The Problem of Being Too Good

Having been up to my eyeballs in Sad Puppies things, and The Day Job (particularly The Code of Cthulhu), I pretty much missed my chance to comment on Sarah’s post about Literature (as opposed to literature which is quite a different beastie). Buried in that post is the comment: “It annoys me when I can see the writer sweat.”

Now here’s the thing. I was raised in a musical household. It was a given that I’d be learning to play something (it wound up being trombone, and I was at one point bordering on good enough for professional work. If I’d had a half-decent singing voice, I could have taken that to professional level) and joining whatever local bands, orchestras, or whatever happened to be around and at more or less my ability level.

One of the things I learned was that in pretty much any creative endeavor the really good ones don’t look like they’re making any effort. They’re so good they make it look easy. They make it feel easy, and they appear to effortlessly produce the effect they’re aiming for, be it a gem of a musical performance or a story that’s a perfect or near perfect example of its art – and it’s so apparently effortless and clear that those of lesser understanding can too easily fail to see the work the author or musician or artist has carefully concealed behind the appearance of easy. That is why seeing the writer sweat is annoying.

Of course, this leads to those of lesser understanding (many of whom think they’re the bees knees and – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – the every other assorted insectile erogenous zone in existence) thinking that a book (or performance or whatever) that looks effortless actually is effortless and therefore is easy. Simply put, they mistake sweat and visible exertion for skill.

In the field of literary endeavor, this often translates to such things as deriding Terry Pratchett’s prose as “basic”. After all, he doesn’t go in for verbal special effects… Instead, Pratchett’s prose fades into the background as the vehicle bearing his plot and characters and everything else in the perfect manner for the tale he’s telling. Had he indulged in his love of words (which mostly found its expression in the footnotes) in the body of his prose, his books would have been poorer for it.

Dave Freer’s prose suffers in a similar way: Dave layers so much meaning into something that looks simple and easy to follow that people who think they know Literature dismiss his work as plain and low-brow (and miss the devastating satires, the gentle affection, and all the other little goodies Dave buries in his works).

I will confess: I’ve tried to read some of the Literature set’s darlings. The third or fourth paragraph that didn’t parse to anything meaningful was enough to convince me I didn’t want to waste my time on that. Even Stephen Donaldson, for all his sins with his thesaurus (and they are legion), usually managed to say something as opposed to using the sounds of words as a kind of perverse aural art work.

Sarah in her literary mode is virtue personified beside that. So is John C Wright. Intricate, artful prose with enough polysyllabic words to sink a ship can work, provided said words fit the story and say something of value to the reader – who is, always, the ultimate judge.

Obligatory PSA: Don’t forget Hugo nominations close today. Make sure you’ve put yours in.

108 thoughts on “The Problem of Being Too Good

  1. ‘Paint a picture with words’ = the reader must be able to imagine what you’re trying to get them to envision. The Literatchoor folk fail abysmally in those attempts. John C. Wright wields words and smiths them into both artful prose and something the reader can actually connect to and envision. The samples given in this article:

    are what my husband likes to call ‘artistic wanking’ – where the ‘money shot of words obscure what story there is.’

    (I love Australians. I really do. ❤ )

    1. I am so glad I have learned not to read and drink at the same time. Great turn of phrase. Maybe upside down brains work alright…

    2. “The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

      And Casey strikes OUT.

      It was on the order of twenty years later I found out the author didn’t mean “a random fuzz of moving black and white dots” when I saw a TV that just went a kind of slate gray color on a dead channel.

      Now, most TVs are smart enough to skip dead channels, so a younger reader might have an entirely different “WTF experience” than I did…

            1. Cloudless Queensland… arguably, ANY Australian sky that’s so cloudless it seems like it’s both pressing on you, and like you could fall upward into it. I marveled at it but then had to look away because that blue, and the brightness seemed to pound the eyeballs. After a while I realized that it was because my eyes were constantly trying to find something to focus on and failing, and thus getting strained.

              I don’t wonder at the Australian tendency to squint when they’re outdoors any more.

      1. Robert J. Sawyer likes to use that phrase as an example of how changes in technology can date science fiction. Gibson meant it to mean gray, and today it means a beautiful blue, completely changing the mental image a reader (a youngish reader, at least) forms from the prose.

    3. Tolkien. Except not in original but the Finnish translation. I have never read Lord of the Rings in English, my love for that work comes from the translation. It paints the landscapes, forests, mountains, mines with words so that you can see and feel them. Never cared that much for the characters, or the plot, what I fell in love with was the land.

      And it’s possible the translation in this case is better than the original, I do remember once seeing the claim that Tolkien himself preferred the Finnish translation to his own original work (Finnish was one of the languages he could speak so at least in that respect a plausible claim).

  2. Yeah. Writers who throw in big words to show off annoy me, too.

    In addition to the writers you mentioned as good examples, I think Lois McMaster Bujold’s prose is like that, too. You don’t notice literary gimcracks; you see characters and plot and story, and you get caught up in the world she builds. These seem like and feel like and act like real people, and that’s why I enjoy reading her work, Sarah’s work, Dave’s work, etc. (Yours, too.)

    As Michael used to say, use the best word, which is usually the simplest word. Don’t use a six-dollar word because you can; use it only because it’s absolutely necessary and is the best possible choice (or maybe the _only_ possible choice, if you’re that locked in to the “writer’s zone” — we all hope to be so fortunate!)

    1. Occasionally I do stop and notice a particularly artful turn of phrase in Bujold – but usually on the 2nd or 3rd or 4th reading, because the stories are (mostly) so darn good that the plot and characters make the technique invisible. Exactly what Kate was talking about in the OP.

    2. Her Chalion books, it seems to me, is where she really let some of her more poetic turns of phrase out to play. But they in no way detract from the characters, plot, or underpinnings–they serve to enhance them.

      1. Damn. WordPress did something *very* wrong, here — please, please, delete this as it doesn’t belong here! (Sorry and my *extreme* apologies! We have a heated discussion going on in _my_ blog and for some reason, the window switched without notice.)

      2. I think that there’s a little more room for style to show itself off a bit in that sort of fantasy romance than there is in most sci-fi – even space-opera style sci-fi like the early- to mid- Miles books for example. In more general terms, I think that is true of genres which tend to favor characters over plot. Or alternatively, feelings over actions. Does that make sense?

  3. First and foremost, the words must not get in the way of the story. Words are tools with which we build and people our imaginary worlds, but “Literature” far too often confuses the tools for the product. In simple (non-Literary) terms, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your tools are if you can’t build a functional house with them.

  4. Jack Vance (my very fave author) got away with all sorts of literary gimcracks, because he made them *part* of the story — they felt right *in context*. And I’ve found I can read his stuff three ways: as story, as message, and as a weird and wonderful trip through language for its own sake (or any combination of the three). But I’m not obligated to any one way; I can enjoy whichever fits my mood at the moment.

    My most-invisible-author award goes to Melanie Rawn. I once set out to study how she does it… this lasted about two pages. 200 pages later I remembered why I was rereading the book.

    I’ve said of Stephen R. Donaldson that the correct way to read him is waggling a dictionary in either hand. Since I cruise the dictionary for entertainment, this is not all bad… but I stopped reading him because I became weary of his *stories* and their inhabitants. The Gap series was the first time I said, “I don’t like any of these people” of a book.

    1. 100% agree – the Donaldson Gap series was also the first time I chose not only not to finish a series, but also not to finish an individual book. I felt bad about that for years… until I realized that his Gap series was the vanguard of all of this pseudo-literary claptrap invading our “good story” space. Also: now that I’m older, my time is more valuable and it’s a lot easier to choose not to finish the books I don’t like.

      1. If I may ask: which book did you finish at? I found A Dark and Hungry God Arises to be the point in the series where the rising action starts and the protagonists start to pull it together, push back and become genuine heroes. But I trust Donaldson as a writer enough to read through the bad patches, knowing that he’ll eventually take me to someplace worthwhile.

    2. To each their own. Wardon Dios deserves a spot as one of space opera’s great epic heroes in my opinion.

        1. Ultimately if I want to plumb the depths of pathos and tragedy and discover how all that relates to my life in specific and everyone in general… I’ll reread Othello or Romeo and Juliet or go see some Verdi or Puccini. I neither want, nor expect, my science fiction (= ENTERTAIMENT) to have that particular sort of heaviness. Which puts me in mind of something ESR wrote about genre expectations a couple of years ago that I can’t quite remember….

          But anyway, the talented authors in the SF/F community sneak the “thinking about things” in around the edges so that you only discover yourself thinking the wide and deep thoughts by accident, as a result of a ripping good story and awesome characters leading you to someplace new that you may not have been before. My science fiction and fantasy shouldn’t ever go in the “I read this because I know it’s good for me” bin… they should always wind up in the “Wow, that was awesome, and you know, I never thought of things quite like that before” slot. Which is just another way of stating the Puppy thesis: Message should be subordinate to story. This post adds to that: Technique should be in service of story.

          1. I need to get back to work before my boss gets mad at me for wasting time on the Internet, but I’ll just let Donaldson himself answer that. ‘Click on: How do you write on so many levels?’ start listening at about 5:43 (though the entire response is worth listening to) and tell me Donaldson himself doesn’t sound like a puppy.

            As for the structure of the Gap and his other works, I’ve read his description of the origins of those stories and what he was aiming for, and I agree that he structure them well to get across what he was trying to accomplish.


    3. Oddly, Donaldson has written some mainstream fiction that is very good – when I read “The Man Who Fought Alone” I was sure it was some other author with the same name. He’s turned that one into a series now, but I haven’t read any of the others yet.

      I’ve tried his fantasy stuff a couple of times and couldn’t muster enough determination to get more than a few chapters in.

      (How different is “The Man Who Fought Alone”? It’s about a security guard trying to solve a murder at a martial arts event…)

    4. “Favorite author” is a moving target for me… but “Jack Vance” is always in the answer set.

      It’s vastly amusing to read some of the comments made about his work. “Cue to reviewer missing the point as it clears her head at 20,000 feet and kicks in the afterburners.”

      A lot of reviews… they’re not someone reviewing the story, they’re someone totting up points for how closely it fits their preconceived notions. Sometimes I’ve wondered if they read the same story I did, or if they did, but didn’t care.

      1. “Sometimes I’ve wondered if they read the same story I did, or if they did, but didn’t care.”

        They didn’t.

        Something that I’ve come away with as a result of having written and posted a LOT of fanfiction is that all too often, the reviewers are reading the story in their heads, which is only peripherally if at all related to the words that you actually wrote and posted.

        Huh. Come to think of it, that applies across the internet, too. People generally respond to the post in their heads, not the post that you actually wrote.

  5. Language is the tool, not the end-game. Those of us who luuuuuuv cool neat new-to-us words, or flaunting our knowledge of linguistic arcana probably need to write that on a tasteful 1″ thick wooden plaque and hit ourselves on the head with it from time to time. (Yes, I just got done pruning some underbrush from a story, why do you ask?)

    1. Yes, but can I engrave the plaque with a tangle of ornately interwoven blossoms and vines, roses, lilies and orchards in unlikely flowered congress, so that the imprint of each blow is a kinetic refusal of verbal ostentation? *g*

    2. Great comment — “language is the tool, not the end-game.” Love this!

      And yes, we all must edit, edit, kill our darlings, prune with heavy shears…totally agree.

  6. I hate it when authors use words beyond their vocabulary. And when the editor doesn’t catch the misuse of words it becomes really annoying. It jars me out of the story. The book I’m reading right now is like that. There’s nothing wrong with reaching, but if you aren’t familiar with something, at least look it up.

    1. Or words beyond the character’s vocabulary. For people to function in actual society, they need multiple ‘switches’ for what vocabulary they use. I get often told to slow down and use smaller words at the fire station because I tend to overcomplicate things.

      1. And one of the things that will cause me to wall a book in no time flat is a character using words/vocabulary they have no business using. If the author can’t be bothered to keep their own characters *in* character, why should I bother?

        1. Yep. And one of the aspects is remembering who the audience is. Readers of Sherlock Holmes at the time were well aware of tide tables in the newspaper. People today may only be barely aware that there are tides.

        2. I had to fight an editor on that one—for some reason, she wanted nobility in a pseudo-medieval setting to use the phrase “It’s a deal.” Um… NO. On multiple levels.

          1. Augh! Anachronisms in language are also hella annoying! Like someone using the phrase “okay” or “OK” in a setting prior to the 1840s (and it would be pushing it in the 1840s, as that was just the earliest known written evidence of it, and it wasn’t yet part of the common vernacular). That’s the sort of thing writers *should* think about–and in the age of the internet, there is NO excuse for not taking a few minutes (and usually it only takes a very few) to look up etymology.

            One of my favorite mystery writers writes her stuff set in Rome, around AD 70, and I have always been greatly admiring of her ability to write the books in what *seems* like modern vernacular (and to some extent it is, at least in rhythm–it’s part of the humor that makes up much of the series), but without actually betraying the historical setting itself. It’s a deft balancing act. But it works because she makes it clear that she *does* know her history, and now she’s just having fun with it.

            1. How about the reverse, when somebody REALLY does not understand the basic grammar of the “thee and thou” set? Sticking “-eth” on the end of everything and so forth. I once took part in a thread where you were supposed to cast a Doctor Who speech into Elizabethan language, and somebody had dropped one of those speeches that showed they did not understand the underlying structure at all. I got annoyed, and took a little time to cast the whole Pandora speech into iambic pentameter*.

              And then I didn’t save a copy for myself, dammit.

              *I can’t always do that, but when I’m annoyed I sometimes get that superpower.

    2. There’s a lot more of that now – part of it is indie authors that have not invested in some sort of editing process, but I think the Internet in general, and the fast pace of the news cycle in the Internet age, tends to offer the younger generation a greater opportunity to display things they don’t even realize they don’t know… because they don’t read enough themselves, aside from the clickbait on Buzzfeed. My pet peeve lately is “tenant” for “tenet,” and certain authors who should borrow Donaldson’s thesaurus for a while, because the only facial expression their characters know is “smirked.”

        1. The bane of a good copy editor since no spelling or grammar checker will catch them. Or as I like to say: they’re failing to realize that there is no their there.

      1. To be honest, the traditional publishing industry has been skimping on editing for a long time. Ace and Signet used to let some howlers slip through, but I see far too much new stuff where someone obviously ran the text through a spell checker, but nobody in the production chain could be arsed to actually read the text and notice the homonym errors.

        Or, hey, maybe it’s too much to expect English or Journalism grads to actually, you know, read and write English…

        1. Sometimes, I swear it’s even little things that good editor should catch, like overuse of a particular word or phrase. (Like the abovementioned “smirked.”)

          I probably wouldn’t have noticed it had I not listened to the book rather than read it (I’m a speed reader, so tend to skim stuff even at the best of times)–and don’t get me wrong, Sanderson is an *awesome* storyteller–but the first Mistborn book had everyone ‘pausing’ (or rather, ‘paused’) right, left and center, and it absolutely drove me up a WALL. (I haven’t finished the original trilogy, so I don’t know if it continues to be a problem there–but in the Alloy of Law books it isn’t, so thankfully he got over it.)

          1. Agree, I was going to go on about the crappy editing in TradPub lately as well, but I’m making a concerted effort to not write novel-length comments too much anymore.

      2. *eye roll* Oddly, I was just reading a novel where the author used “reticence” where they should have used “reluctance,” repeatedly. And over and over again, even.

        Between that and a few other misuses of words that are not synonyms, nor even antonyms, I said “the hell with this” finally and went to read something else that wouldn’t annoy me every few pages.

    3. Creative Writing 101. Literally. I had a teacher who had us look up any word that we weren’t absolutely certain of the meaning. He demonstrated by having someone look up “red.”

      (Which, BTW, is “the color of blood.” The scientific side of me wants a wavelength listed instead, since that’s *horribly* imprecise.)

      1. Ah, but are we talking the bright red of arterial blood, the duller veinous version, or the crusty brown of dried blood?

    4. use words beyond their vocabulary
      There’s a word for that: Acryologia. English is great! (see also feague – really?!?)

  7. I’ve gotten into a number of…conversations on this topic. Lich-rature to steal a phrase is more pretentious. It’s the grouping that actually tries to prove how good they can write by showing the reader just how good their thesaurus skills are. They are the ones that were never taught that the thesaurus is a tool for occasional usage, not one that you needed to consult for every word. I’ll admit, some of Wright’s verbiage, to me, verges on overwrought but his actual writing and stories are readable and enjoyable. Same with stuff like Lovecraft and Poe. It may not be pure popcorn but it’s not uncooked brussel sprouts.

    1. I think the key distinction between authors like Wright and Gene Wolfe who have an elevated style and the kind of fiction we are talking about here is that they are using an elevated style to tell great stories that also have an elevated subtext. The failure of most literary fiction of the last 3 or 4 (or more) decades is that it is elevated style in the service of no substance at all. Exactly and precisely “artistic wanking.”

      1. Oh I know. Lichrature is a body of words containing no substance but moving on the ‘magic’ of the words themselves. The problem is that it poisons the well.

        1. I figured out the exact problem I have with most modern poetry when I glanced through a compilation and saw the phrase “like the picture of a donkey above the door of an Athenean tea shop.” THAT MEANS NOTHING. If you are using allusion or metaphor, the thing that you’re alluding to has to have some resonance, because otherwise you’re just trying to be William Carlos Williams with no concept of why he wrote as he did. And you’re not William Carlos Williams.

          Words are not magic without the depth behind them. If they have no meaning, you may as well just throw a dictionary at someone and call it a masterpiece.

          1. We had poetry infliected on us in junior high. We spent several days “appreciating” some bizarre officially-sanctioned poem about fish with isinglass eyes and something about tolling bells.

            Little TRX: “What is an isinglass?”

            Teacher: “Anyone else have a question?”

            Little TRX: “Why are the bells supposed to be sad?”

            That turned into a half hour of something like “Who’s on First?”, until the teacher realized that nobody else in the class had the slightest clue either. Apparently in some religion people ring bells when they hear someone died, or that’s what the teacher’s manual said. By that time I’d moved back to default “I don’t care” mode.

          2. It’s a bit of a problem with non-modern poetry too, though if only because a.) the poet relied heavily on Classical references (which, with the state of education, most folks aren’t likely to catch anymore) or b.) littered it with asides/in-jokes/allusions to stuff contemporary to *them*…and which therefore makes no sense to a reader a century or two down the line. (*cough* Dante’s Divine Comedy *cough*)

            1. Dante and even hundreds of years later T. S. Eliot, and everyone in between, could count on the educated people of their time who were reading their works to have a common background knowledge of history and philosophy which would make at least most of their allusions intelligible. Even 30 years ago in HS, when I was callow and shallow and a little too focused on math and science because there were “right answers” to be found there, I could see a difference between Wordsworth and Tennyson and even Eliot (somewhat pretentious maybe, but still trying to say something deep) vs. Sandburg and the other ’60s and ’70s era poets they were trying to pass off as 20th century equivalents to the greats of the past. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but now it’s easy:

              Case A: There is such a thing as beauty, and we are striving for it, regardless of what we are trying to say. Case B: Art as leftist propaganda.

              1. And even today, if you take a well-taught class on any of those works, the professor will make sure that you have access to all of the allusions and references. I went to a Jesuit college, and they are excellent at their educational mandate. Old Testament taught by one of the world’s foremost experts on Ancient Hebrew, oh yes. Philosophy taught by folk who understand it robustly instead of thinking of it as a survey. And English professors who were experts in their fields, but didn’t have to publish to stay hired…

    2. By and large, I’ve found “literature” to be long on “description” and short on “happening.”

      When you’ve read 100 page describing nothing whatsoever happening in exhaustive detail, you can be reasonably sure you’re reading “literature.”

  8. “The Code of Cthulhu”

    I am so stealing that. With your permission, of course.

    It continues to amaze me how many of the pulp writers, or at least the ones who wrote for the top markets, could convey so much in their word choices. While they may have been getting paid by the word, they knew they wouldn’t make a sale if the editor got bored. They used only the necessary description in the tightest prose possible and got on with the story.

  9. Sort of off-topic but not really: with some of the denser examples of literature, I’m grateful for the existence of audiobooks: some of these works are just so much better when listened to than read. Jonathan Davis’ reading of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is one example: you can appreciate the rhythm of the word choice in spoken context, the smooth pronunciation and the reader’s shades of emotion can really bring out the best in a text.

    Likewise, Scott Brick worked wonders with The Chroncles of Thomas Covenant, and I could never get through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I heard Brick’s narration. He read it the way it was meant to be: a guy relating his experience to some other guys while waiting on a boat, the whole thing somewhat disjointed as he tries to puzzle out some meaning behind it all.

    And you NEED to listen to all the songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings actually being sung.

    1. Audio is the only way I ever got through the Silmarillion–and the audio made me realize how very beautiful it is, and that there really ARE some ripping good tales buried in there!

      1. Try listening to Beleriand and its Realms. I really appreciated that chapter’s audio: how it lovingly described all those regions of the world and all the works of the Noldor, and how it’s all destined to be destroyed in the coming wars.

    2. I’ve long been of the opinion that certain writers need to be read aloud. John Ringo, for instance. Larry Correia’s work also lends itself to the spoken word quite well. And then there are some works who, whether it’s the text or the performer, don’t fare as well. Scott Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamorra”, despite being a good text read, is almost unlistenable.

      1. I struggle with audiobooks – just like I struggle with Internet video – because it’s SO SLOW compared to reading something.

        1. I used to *hate* being read to, but I started listening to audiobooks back when I was driving six or seven hours a day and bored out of my mind. I don’t drive much any more, but I’m spending most of my time now doing major home repair. (as in, stand on the dirt of the crawlspace, look up at the underside of the roof, and think about how nice it will be when I have a floor and a ceiling) Carpentry is work, but it sure ain’t rocket surgery, and audiobooks keep the boredom away.

          It took quite a while to get used to being spoon-fed the story at speech rates instead of blasting through at my normal reading speed, though.

  10. At ATH I mentioned Tom Kratman as my gateway to literary and critical reading. I soon got a couple of responses of ‘no, he is not that deep’. Or at least that is how I understood them.

    1. I don’t think there’s a great deal of depth to Kratman either… but it’s because he very deliberately goes to great lengths to smack the reader upside the head with the moral of his stories, rather than making us fish for it. I mean, there’s depth in the sense that he’s writing about the Gods of the Copybook Headings vs. Human Nature all the time… but there are not layers that you have to peel to get to what he’s trying to tell you. He pretty thoroughly beats you over the head with it.

      And really, the only reason you could call what he’s writing about “deep” is because the West has spent the last 50 years trying – and largely succeeding – at forgetting everything we used to know about human nature and the human condition. The moral and meaning of Kratman’s stories used to be encountered by pretty much everyone on a daily basis, before we all got so comfortable.

      1. I liked Caliphate, but generally I prefer Kratman’s essays and other non-fiction to his fiction.

        1. Oh come on! Kratman wrote the feel good novel of 2005! What’s not to like!

          And if I thought the man read I’d send Trump the Carrera novels and see how many of the hand references it took to puss him off…

          1. Well, the bits in Rod and the Axe, where he was calling out idiots he’d been clashing with on the internet, struck me as a bit gauche once I’d figured out what was going on. That said a) those idiots were really stupid b) I knew what I was getting into by reading a Kratman book c) it isn’t that much different from what Drake does with Platt d) there was book enough to spare a bit for that trolling e) Those bits probably weren’t obvious to readers who hadn’t heard of the matter.

      2. I understand stage magic involves drawing attention with one hand, while doing something with the other.

        There’s a Dear John letter in Watch on the Rhine. Take that letter and follow the causality forward and back. What happens as a result of what? Is this a deliberate message? Yes. Is this blatantly obvious to everyone on first reading? I think not.

    2. He’s deep in the sense that he deals with some pretty heavy stuff, and does so in a way that’s not sunshine, fluffy bunnies, and rainbows.
      He does, however, tend to have all the subtlety of a 2×4 to the side of the head.

      1. There is stuff that gets hidden behind the flashing stars. Get, say, RTFs of ADCP and Carnifex, and Ctl F on Mustafa for Mustafa scenes. There is a matching set at the start of ADCP and the end of Carnifex.

  11. Whenever I think of “literature,” I think of Ray Bradbury being told by UCLA students that his interpretation of Fahrenheit 451 was wrong. “Literature” is a Rorschach test that reveals more about the literati than the work in question.

    Sometimes, though, I do like the use of words adored by the literati, though their love only holds as long as it embraces their narrative. G.K. Chesterton’s prose in his essays often drives home his points by a turn of phrase. Pratchett at times often made similar turns of phrase with more common words. Yet, since writing is about communication, what is the value in making prose difficult to understand? If the goal is anything other than clear communication, is it even literature?

    Not to mention that the literati aren’t consistent here. If popular authors like Pratchett are condemned for their prose, what of Hemingway, who’s style makes Pratchett’s seem like purple prose? Or could it be that authors like Pratchett aren’t their sort of people? Probably that.

    That doesn’t speak highly of what defines literature. Then again, neither do most who’ve been forced to endure it.

    1. > what is the value in making prose difficult to understand?

      Fool! You make it opaque so you can teach courses about it!

      note: teachers *really* don’t like book reports that say “it was a bunch of nasty people doing stupid things.”

      1. Even if it’s true. ::glares at Lord of the Flies::

        I used to be really, really good at couching that particular phrase in the sort of stuff professors and teachers like unto them *love.* I doubt I’d have the patience nowadays.

        1. Same. I blame the obfuscatory pedagogical complex. *grin*

          Seriously, though. Some classes you could ace simply by confusing or misleading the teacher. With big words, mostly- the more phrases, the more latin, the more weird and obscure the better. Toss in the proper class-specific buzzwords, and there ya go. Instant A.

          Fortunately for me, my mother (retired english teacher) taught me that the purpose of language is to *communicate.* If I’m not doing that effectively, I am are failing.

          And being that I just wrote “I’m not aren’t doing that” and read it three times without catching it, it helps to remember that readers don’t come with a silent “mind” before the word, so it helps to proofread the comment before you post… *shakes head, silly me*

          1. Seriously, though. Some classes you could ace simply by confusing or misleading the teacher. With big words, mostly- the more phrases, the more latin, the more weird and obscure the better. Toss in the proper class-specific buzzwords, and there ya go. Instant A.

            That’s how I made it through a few courses. There’s something to the adage “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with -”
            Well, you know.

        1. Victor Davis Hanson has written an entire book on this subject, BTW – it’s called “Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom”

          1. [sarc]but wouldn’t us recovering Greek wisdom be cultural misappropriation?[/sarc]

      2. note: teachers *really* don’t like book reports that say “it was a bunch of nasty people doing stupid things.

        Actually, you might get by with it if you back up this argument. Think of it like an in-depth critique. Much of it depends on the teacher, but usually if you can back up you’re claim, you’re good to go.

    2. I think if Pratchett hadn’t been so damned funny–and scathingly correct in his lampooning of the foibles of human nature–the literati would have been far more welcoming of his stuff. But he made fun of them, too, and didn’t play their games.

      (But then, I’m not a Hemingway fan: for me, his stuff mostly falls under the ‘depressing grey goo’ category. Though that could be just because I was forced to read him in high school, which stained all too many of the ‘classics’ with the same “this stuff is AWFUL” brush.)

    3. which reminds me of Larry’s story about the friend in the creative writing course… ‘yes, but what is the store *about*???’

  12. As to Hemingway, he has been derided by more than a few for sparse prose.


    “He [Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

    — William Faulkner

    “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

    — Ernest Hemingway

    1. I have sometimes wondered if his sparse prose was as much pragmatism as it was chosen style. What I’ve read of his history and his early days as a writer…he was also married at that time, had an infant child, and the freaking Fitzgeralds kept showing up on his doorstep at all hours wanting to party–despite repeated efforts (at least in the days of ‘infant child’) to convince them to GO AWAY. 😀

  13. If you want to see the results of attempted poetry and overuse (and misuse) of big words as a substitute for storytelling, there is no greater example to my mind than the scribblings of a certain uber-troll.

    Not surprisingly, said uber-troll is always telling us all how much our work sucks.

    1. Yeah, and I finally figured out – from the article I relinked above- who that idiot is trying to emulate/steal from. (proving, by the way, that he is incapable of having a singular original thought in his head.)

      My 12 week old parrot, who only communicates to us in Parrot and not yet in English, is more understandable than any of that stuff.

  14. What all of the writers you mentioned that I’m familiar with, along with several others I can think of, is elegance of prose rather than ebullience of prose, IMO.

    Elegant prose is like elegance in any other venue: clean, unadorned, no wasted verbiage, no non essential frippery and linguistic excess. It uses just the right word (or words) to describe or accomplish something, no more and no less, doesn’t really call attention to itself, but when you compare it to other prose, you can see the art in it.

    Elegant prose like a Holland and Holland rifle compared to a gold plated Desert Eagle with pearl grips. 🙂 One is elegant, the other looks like something that the bouncer at a French whorehouse should carry in a faux alligator holster.

    Bujold’s prose is deceptively simple. It’s clean, but it contains exquisitely crafted turns of phrase that ring like a fine crystal to the ear. Elegant.

    “Even Stephen Donaldson, for all his sins with his thesaurus (and they are legion), usually managed to say something as opposed to using the sounds of words as a kind of perverse aural art work.” – Amanda

    Heh. But what Stephen R. Donaldson says is usually a kind of perverse aural art work, and depressing and dismal as all hell. 🙂

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