Being aware of the quality of one’s attention, and regaining control of it, are good first steps in approaching challenging fiction. It is also a good idea not to bite off more than you can chew. One reader got through Roberto Bolaño’s hefty masterpiece 2666 by reading a few pages a day over the course of months. As with many of the experimentalists, parts of that book seem designed to test and break one’s patience, and yet the reward for opening your mind is a glimpse of some kind of sublime.
I asked Smith for her retrospective thoughts on Two Paths. She said “I wish I hadn’t used Joseph [O’Neill] as a straw man”. She called the essay “a provocation which, like provocations, has its limitations and excitements”. She also said this: “I don’t think in those terms any more. Even as you list the supposed forms of the ‘avant-garde’, the excitement drains out of me and I’m left only with ‘genres’, fixed modes etc. There is no fixed mode for unusual or interesting writing – perhaps the very definition of fresh writing is that it is sui generis [one of a kind]. With that in mind, so far in quarantine I’ve found these books very interestingly shaped: Humiliation by Paulina Flores, Stick out your Tongue by Ma Jian, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, New Waves by Kevin Nguyen, Endgame by Beckett, most of the stories in the anthologies Sudden Fiction and Sudden Fiction International, Catholics by Brian Moore, The Collected Grace Paley, the stories of Tillie Olsen, and Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. I am aware that… many of [these people] would not think of themselves as ‘experimental’. But in the structure of all of them, there’s something curiously shaped and unexpected and, to me, beautiful.”
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.