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.