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Dense and Denser: Reading as Mirroring

Among the many benefits that novel-writing affords a person is an awareness that a literary work is a mirror of sorts, reflecting as much on readers of the thing as on the author herself. In the basic reading triangle––author, text, and reader––the latter brings an awful lot to the table, not just in terms of his background in reading, whether limited or extensive, but his own personal profile as well. Open minded or closed; patient or petulant; demanding or laid back; searching or done searching; know-it-all or educable; inquisitive or skeptical––all these perspectives come to bear on how a reader receives a book.

The same can be said for reviewers, who by definition you might think are experienced, open, savvy, and wise, but who can often surprise in their failure to perceive much of what an author is trying to say. Don't get me wrong: I'm for them. Reviewers perform a great service. A solid, honest, and thoughtful review is a gem, no matter whether it holds a thumb up or down for a work––or sideways as well. But it's equally true that some reviewers get things better than most.

I never had to deal with reviews or reviewers until I published a work of fiction––it's not a thing in the world of academic articles usually. Once you've entered the realm of fiction, however, you step into a new world; you're advised from the get-go, mercifully, which venues to steer toward and which to steer away from, particularly where the reviews are for pay.

One characterization that sticks out in the reviews of The Lede––OK, in two of them, and two of the major ones––is the word "dense" (in one) and "extremely dense" (in the other). I'm torn between taking that as a diss or a badge of honor. After all, dense is a word that can be applied to all of my favorite works, including Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and Les Guerrieres––the list is a mile long, and that's just for contemporary writers. It doesn't begin to get at my favs in the ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Enlightenment worlds. In short, every last one might, and probably should be, defined as dense––Paradise Lost, anyone?

And yet, still, when the word is applied to a work today, it's difficult to avoid the feeling that it's a slam of some kind, verging on shady, especially in the U.S. After all, it's America! We Americans pride ourselves on not having to work, at anything. Everything should be effortless here, and increasingly in the U.K. and Europe as well. We don't do dense, not anymore.

I'm reminded of an agent I spoke to in London not that long ago, before The Lede was accepted for publication; he agreed to take a look at the first chapter. The first words out of his mouth were, I never want to work at understanding what's going on––I had to think too much. I was a bit taken aback, hearing that from someone in "the biz." Immediately I thought of his kinsmen, and not just Joyce or Wolfe but even Dickens. Goldsmith. Pope. Wordsworth and Coleridge––how can you make it through a page without having to work? Or think? He also complained that I'd listed Moby Dick as one of my influences. His advice to me was, Strike that! Don't let anyone see it. It's a terrible book. If it were up to me it'd be banned for good––I refuse to read it. Those were his words of advice to me. I immediately thought, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I began to wonder what––or who––was really being dense. It's true that with the switch of page-time to screen-time tastes are changing. We're experiencing a monumental shift, a waning of attention spans, not to mention an inability to withstand even the mildest challenge to readers––my book doesn't hold a candle to Joyce, Wolfe, Wittig, Faulkner, and even Morrison in the density department. And yet that's the word that I've seen repeated. My question is if it's an accurate characterization of the book or more a reflection on the reader, what he or she is willing to tolerate––like the agent I spoke to.

When I first applied to the University of Denver for a Masters in English, I was interrogated beforehand by the admissions director about what I'd read before. He was grilling me in order to discern whether I was a light- or heavyweight, to determine if I could withstand the rigors of the program, because many discovered they couldn't handle the load, and he wanted to avoid that scenario. I listed all the usual suspects I'd read over the years, both in class and on my own, ones I knew would past muster. In defending the grilling, he remarked, The stuff we read here isn't like the usual stuff on the market today––it requires work, reading it in a classroom, because no one in their right mind would expend so much effort on their own. I knew that not to be true, from my own experience and from most of my friends, who were literary nerds like me.

But I understood his point. Most people are not outfitted in terms of disposition, background, or temperament to tolerate the challenges of the classics on their own; in most cases they have to be forced to read, struggle with them––or not––by a university requirement called core curriculum. The less-than-willing have a word for literature like that. They call it dense––that or extremely dense.

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