Saturday, August 8, 2015

Are there literary uses for boredom?

I’ve read innumerable novels and stories that have slowly and surely bored me to where I was ready to hurl the book through a window just to get it as far away from me as possible. I’ve read recently a number of novels that have been selected for prize shortlists--which would seem to remove them from running in the boredom contest. Instead, I found myself wondering: what defines when a work is boring? The impetus of this question was the prompt in the New York Times Bookends: “Are There Literary Uses for Boredom?”

After a reasonable amount of soul searching, I’ve decided that boredom as a concept is so complex and subjective that an attempt to define it is impossible. So how do I negotiate a concept that I have spent years of my writing practice trying to avoid? Like any writer, I write first for myself, believing, in this way, that I am also writing for an ideal reader, one whom I suspect like me has an interest in what I’m writing and hopes to not be put asleep by it.

One literary use of boredom would be if the writer wasn’t interested in having readers. I’ve made a cardinal virtue of elevating and echoing any number of practitioners of fiction writing who suggest, in more or less these words--always be interesting. Part of what drives me is the process of writing, which involves re-writing, editing, and often writing again, when what you have written fails to excite. In a longer work, a novel or a story, you hope you don’t become bored; if you do, no doubt so will a reader. And if you are re-reading as much as necessary to get a novel into shape, you’ll know by the second or third draft if it’s irredeemably boring, or you should be able to recognize it. If anything, the activity of re-reading your work until you get it right is potentially a boring part of writing; after multiple reads, the newness wears off. But this also might be where the nuance, the stuff that surprises and makes you want to read--and write--further, comes in. In fact, this may be what has led to the proliferation of shorter and shorter forms for writing fiction: it’s hard to be bored with a piece of writing when you don’t have enough time to get bored.

For a number of so-called popular works, it strikes me that the authors aren’t aware that their work may be boring, or, if they are aware of it, they do not care. Maybe they don’t have to care and legions of readers will read them because of their name and reputation. Of course, it stands that they are in jeopardy of damaging that reputation if they ignore this factor.

Many difficult books are known to be tedious--but these works have managed to enter the canon, and doubtless a consciously boring work might never have a chance of exciting the readers of its time, no matter what one’s opinion of Moby Dick, or Ulysses, may be. And admittedly, there were a few boring parts in Ulysses, which I made myself read just to acknowledge I’d read it all. Joyce was said to have sprinkled enough breadcrumbs through his work to keep scholars busy for years. Was he so assured of his readership--and his longevity for that matter? Was his hubris from the certainty of his success in the past, and his stature? If he’d never been read this would be a moot point.
To ask if there are literary uses for boredom might also imply that worthwhile, difficult books are ultimately boring. Maybe the boredom comes in when we as readers are not up to the challenge the writer puts forth. Then again, there is a certain amount of second guessing as to whether a work is boring, or simply difficult. If the writer put the time into making a work of complex art, they might also want to be sure that it is read. Difficult and not boring are not mutually exclusive.

There are also works that aim to be merely entertainment, and a lot of the time these are unreadable because they are frankly, not very stimulating. I suspect these writers dumb their work down so much that it becomes boring, as if it seems necessary to lead the reader along without any work to do. On the other hand, it may not be that difficult to write something that is, essentially, boring.

Because reading is an activity, it takes effort to overcome if the act becomes boring. So no doubt that a “difficult” book would be considered, boring. Perhaps if one is bored with work they are reading, it might be worth asking, is it the reader, or the writer? Often, the difficult part of such a work, the intellectual challenges within, is what makes it enjoyable. Certainly I’d prefer if it were also somehow enjoyable to read in the process. So are there shades of boredom in the activity of reading? Does it come down to the use of language, the words on the page, or merely subject matter, or is it a broad combination of factors? Boredom is subjective.

I think the New York Times Bookends question might have been asked in light of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s successful memoir My Struggle, since so many have written about the Norwegian phenomenon, and how he can effortlessly write a single unrelieved scene for fifty or more pages. The criticism leveled is that this must be boring to the reader; at the very least, the idea of a fifty page scene might sound boring to the general reader. But even in the long digressions and passages I never found Knausgaard to be boring. Because it’s one thing to suggest that a concept is boring to a reader, and it’s another to write a very detailed, and compelling scene that can maintain narrative drive for fifty pages.

The number of times I have tried and failed to finish boring books lately makes me think this is my problem. Maybe I’m just bored easily.

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