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Do you even read, bro? Author and professor makes case for ‘difficult fiction’

CIRCA 1950s: Man sitting at library table, scratching head, with large book open in front of him
CIRCA 1950s: Man sitting at library table, scratching head, with large book open in front of him
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

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From the time we start to pick up books and read, we are reading mostly fiction. Many books traditionally assigned in middle and high school curriculum are fiction as well.

But in 2015, you’re probably more likely to pick up your smartphone or tablet than you are an actual book. Maybe you’re picking it up in order to read a book. Either way, where fictional literature was once the preferred method of absorbing knowledge, it has been replaced by the visual arts in the digital age....think things like videos, photos, Tweets, which are shorter, flashier, and less complex to digest.

It’s no secret that reading complex literature takes time and effort in order to glean what the author’s message was. Many likely ask themselves why they’d spend their time trying to find the meaning of a novel when they could read non-fiction and have it explained without metaphors or figures of speech.

In her article “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction,” author Joanna Scott writes, “Careful reading is difficult because it demands continuous learning. We have to work to learn new methods of reading in response to new methods of writing. But who wants to spend precious free hours figuring out a Gaddis novel when they could be relaxing with Netflix?”

Do you still read fiction for pleasure? If so, why? Do you find fiction difficult to read? Are there certain rewards gained from reading fiction that can’t be gained from the visual arts? What is fiction’s place in a largely digital world?


Joanna Scott, fiction author whose novels include “Follow Me,” “The Manikin,” and “Arrogance.” Her piece “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction” was featured in an August edition of ‘The Nation.’ Joanna is also the Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English at the University of Rochester in upstate New York