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Reviewed by:
  • The Difficulties of Modernism
  • Sean Latham
Leonard Diepeveen. The Difficulties of Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2003. xviii + 318 pp.

There is a great deal to argue with in The Difficulties of Modernism, but what makes this study valuable is that arguing with its sometimes laboriously described premises and conclusions seems so worthwhile. Firmly located within the camp of the new modernist studies and clearly allied to a neopragmatic theoretical tradition, Diepeveen engages in a nevertheless distinctly modernist project: the critical defamiliarization of the everyday concept of difficulty. Bringing to his analysis the tools of the historian, sociologist, and linguist, he constructs a detailed genealogy of the rise and consolidation of difficulty not simply as the core aesthetic of modernism, but as the foundation of contemporary professionalized literary criticism. Following John Guillory's own work in this vein, Diepeveen contends that "difficulty has become the necessary condition for canonization," a process that has required even critics interested in such ostensibly simple writers as Frost and Cather to argue for their hidden or unrecognized difficulty (214).

Our fascination with—even fetishization of—the difficult, this book contends, is largely a consequence of the cultural battles of the early twentieth century between the proponents of complexity, alienation, and confusion on the one hand, and those of simplicity, directness, and intelligibility on the other. In a well-researched survey of the newspapers, quarterlies, and reviews of the period, Diepeveen excavates the terms of this battle and reveals the ways in which the modernists first defended then advanced their aesthetic by associating difficulty with a "professionalist," "macho," and "ethical" aura (236). These tropes proved incredibly resilient in the face of difficulty's critics; and our continuing disdain for any reading practice committed to the principles of simplicity indicate just how complete the triumph of difficulty as an aesthetic, ethical, and critical value has been. Part of Diepeveen's purpose in this book, in fact, is to question the terms of difficulty's success, arguing that "while every text can be made difficult, it is not the case that every text can be made difficult in equally rich and compelling ways." One of the more disastrous consequences of fetishizing difficulty, in fact, is that literary criticism "will remove itself further from the general public as the entry point to high art gets more arduous" (243). The increasing isolation of academic critical practice from the sphere and even the knowledge of the everyday reader is one of modernism's most enduring legacies, and Diepeveen urges us in the final pages of his study to problematize our own enchantment with difficulty by realizing that "not all literature is equally productively difficult" (213).

The Difficulties of Modernism deserves to be widely read, but this is not to say that it is entirely without difficulties of its own—and [End Page 516] not the sort described by the title. In reading the book, I found myself bored for long stretches, suffering under what seemed an unnecessary and at times burdensome welter of detail. Over seventy pages of notes and bibliography attest to the considerable breadth and depth of Diepeveen's scholarship, but they also suggest an inability to pare the material down into a sleeker and more engaging analysis. My own sense of frustration was heightened by the tendency to reuse the same quotations twice or even three times to elaborate different points—an unfortunate quirk that weakens the argument by suggesting that despite the breadth of his archival survey, he could not locate enough apposite material. The more productive arguments with this book, however, will be less with its faults of style than with its querulous definitions and conclusions. The core contention that difficulty is "not a property of literature" but "an interaction between text and reader that is, at a fundamental level, blocked" will trouble those who are not so strictly committed to reader-response criticism (211). Similarly, Diepeveen's oddly naïve adherence to a "two-tiered audience for the product of art" ignores the fact that particularly when it comes to literature, film, and drama, the art world and its audience cannot be so easily split (244). What may be missing from this analysis...


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pp. 516-517
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