Some writers compose convoluted, hard-to-read sentences because they don’t have the chops to make simpler ones.
At school, we’re taught to approach difficult literature in a spirit of humility. When we encounter a word we don’t understand, or a snaky paragraph that we find hard to follow, we’re urged to hesitate before throwing up our hands and denouncing the language as willfully obscure. We’re told to take it on trust that the author has something interesting to say and that with enough persistence we can make his language surrender its meaning.
By and large, this is useful counsel. Without it, few adolescents would make it through “As I Lay Dying.” And none of us would ever make it through a Jorie Graham poem. Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all challenging, complicated literature will reward our effort. Some writers compose convoluted, hard-to-read sentences because they don’t have the chops to make simpler ones. Some use 10-cent words just to show that they know them. The reader who assumes that abstruse prose is clever prose, or that there is a reliable correlation between opacity and depth, is bound to waste a lot of time on writing that doesn’t deserve it. She is also liable to end up praising works that confound her, for fear of being revealed as a dimwit if she confesses her perplexity. (As a college student I would rather have died than admit how few of the jargon-filled sentences in Fredric Jameson’s “The Political Unconscious” I really understood.)
Still, I don’t see knee-jerk deference to phony cleverness being a very widespread problem in contemporary culture. On the contrary, in these focus-impaired times, we seem a lot less likely to overvalue abstruseness than to prematurely dismiss it as not worth the trouble. (The mission statement of the Baileys fiction prize actually specifies “accessibility” as one of the literary virtues it seeks to champion.) We like to think that we live in an emperor’s- new-clothes world — full of pretentious people lavishing praise on high-toned fakes. But we actually live in a sour-grapes world — full of people scoffing at what they can’t, or can’t be bothered to, reach.
Recently, when I read Christine Schutt’s short story “You Drive” with a graduate writing class, several of the students complained that they found the story baffling. They couldn’t make out the chronology of the events it described; they weren’t always sure which character was speaking; the story, they concluded, “didn’t work.” The fact that they had trouble following Ms. Schutt’s elliptical prose was not in itself a surprise. What did take me aback was their indignation — their certainty that the story’s difficulty was a needless imposition on readerly good will. It was as if any writing that didn’t welcome them in and offer them the literary equivalent of a divan had failed a crucial hospitality test.
My children bring very similar expectations to their reading. They routinely reject books that I recommend on the grounds that they are “too hard to get into,” and when I suggest that they try bearing with dull opening chapters, they smile at me in bemusement. To a 12-year-old girl with a television and a vast array of chatty Y.A. books pandering to lowest-common-denominator tween interests, the idea of bearing with anything much is ludicrously quaint.
Old people like me believe we are at a slight advantage when it comes to readerly perseverance, because we did our formative reading in an age before technology began destroying attention spans. (When I was growing up in 1970s England, there was no Y.A. anything and nothing on the telly but documentaries about sparrows.) But even we are not immune to the restlessness of the Internet era. Which explains why, when I lay down the other night to read “Imperium,” by Ryszard Kapuscinski, I somehow got waylaid and wound up reading my daughter’s copy of John Green’s “Paper Towns” instead.
This article was written by Zoe Heller from International New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.