1. DeadChannel
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    DeadChannel New Member

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    Writing difficult literature

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by DeadChannel, Mar 15, 2015.

    So, some stuff is really tough for the reader. Some of my favorite authors (Joyce, Pynchon) often risk readers not being able to follow, or really even parse sentences properly. Do you think that there are dangers to this for writers? How important is accessibility?

    I ask because I think this is a territory that I step into sometimes.
     
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  2. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would say that clarity is the most important part of writing, after all it is first and foremost a means of communication.

    I am also guilty of the following, but I see a lot of wordy and incoherent drivel under the guise of being literary.
     
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  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I think there are dangers if, as a writer, you choose the route of inaccessibility. In fact, while you can stray into that territory, why would you want to? The danger is, nobody—or very few people—will read you. If that doesn't bother you, fair enough. But if it does...

    I think it's a huge challenge to create meaningful literature, but do it in such a way that people unsuspectingly walk into it, thinking it's just a story, and enjoy the 'easy' experience of reading it. The payoff for the reader, later on, can be immense, opening up aspects of existence they've never though of before. Sometimes the connections get made long after the book is finished, and something in real life strikes a spark and makes the reader remember they've seen it before ...in a book.

    I currently have Terry Pratchett on my mind, and think he's one of those authors who has created that kind of literature. I read his books, laughed all the way through, thought they were funny indeed, insightful, etc ...but the longer I think about the books, the characters, and things he said within the books, the more connections I make, the more I see. I think Pratchett was a literary genius, because he possessed the ability to be both accessible and profound at the same time.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2015
  4. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, I think that accessibility and clarity is often a lot more difficult than people give it credit for. Anyone can be a pretentious tool and hide behind an inflated sense of their own profundity, but achieving what the likes of Pratchett achieved is real talent.
     
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  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Are you a pop songwriter trying to get a top 40 hit on AM radio? Or are you a classical composer experimenting with form and sound, trying to open people's ears to something new?

    These are not the same things.

    A pop songwriter is trying to deliver to the audience what the audience expects: a standard form (verse verse chorus verse chorus instrumental break chorus fadeout) with standard chord progressions and lyrics about how much I love you. Pretty darned easy for the songwriter and damned easy for the listener.

    But if you're Beethoven, you're trying to stretch the boundaries. Anything goes, and you're challenging the listener to come with you on a musical journey maybe nobody's ever gone on before.

    One way, everybody dances. The other, nobody dances, but a few people pay attention and think, "Wow!"

    What are you aiming for? A million people dancing, or some people going, "Wow - this is innovative and cool!" And a lot of people saying, "This sucks. I can't dance to it!"

    You, as the creator of the work, have to determine who your audience is before you embark on the journey.

    As a writer, inaccessibility is always nearby. If that's okay with you, fine. You'll have a small audience. But if you want money, write what the public expects.
     
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  6. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, but you are confusing popular with lazy, generic and derivative. Classical music can be all of these things and popular music can be none of them. And lets not forget that Beethoven is popular music.
     
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2015
  7. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd ask yourself why you want to write inaccessible literature? If you didn't want to communicate, didn't want to be understood, why write at all? Sometimes there are some things that are profound, and sometimes certain things have to be complex and there's beauty in that complexity, but too many people mistake complexity for complexity's sake as "art" or "talent" or "insightful".

    Basically, if it's inaccessible except by a small niche of people, why is it this way? Is there a particular reason for it? Is it because you want to reach this particular niche? Is it because there's simply no other way - no better way - of expressing what you want to express and, perhaps, also explore? If it has to be complex, let there be an actual reason for it.

    But if it's complex just because you like to think of your work as really clever and you enjoy going, "Ho ho ho! This is so difficult. I must be a genius!" - then you're probably doing it wrong :D

    I think it takes a lot more talent to craft something that is both accessible and profound. To express something complex in simple language and break it down to its bare bones and strike someone's heart with it and maybe change their worldview forever - that takes skill. Whereas complicated gibberish is still just gibberish at the end of the day - all looks and no substance.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    One thing to keep in mind is that the authors you mention weren't trying to be difficult for the sake of being difficult. Some topics/ideas are just inherently difficult (e.g., stream of consciousness). Another thing to keep in mind is that literature is ultimately about sharing ideas with others. The whole reason you're writing something down is so that someone else can read it. So accessibility is very important. In fact, I would argue that the works of Joyce and Pynchon (aside from Finnegan's Wake) are all accessible as long as the reader is willing to put in the time and effort.

    Perhaps the most important thing is to know your [intended] audience. If you're writing for people who regularly read Joyce, Pynchon, et al., then you have some freedom as far as introducing difficult elements goes. On the other hand, if you're intended readers are members of the general public, you want to try to make it as accessible as possible. So know your audience.
     
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  9. drifter265
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    drifter265 Banned

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    I think the fact of a genius is that they have big ideas but they don't know how to say, or put it into a form, for the average person to understand. They have to make it simple and comprehensible for them; it has to be in a language not like their own as no one understand them. When the person then reads it, they'll have read it as a simple story or piece of work, a matter in which they understand, but that when they look back on it, take a few steps behind and look outside the circle, they'll see the big picture and complexity the author was trying to show. That's complexity in literature; that's genius; it's not being clever and so "different" that the average person couldn't read or comprehend it; it's giving something to the world that anyone can read or see or watch and giving them a new perspective using the same language and tools as everyone else. The dumb people will see it as just another story; the smart people will look past the simplicity and see the complexity the author was trying to show and the work that went into it; just like Beethoven and classical music. You don't have to make it complex and incomprehensible to read for them to think you have a big idea. We all talk english, we all know how to express our thoughts, you don't have to try to be so clever and ridiculous to come off as smart that no one understands. Simplicity will get you there. The smart people and the people that matter will be able to read between the lines.

    I don't think I understand the question and I don't understand the debate here. If you're going to write something that's going to be comprehensible to only a few people, then expect only them to understand it, but why would you want to do that? Be smart.
     
  10. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agreeing with everything that @thirdwind said and adding only: try to understand why those authors are difficult. It is not the sake for itself.
     
  11. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    I like the comparison of Beethoven... he pushed the limits in his own day, but that didn't always make him popular. However, after a lot more time (and thinking), his music is generally recognized for what it is, (not dance music), but not excessively convoluted or incomprehensible. Same with Bach, and any number of the classical greats. However, there's plenty of modern "classical"music, which is too much for the ear, and simply not focused. Similarly, if your writing's not focused, it will make no sense to anyone ever.
    If you can make it more accessible, then it seems that you should definitely try to do that. Especially in regards to the audience you are trying to reach. Easier to write? No, but writing difficult literature properly shouldn't be lazy writing either. (Way too easy to do, I understand.) Like everything else, there aren't really any magical short cuts!
     
  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    We have a guy in my writing group who comes in with a lot of really complex, beautifully phrased "lyrical prose". It's exquisite - except for the fact that it's almost totally inaccessible and includes numerous very long sentences, making it very hard to read if he's not reading it to you himself. Which doesn't make it bad, it's freaking great stuff. But it needs a lot of polish, and it's a challenge for us to critique because we all love his beautiful abstractions and want to help him make his stuff more readable without compromising it. I heard he got smacked around pretty hard in his first critique session (I wasn't at his table that night), and I was really worried he wasn't going to come back. But now he's been coming every week for four or five weeks and is loving it - and his stuff is not only getting better, it's getting more interesting.

    It's important for anyone, but especially if you're doing something really avant-garde, running it through other people - probably a LOT of other people in that case. Because you need to see how many people "get it" and how many people think you're on drugs. It's probably ok for half of them to think you're high, but if everyone does then you need to work on how to refine your stuff so that people get the effect you want.
     
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  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd have to disagree. Bach was church organist for most of his life, and much of his output was driven by the need to have "something new and catchy for Sunday". He was very definitely a "popular" composer in his lifetime.

    Likewise, when Beethoven couldn't sell concert tickets, Beethoven didn't eat...

    Now Stravinsky...when Le Sacre du printemps was first performed, there was a near-riot...
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Lots of whom we call 'classical' composers were the pop idols of their day—in the sense that they were striving constantly to create something eyepoppingly different that ordinary folks would like and pay to see. Read up on Franz Liszt, Mozart, etc. It's just that many of them wrote great stuff that we still enjoy today, and probably give it more weight than we should, really. One of the best films EVER that deals with this, is, of course, Amadeus. One of my favourite films of all time.
     
  15. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Amadeus is genius. It's one of my top five favorite films. :)
     
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  16. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Most of these writers remind me of painters who are not as interested in the object they are painting as much as they are in the interpretation of the object. They are rethinking format and challenging form. Their goal is not to give the viewer a picture of a sunflower or clocks. They are trying to provoke something deeper in the viewer. And they know they will not always have an understanding audience.

    It's always risky but you have to decide the path you want to take. Also note that it needn't be so cut and dried.
    Some of the authors that followed Joyce and Pynchon were/are okay with straddling profound/edgy and genre - Nabokov, Atwood, McCarthy, Danielewski, Burroughs etc. They can have an audience and awards and a spot among the greats without compromising their style.
     
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  17. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    Quite true... but that wasn't always the idea in all their work (I guess a lot of the violin repertoire stands out to me that way)... The reaction to Stravinsky is definitely more striking. But I guess the fine line between stretching your audience's mind and completely confusing them is the whole point of this discussion.
     
  18. PBrady
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    PBrady Active Member

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    You are approaching this from the wrong angle. Few serious authors set out to write difficult literature.
    They will write in a style that suits their intellect, background, and training. This will be influenced by the people they have around them and with whom they discuss their ideas.

    I have enjoyed reading books by Hillary Mantel, although she is not an easy read. Has she deliberately chosen to write 'difficult' literature? I would suspect not. Her early books were written in a more accessible style and they lacked the quality of her later ones. Would she have become as successful as she did by starting out with an accessible style? Possibly not.
    While I am sure there are notable exceptions, the more challenging styles of writing are ones that authors mature into as they grow in confidence and ability.
     
  19. DeadChannel
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    DeadChannel New Member

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    @PBrady
    That's not that angle I'm approaching it from, though. I'm concerned that some of what I'm writing is very difficult. I'm probing to see where difficulty is justified, and where I might want to think about reigning it back.
     
  20. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    It's very dangerous and will usually limit your audience significantly. One of my favorite writers, Hubert Selby, ignored convention. I like it, because it suits his subject matter. I ignore a fair amount of convention too, but have had to pair it back in order to not put off audiences too much. Even now my paragraphs are considered too long, while I think they are too short!

    Difficult writing, if people engage with it, is more in line with the art side of writing than entertainment. It will be discussed, but not necessarily enjoyed. Some difficult writing doesn't need to be, and that just annoys the reader and alienates them.

    If you are not prepared to limit your audience in favor of style, write clearly.
     
  21. PBrady
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    PBrady Active Member

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    One answer is to post some here. Whether it is *justified* is entirely a matter of taste. It is down to whether it works for you, your story, and the reader.

    An interesting example is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The different chapters relate to different people and times. The chapters for the different times have a distinctive style, some being more difficult reads. Adds another layer of interest to the book.
     

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