A piece for the Millions titled "Against Readability" by Harvard College Writing Program professor Ben Roth has been circling the lit-o-sphere this week. It's a classic finger-wagging routine about serious literature from an establishment male:
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
Sigh. Yes, and culture is dying and who will preserve our proud heritage and blah-blah-blah. But in the middle of trying to formulate a response, I encountered an excellent comment on Roth's own piece by commenter "Pete R," which I'll share here:
Accessibility and literary merit are independent. You could call the work of Chekhov “readable,” also Dickens, and neither should be considered inferior to Joyce. Is Dubliners inferior to Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake?
There are so many elitists who would happily back literature into a tiny, private corner. “Make Literature Great Again” type of people. We must ignore them aggressively.
Such a great comment. Smart, to-the-point, and, yes, readable.