02/07/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Some 'Difficult' Books Aren't as Difficult as We Think

You know that dreaded nine-letter word describing certain novels. The word that makes literature students run screaming from classrooms and older readers tremble even when dressed warmly. Yes, the word is (gasp) "difficult!"

Some novels deserve to be called difficult, and I'll name a few of them in this post. But other novels are actually more fun and readable than their reputations might indicate.

And some "difficult" authors have also written non-difficult works -- meaning difficult-averse readers can still enjoy parts of those novelists' canons without worrying that their brains will short-circuit.

One author with relevance to the above two paragraphs is Herman Melville. Moby-Dick is not always easy to read, but much of it is page-turning and some of it is quite entertaining. The novel's basic story line (Captain Ahab's quest to "get" the whale who maimed him) is highly compelling, and there are even some laughs -- especially during the Ishmael-Queequeg scene in an inn bedroom, prior to that fateful voyage. Sure, the whaling chapters can be dense and frustrating, but at least they're informative. So, all in all, I think Moby-Dick is not as difficult as some people believe.

And a number of other Melville books, especially his early ones, are fairly straightforward. These include his first two novels (the South Sea adventures Typee and Omoo) and his two just-before-Moby-Dick novels (Redburn and White-Jacket).

Emile Zola is another author considered difficult, and I've never understood that. I've read nine of his novels, and they are all quite clear and linear, along with being gripping and socially aware. Perhaps they're difficult only in the sense of being mostly downbeat. Zola books such as Germinal and The Drinking Den are sort of like the works of a French pre-Steinbeck (Emile died the year John was born), and the great Steinbeck is almost always immensely readable.

The much more recent Freedom by Jonathan Franzen also has the reputation of being a very challenging book. It is indeed fairly complex and fairly long (length can help give a novel a "difficult" tag), but it's a smooth read.

That's more than I can say for William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which I've attempted twice but abandoned in dismay each time after a few dozen pages. To me, that's an extremely difficult book, but is Faulkner a difficult author? Not necessarily, because Faulkner's other novels tend to be more accessible.

I also tried and bailed on Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Beautifully written, but its long sentences and some other elements made it almost a chore for me to navigate. Of course, as with other challenging novels, "difficult" might lead to "rewarding" for readers who don't give up.

And I haven't yet attempted James Joyce's Ulysses -- often the first novel that comes to mind when discussing difficult literature. But I recently read Joyce's short story "The Dead," and it was as understandable (and absorbing) as a tale could be.

When readers think of difficult novels, pre-19th-century ones also come to mind. Those books often contain obstacles such as long paragraphs and some archaic language -- and just seem clunkier than later fiction. Yet a number of early novels are still mostly a joy to read. Among those gems are Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, Voltaire's Candide, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews.

Looking over what I've written so far, I noticed an absence of female authors. Are there novels by women as difficult as, say, Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury? I'm having a hard time thinking of many; perhaps readers of this post could help!

There are certainly countless complex, nuanced and/or nonlinear novels by women. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, My Antonia by Willa Cather, The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble, Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, to name just a few. But those books didn't make my head explode (figuratively). Is it an annoyingly macho thing for some male authors to make their readers jump through multiple hoops to fully comprehend a book? Just asking...

Which novels do you feel aren't as difficult as their reputations? And which novels have you found to be truly difficult?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at