When Anna Burns’ novel Milkman won the Man Booker Prize last year the tone it would be talked about in the coming months was set at the ceremony. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the head of the jury, called the book “challenging” and went on: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard…[I]t is not a light read [but] I think it is going to last.” Since then I have seen this sentiment echoed in many reviews – often as one of the first things which are said about the novel. The book is referred to as a “tough read” which “requires so much effort”. Reviewers describe in length the sentence structure (the many dashes!), the meandering narration, and the fact that characters do not have a name but are called by descriptive terms such as Middle Sister or the titular Milkman. Even positive reviews preempted the praise with a paragraph on the novels difficulty. Its difficulty was taken as granted.
Last year not only gave us Milkman but also the delightful first season of the TV series Derry Girls. Two very different works of art – one a challenging (!) book winning a prestigious literary prize, the other a light-hearted, sometimes blunt, always laugh-out-loud funny comedy series. Of course, there are also the obvious similarities as both works are set in Northern Ireland (though at different times), focus on teenage girls, and show the backdrop of always present violence. But when I watched the series shortly after I had read the novel, I was struck by something particular. In episode two of Derry Girls Uncle Colm is introduced and when he sits down at the dinner table and begins his seemingly unending tale of how he was robbed I heard echoes of Burns’ writing style. The way he talks in circles, how he zooms in on small details, his deadpan delivery. Is this challenging? Tough? Not particularly, it is comedy gold and discussed as such.
This is not to say that Milkman and Derry Girls are the exact same thing and work exactly the same way. They aren’t and they don’t. But to look at both works might tell us something about how expectations also shape our experiences. When I settle down to watch a couple of episodes of Derry Girls I expect to be entertained, to chuckle at Michelle’s, Orla’s, Clare’s, and Erin’s shenanigans, and to find myself hit by slight 90s nostalgia thanks to the impeccable soundtrack. When I pick up Milkman after having read some of the reviews, I might expect to struggle, maybe I even fear that I won’t “get it”. Some readers will stay clear altogether. Sometimes it feels like a verdict such as “difficult” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But while at first glance “difficult” or “challenging” seem to be clear enough descriptions of a text, what do they actually mean? Which works are described as such? And when is it a compliment (the judgment rather meaning “complex”, “deep”, “layered”) and when is it deemed a damning quality (in the sense of inapprehensible). Sana Goyal remarked in her article “‘Milkman’: This year’s Man Booker winner ensures we do not underestimate ourselves as readers“:
It is noteworthy here that the last three Booker winners (George Saunders, Paul Beatty, Marlon James) – all male, and arguably all winning with “challenging” reads in their own right – were celebrated based on the same criteria Burns is being criticised for. An editor and reader recommended I tune it out – it was just noise. Eighty pages in, I wondered what the Booker brouhaha was about. When I saw a woman on the street clutching a copy of Milkman, I almost squealed in solidarity.
On the one hand, it is clear that a reviewer always brings their own biases and writes from a specific position, on the other hand, this fact is often obscured by phrases which imply a general truth. (A book is not difficult to the reviewer but it is a difficult book.) Not without a coincidence, this assumption of universal validity is most often palatable in reviews by white, straight men. Books are being described as difficult due to their language choices which often means a derivation from what is deemed a standard – and this derivation is judged more often harshly if it is racialized like employing AAVE, Patois, and Pidgin, or if it reflects working-class language or specific feminized ways of speaking. (James got a fair share of that critique too.) Narratives are easily critiqued if they do not pander to the reviewer’s position, knowledge, and sensibility. How many reviews have you read where someone complained that the political and cultural context was not fleshed out enough because the writer did not for examples set the average US-American knowledge about a place as the standard? (And at the same time, you find books which in their anticipation of this critique almost over-explain.) In the end, it also matters who writes about whom: women writing about women, queer people about queer people, BIPoC authors about BIPoC characters, and most of all people writing from and about intersections of these categories – these books are either dismissed entirely or deemed, you guessed it, difficult. “Difficult”, thus, can become a label which puts book, writer, and also readers in their place. The Other is difficult, unapproachable, diffuse, irritating (, maybe even dares to be unrewarding).
Of course, there are books which are more easily approachable than other books – at least to a majority of people. And also, reading a book and finding it difficult is a very valid feeling. We won’t always be the perfect reader (knowledgable in the exact way needed, familiar with the right allusions and stylistic choices) for a book – and we don’t have to be to fully enjoy it or take something good away from the reading experience. But instead of instantly labelling the book itself difficult, it might be helpful to interrogate one’s own biases and adjusting accordingly wherein adjusting can mean different things to different readers. (By the way, work we, especially people who are not Western white, straight men, are constantly expected to perform when reading books by and about (white) men.) In its core, this is about decentering dominant perspectives.
Fortunately, I started reading Milkman before the onslaught of reviews and think pieces discussing its difficulty. It took me a little while to get a grasp of the style and story. I was not particularly familiar with Northern Ireland, the intricacies of The Troubles (I read up on it), or Anna Burns’ previous work. But when I was hooked I was hooked. I fell in love with the narrator who has to navigate a society in which the smallest divergence (like reading-while-walking) makes you suspicious and every move is policed by the people around you. Burns not only re-creates this claustrophobic atmosphere, but she also interrogates how the experiences of the narrator and the women around her are specifically gendered. Lastly, I found this book funny! Yes, there is a wonderful, dry thread of humour in this book. I laughed aloud several times and while maybe not as loud as when I watched Derry Girls, in any case, louder and more frequent than a lot of reviews of the book make you believe possible.