Readability

Readability

I had a classmate in a writing class who was a fan of difficult novels. Think Gravity’s Rainbow, House of Leaves, Dubliners, etc. We disagreed on writing and complexity: I liked clear, vivid, linear writing, while he enjoyed writing that you had to work to understand. He said it was thrilling to finally be able to understand and complete something so difficult, and that the difficulty of the writing is the author’s attempt to artistically convey complex human emotion, motives, history, etc. I still prefer clear writing, but I’m glad I met him. That class was the first time I had ever considered oblique, roundabout fiction writing as a possible style rather than something more straightforward.

I thought of him again when I found an article on The Millions arguing against readability. This quote stuck out to me:

“Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel.  There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones.  Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however.

Readability usually boils down to mean easy to read, and most take readability as quality writing. Why? Because smooth, flowing, clear, readable language, especially in nonfiction books, helps the reader understand the point of the writing. Seems obvious, but there’s a twist.

Tangent: I used to want to be a science writer. I still kind of do. Anyway, one of the most difficult things to accomplish in a piece of science writing is to take a complex subject and render it in a way your typical reader can digest, enjoy, and learn from. My favorite piece of science writing is a multi-part series about the Higgs boson which the NYTimes published in 2013. In particular, I can’t forget this gif explaining a Higgs boson and the Higgs field. Most people have no idea why the Higgs boson is so important, but the NYTimes article series does a fantastic (Pulitzer-prize winning, in fact) job of explaining it. But notice that when explaining the Higgs field, they resorted to an animated smilie. They didn’t explain it in a straightforward way. Instead, they described the Higgs boson and field obliquely to something tangible that most people understand, and in doing do, rendered an incredibly abstract concept into something understandable. In the context of science writing, complicated, unreadable writing is amateurish writing. Why? The majority of science writing deals with explaining. In particular, explaining complicated concepts to people not in the field.

But we’re talking about literary fiction, a genre which expects authors to convey the human experience through artistic language. Like the gif for the Higgs boson, can fiction writing be an oblique, artistic attempt to explain the ultra-complicated human experience?

So what does all this have to do with readability? I think the issue of readability is a reader-writer disconnect. While readers take readability as a mark of quality writing, literary authors argue that it’s not the only quality a book should be judged by. The absence of readability is not absence of emotional depth, striking language, and thoughtful philosophy. Which I think is the main argument literary types are leaning for: readable literature does not boil down to the only literature worth reading.

There is also an argument against books as entertainment which ties into the issue of readability and worthwhile literature, which again, I think is a reader-writer disconnect. When I, as a reader, hear that literary fiction isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, or that entertainment is often not one of the considerations of the work, but is given a pass because it’s of moral/artistic/literary worth, I imagine a chef trying to persuade me to eat their food because it’s good for you/has a rich history/etc and to ignore how it tastes. Louis CK had a great bit about eating on Chewed Up:

“I guess normal people are like, ‘Well, that’s all the nutrition I require right there. I will cease this intake now, and convert it into useful energy throughout the day.’”

Can you imagine somebody telling you they only read or write books with high moral fiber? But the food metaphor breaks down pretty easily. Above all, chefs strive to make food delicious. Authors, however, have many different reasons to convey something they think is worthwhile to experience, and presume the content of their writing is worth something. Whereas readers judge content by conveyance. Have you ever heard of a book marketed as “a new spin on an old story”? The content probably something everyone knows, but the new way of experiencing it makes experiencing it again worthwhile. I have had grilled steak, but have I had sous vide steak? And in experiencing something in a new way, I may find other things to appreciate about the content— even if preparing it in a new way takes a little more work.

I’m breaking down this argument too far. These are the questions which make or break PhD students, and I only have a bachelor’s! And I’m ignoring subjectivity of taste, entertainment, readability. . . .

Here are other thoughts: Why should I have to do the work? Is the goal of reading not finishing the book and coming away with new knowledge of humanity, but the experience of reading itself? Do we mark literature which is digestible and tasty, along with all the other morally nutritious qualities, as better coming close to hitting the mark than something which is not digestible and tasty but is nutritious? What about writers who set out to deliberately make difficult literature? Are they making work that presupposes its own importance? Or are they pretending that they made it difficult to pass off bad writing? Or, how can we tease out the difference between a book that is challenging because it is dealing with big ideas, or one whose text gets in the way?

I have no idea. I just decide if it’s worth it when I come to it.

As for myself, I want to make fiction that is worthwhile to read. I didn’t start reading because it was good for me, I did it because I enjoyed it. I always loved reading, but I only started writing because a) if I didn’t write it down, I forgot it, and b) there were stories missing from the shelves that I wanted to read but hadn’t been written yet, and I concluded that I would have to sharpen my pencils and write those books myself. I also want to play with language and try to contour it to say something that I can’t say with my usual style— and in experimenting, have definitely made some incoherent messes. I can thank my classmate for that.

I do think it’s good to be able to enjoy a wide range of genres and qualities and appreciate them for what they bring to the table. And to occasionally, I will try to get through a book which I find difficult because I think it has something good to say. In between chipping away at The Big Book of Science Fiction, I’m slowly getting through Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace, which is the first book about math I’ve ever sought to read on my own time. It’s fantastic. Not always readable, but definitely worth it. And again, I’ve got to thank my classmate for recommending reading DFW’s work.

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