1. Dr. Manhattan
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    Dr. Manhattan New Member

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    Elegant writing versus overwriting

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Dr. Manhattan, Mar 26, 2010.

    I'm curious about how other writers feel about these topics - elegance versus overwriting. (By elegant writing, I mean words that fit perfectly in perfectly-paced sentences - often writing that requires patience and concentration out of the reader). Is it even possible for the next Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Pynchon, etc., to be out there somewhere in today's world? It seems like any editor or agent would throw a manuscript away if it tempted to reach for an audience like those writers do or did. What does it take to reach that level of writing? How do you make a reader say, "Ok, this is not going to be a piece of cake, but I want to read it." It seems any attempt at attractive prose is deemed overwriting.

    What do you all think?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    What you're basically describing is the entire literary fiction genre. There's plenty of writing that more or less fits that description around at the moment, and still a decent sized market for it.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Since every reader's opinion is different, I can't say that there's a general consensus as to which writers are the next Faulkner or Hemingway. But there are definitely some very good writers out there like Morrison, McCarthy, McEwan (sorry, I don't know many contemporary writers outside of America/England).

    In some cases, you are right. The fact is that there isn't a very large general audience for literary writing. Publishing is a business after all, so most publishers look for books that will potentially sell well. The problem with the names I gave above is that they are very commercial. If there is someone "great" out there, then he/she might be considered too experimentalist or modern, thus minimizing his/her chances of publication. That's why I try to also read obscure authors just in case there is someone out there who can knock my socks off.

    On a related note, I feel that there are more great writers that gain fame only after their deaths or very late in life, so one can never tell which writer is going to be read fifty or hundred years from now.

    Practice and reading well written books.

    I don't think that's possible. If the reading gets tough, then the reader will only continue if he's specifically interested in the author or the subject or something like that. I guess the author's reputation could help a bit. It seems like more people are likely to finish a bad book by a famous author than by an obscure one.

    What one person thinks is the greatest writing in world may seem way overwritten to someone else. It's a matter of perspective.
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I don't necessarily agree...difficult doesn't have to mean not enjoyable. Reading, for instance, Lolita by Nabokov is both difficult and extremely enjoyable. If you're not willing to work hard while reading that text, you won't enjoy it as much. I think the same is true for a lot of contemporary authors--McCarthy is a good example. They don't let you read lazily, you need to actively work on the text to truly understand a great deal of it, and while many readers aren't willing or able to do that I don't think it's true to say that just because the writing is tough the book will be disregarded.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Opaque writing is not better writing. In my opinion, it's pretentious and condescending.

    The purpose of writing is to communicate. There is no beauty that can compete with crystal clarity.

    I don't subscribe to the "if it's painful, that means it's good for you" school of literature.

    Many times, reading is difficult because we are culturally removed from the target audience. Shakespeare can be a hard read because the double entendres and the contemporary references are no longer part of our world. To his contemporaries, the Bard's lines were filled with rapid-fire humor and readily-grasped metaphors, but the modern reader has to work harder for that understanding.

    Exactly the right word in exacvtly the right sentence is one which vividly paints a picture for the reader, economically and without diction-sizing. You don't get points for knowing words the reader has to scramble to a dictionary for. You get points for using language the reader grasps immediately and without unintended ambiguity.

    That is true mastery of language.
     
  6. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Not to knock the whole literary genre, but I mostly agree with Cogito.

    There are many great works that are also old, and they also happen to be hard to read because they were written for an older audience, so there is sometimes a misinterpretation that hard=good.

    Part of being a good writer is in making it easy to read. I've never read a difficult work that couldn't have been just as good and just as deep if it were written so as to be easier to read.

    One downside to being an English Major is that I'm around a lot of people (students AND professors) who will rave about Henry James, but who won't even give modern authors a chance because they somehow assume that all good fiction died when writers started caring about their audiences.

    A deep reading of some modern, clearly written books, will often reveal just as much depth as the classic literature I read for class, but so many people miss out on it because it's right in front of their faces. I guess they assume that if the story is easy to follow, that must be it, whereas if they have to read slowly and carefully to get through James, they notice all of the depth better.

    So if you're goal is to show off how much depth you can cram into your story, then by all means make it as hard to read as possible. The "literary experts" of one hundred years from now will love it.

    Book that you can draw more out of from each reading = good
    Book you have to read twice before it makes any sense = bad
     
  7. pinelopikappa
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    pinelopikappa Senior Member

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    I don't think that well-crafted sentences are obscure. I mean, they could be, but then they don't have to. Isn't that a matter of style, abilities, etc? I've never linked those two in my head, nor do I find deep books difficult. Pretending-to-be-deep book yes, truly great books no!

    Take Thucydides for example: crystal clear language, and yet deep and complicated (as human beings are). Nobody has ever complained of obscurity, beacause he manages to use language instead of language using him. I understand his books are not fiction, but he does tell stories in a way to make storytelllers jealous. Not to mention how your own mind is set to motion when you read his work. And his language just flows in your tongue like honey (to read him aloud is a true pleasure, and a great lesson on rythm and music in writing).

    I could think of other examples, but it would be a long post!

    My point is, perhaps you shouldn't link a well made, crafted, put together page with obscurity. Perhaps it's another thing you have to work on, and your writing will certainly benefit.
     
  8. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Perhaps I was misunderstood--I agree entirely with what you are saying. But if we return again to the example of Lolita, with its wide range of reference, its clever literary games and patterns, its metafictional features and, in some parts, deliberately over-written parts, it's clear that "difficult" is a fitting descriptor. And this is what I was alluding to--not language that is unnecessarily difficult or opaque, but writing that is so clever and so rich in meaning and content that unravelling all of its different strands is at times a difficult task.

    For me, a work that gives up all its meaning at one glance is a very shallow work indeed.
     
  9. Tamsin
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    Tamsin Senior Member

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    It depends on the market you are aiming at. If you are aiming at the mass market then it needs to be easily accessible. Unfortunately it means prose needs to be written in a simple way, and why most of the books on the best sellers list aren't exactly great works of literature.

    However, there is still a commercial market for what might be deemed more intellectual literature, and a lot of publishing houses that cater for people who are looking for a more substantial/demanding read.

    People still read the classics, Shakespeare is still very popular. You shouldn't feel you have to dumb down your prose, but it shouldn't be impossible to decipher the meaning without a PhD in literature either. There are still lots of people who want to read something that is of literary merit rather than something a 10 year old could read. Just be prepared to aim at a smaller proportion of the market.

    It is the same in most artistic industries. Look at the music charts. Out of the top ten are any of them what we would call 'great musicians' or 'great artists'? Hmm, probably not! But a lot of people like simple songs performed by an ok singer. But, that doesn't mean there aren't great musicians out there who are still incredibly talented whose tours are consistently sold out.

    I would say write in your own way, but definitely get someone or people from the kind of market you think you are aiming at to read it and give you some feedback. If someone who has a degree in English can't stay interested because the 'elegance' of the prose is overbearing, then take that into consideration when you redraft.

    The authors you mentioned have literary merit because they write in their own style and don't put 'elegant' language in just for the sake of it. Pynchon for example wrote in a deliberately intense style because he was taking the piss!
     
  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I wouldn't call Lolita very difficult. Sure, it has fancy words and all, but I feel that the average reader can understand what's going on given access to a dictionary.

    Anyways, the popularity of Lolita stemmed from how shocking it was. Most of the earliest reviews of it didn't really focus on its writing, but rather on its "filthiness" and "obscenity." Something like that is enough to make a book popular. Besides, I don't think a lot of readers read books like this to truly understand it and/or analyze it.

    But I do still stand by the claim that the average reader (I should have used this term in my last post) will most likely quit reading if it gets too tough.
     
  11. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    Books - like pretty much everything else - are tailored to their target audience. Stephanie Meyer writes like a 14 year-old and look what happened.

    I expect different amounts of detail using different words from different authors.

    Steve Berkoff uses words like finely honed torture devices and it's entertaining in a detached-horror kind of way.

    Bill Bailey on the other hand always manages to sound like an oversized hobbit smoking a joint, but that's the idea.

    If you're having trouble, find your angle before writing anything else otherwise you'll get consistency issues later on and remember that a good sentence is like a good duel:

    Clean and elegant, without waste.
     

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