claimed, between the active work of thinking myself into the experience of a character on the page – identification – and demanding that the work map itself onto my experience.

If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

The onus of responsibility has shifted, Mead is saying, from a reader’s capacity to thoughtfully interrogate how she might see herself in the work, to a desire for the book to do the work for her, to hold off her appreciation or analysis until it first proves itself reflective of her life, her concerns.

Relatability might be a newish word, but I don’t think the temptation to deem a book worthy because it is recognisable is new. I clearly remember my country high school English teacher banning the words ‘because I can relate’ from our classroom. Whether we related or not, whether we liked a book or not, was of absolutely no relevance, she told us. The question then was, what is the work doing on its page? What else might we find, if we look more closely, ask better questions?

My question now is, if sixteen-year-olds were being trained out of this 35 years ago, why is the same impulse so prevalent among adults now?

I think it has to do with the explosion of consumer culture since my long-ago high school days. We live now in a world where our every interaction is followed by a request for a star rating, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. We’ve been slowly but thoroughly trained to see the world in terms of its capacity to please us, and however romantic we might be about books, it’s naïve to expect the way we read to remain somehow quarantined from this customer service perspective.

Indeed, these days we’re asked to rate our satisfaction out of five stars not only after an Uber ride or a hotel stay, but following any performance at our major theatre companies. And a growing number of publishers are promoting fiction using money-back guarantees – ‘fantastic read or your money back!’; ‘Love it. Or your money back’, shout stars on covers. This kind of promotion, offered on certain mass-market novels, urges readers to accompany refund requests with short explanations detailing ‘why you didn’t like the book’.

Even in so-called literary works, it’s not uncommon to find a list of helpful ‘Questions and topics for discussion’ when you turn the last page of the story, such as the list in my Random House edition of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. (‘Question one: Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person? Question two: ‘Have you ever met anyone like Olive Kitteridge, and if so what similarities do you see between that person and Olive?’) Before I had time to exhale after the book’s final sentence, let alone reflect on what it meant, the publisher was there to help me form my thoughts.

All of this, quite evidently, is in the pursuit of higher sales. I’m not entirely blaming publishers here, and with author incomes at record lows, it would be a brave writer who resisted such efforts to bring more readers to her work. And yet there’s something so disturbing about the incursion of these marketing tendrils into the pages of the book itself, that resist I think we must. Something dangerous is taking place in this seemingly benign quest for wider readership.

Nowhere have I been asked to rate anything on its capacity to make me uncomfortable, to unnerve or challenge or confuse me. And the prompt for rating, the anxious question, ‘did you like it?’ arrives moments after the ‘consumption’ takes place. What if I were asked to think about what I’ve experienced and respond in a month, a year, a decade? It’s unthinkable.

What does the publisher, the theatre company, do with these ratings, with the fifty-word complaints? What does money-back customer satisfaction mean when it comes to books? Increasingly, I think ‘reader satisfaction’ is code for the smoothing out of lumps and bumps of every kind, in pursuit of a soothing digestibility.

So what do lumps and bumps in books look like?  One is the type evoked in the requests for book recommendations routinely seen on social media, asking for ‘uplifting, relaxing, entertaining reads – nothing sad or heartbreaking please.’ Any glance at a Facebook book club will show you the overwhelming appetite for novels in which nothing bad happens, especially to animals.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that a book filled with degradation or misery is by that fact alone superior to one full of cupcakes and potato peel pies. My West Australian doctor’s remark stung precisely because it hit a nerve of potential truth. Depending on how it’s done, a novel full misogyny and violence from the shelf marked Political can be exactly as banal as any pink-jacketed goo from the shelf labelled Heartwarming / Relatable.

A related but separate lump that bothers many readers is uncivilised behaviour by fictional characters. Writers hear complaints from readers all the time about our characters’ attitudes, their diets and laundry habits, their refusal to get therapy, their swearing. It’s undeniable that a great many readers (and I include publishers and agents) have a need to approve morally of characters, to like them, before they find a book satisfying.

In her recent Guardian essay on teaching literature to university students, the writer Tegan Bennett Daylight described the surprising conservatism of her students. They were not only affronted by the explicit sex, the drug-taking and poor parenting they saw in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, and offended by ‘graphic descriptions of sex and masturbation’ in the work of Christos Tsiolkas, but more curiously, they found the anger of Tsiolkas’s young bisexual Greek character, Ari, intolerable. Daylight couldn’t help but see in this a connection between consumerism and reading. On a good day, she hoped it was because her students themselves were generous and happy people. But on a bad day, she wrote, ‘I think they find Ari difficult because the distinction between adults and teenagers has been blurred. We all want the same things now: phones, clothes, and food to photograph. We are all consumers. Teenagers don’t want to stick it to the man anymore. They are the man.’

Again, it’s easy to be snooty about readers who want characters to be nice. But more troublesome to the politically minded reader, it seems to me, is the situation when no clear diagnosis of a character’s moral position is offered by the writer. ‘Problematic’ is emerging as a new code word here. Ambivalence or contradiction is worrying, and best avoided. A woman sternly told a novelist friend of mine that she didn’t know what to think about the latter’s Aboriginal character. My friend took that as a compliment. It wasn’t meant as one.

Mystery and strangeness is another lump that gets in the way of guaranteed ‘reader satisfaction’. I don’t only mean the presence of what Amanda Lohrey has called ‘a message from another realm’ – those hints that something more, something odder, is happening than first meets the eye – although to me those messages are what makes any work of fiction sing.

But the more I go on, as a reader and writer, the more I’m also drawn to unconventionality in the shape and mechanism of a story, to structural and narrative strangeness.

While I still have the greatest respect for the traditional, linear narrative arc – and am perhaps still too afraid to abandon it altogether myself – I’m increasingly beguiled by stories and writers who do. How, I wonder, would a book like Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria fare in the ‘Love It. Or your Money Back’ offer? How about Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, or even Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton?  That these novels are lauded is testament to a community of readers and publishers who are prepared to venture with writers into new territory. But this community is small, and shrinking, and if any of these books had been a first novel by an unknown writer, I doubt the response would have been the same.

I said before that it’s easy to sneer at those lesser beings who want books to be uplifting or relatable. But my experience with the paintings, in which I discovered in my own response to the visual arts an attitude I’d find contemptible in a reader, suggests to me that even if we think we’re better than that, few of us are free from an instinctive desire to smooth and flatten out, to diagnose and close the file. It seems natural to want to alleviate discomfort by making knowable what is unknown. And even if we’re too good for ‘relatability’, many of us are addicted to what Aleksandar Hemon has called ‘epiphany peddling and empathy porn’.

Like ‘relatable’, the word ‘empathy’ has been a watchword in talk about books for some time now. I’m sure I’ve used it myself. Empathy is everywhere. In his endlessly-quoted defence of libraries for example, the writer Neil Gaiman said, ‘A book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out at the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s very hard to hate people of a certain kind when you’ve just read a book by one of those people.’

Barack Obama said something similar in his conversation with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. Setting aside being president, he told the author, ‘the most important set of understandings that I bring to the position of citizen, the most important stuff … I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for … the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.’

It’s hard to argue against this. Surely the discovery of common ground between you and an enemy can only be a force for good, for connection, for harmony? But the trouble is with the assumption that the common ground is always there to be discovered. And the more I think and read about this, the narrower the gap seems between laudable empathy and contemptible relatability.

Sarah Sentilles is one writer who’s argued compellingly against our deification of empathy. The author of Draw Your Weapons, a meditation on art, war, and ethics, Sentilles says that the embrace of ‘unknowable otherness’, rather than empathy, is our society’s most urgent task now. Drawing on the work of other theorists and philosophers including Judith Butler and Emmanuel Levinas, Sentilles writes that ‘Empathy depends on perceived likeness, a sense of sameness; I treat you justly because I recognize you as fundamentally like me.

But, she goes on:

if it’s only discovered likeness that creates the possibility for ethical behaviour, what happens when likeness can’t be found? … In this climate of fear and oppression, something more radical than empathy is needed. The faith that deep down ‘they’ are like ‘us’ won’t get us where we need to go. Because what if they’re not like us at all? What then?

The challenge Sentilles throws down about ethics is ‘to learn to live with, and protect, what we can’t understand.’

Aleksander Hemon issues the same challenge in the world of literature. In an argument for reading Proust, he wrote,

We have to adjust, or even abandon, our habitual expectations and submit to a transformation we cannot fully control … But the reward of finding our way in that new space, of figuring what is in it, of allowing the discovery to change our thought, far exceeds merely recognizing and confirming what we already know.

But even here, we need to resist epiphany or resolution, because if what I’m saying is true – that the unknowable and uncomfortable, the friction of these things is the grit that gives birth to the pearl – I must also accept that there’s a strong chance the grit may always remain grit. The pearl may never form, the hard work might yield no reward at all.

And yet, I do believe, and very powerfully, that somehow the hard work is its own reward. It’s the pushing against opposition, the attempt to solve the potentially unsolvable, which creates some inner expansion that’s hard to describe. But I think it’s the feeling I had after MONA and my gallery experience, some flowering of a greater range of possibility for thought, for experience, that could only come from the difficulty of the struggle itself.

The most pleasing way to end this essay this would be for me to return to the show of paintings I presented at the start and elucidate the lessons they’ve taught me. I’m not being facetious, for I have learned things from them: that feeling lost or ashamed in the face of art might be natural, for example. They’ve reminded me that reading isn’t shopping, that narcissism must be resisted – but also that one might occasionally do well to check one’s own glass walls for cracks.

In this version I might present those pictures again, to show that they no longer look unpleasant to me, how in examining my own responses I’ve come to a new understanding that reveals the works to be shining, in fact, with a tough new beauty.

But now we’re at the end and I’m looking at the pictures again – and I still don’t like them. I still don’t understand what they’re doing. But in their radical otherness they have forced me to think, and that is suddenly more transcendent and precious than beauty. I’m released from dull egotism, from the childish demand that I should always get what I want – and it’s the difficulty itself that shines.

This is an edited version of the Barry Andrews Memorial Address delivered at the 2018 Australian Literary Studies Convention, Australian National University in Canberra on 3 July 2018.