Sunday, February 19, 2006
By Matthew Cheney
13 February 2006
It usually happens with poetry, but sometimes with certain short stories or novels, too: a student says, "Why can't they just write it so people can understand?" And everyone in the class nods in agreement. Because what we read should be written so that we can understand it. It should not be unduly difficult, it should not make us feel stupid, it should not be what we don't like. It should be accessible, transparent—a clear window on a bright day; not a mirror, not a wall.
Inevitably, the student thinks the writer did it to be confusing. But not just confusing to anybody. No, this is a personal attack. Writers whose work is not accessible to us make it inaccessible against us in particular; they set out to smother us in the gooey depths of our own ignorance. They hate us and want to hurt us.
According to many of my students, such writers were paid very well for their work and were drug addicts. I'm not sure why so many of the high school students I have taught think that poets get rich off their writing, but think this they do. I can understand the accusation of drug addiction more—after all, anybody who writes anything that I would not myself have imagined must be altering their brain, because otherwise how can they imagine something I would not imagine, right?
There is no such thing as "accessible writing." There is writing that is, under some conditions, accessible to certain audiences. But even that statement is not entirely true, because it presumes we can say that something definitely did or definitely did not communicate everything it was supposed to communicate. ("Supposed to" according to whom?) However, I don't want to get into an abstruse philosophical argument here about whether anything can be defined, etc., because I have a practical point to move toward. Let's just make the stategic decision to accept the statement, "There is writing that is, under some conditions, accessible to certain audiences," and go from there.
Steven Wright: "I was reading the dictionary; I thought it was a poem about everything."
I am at this particular moment working from the assumption that you understand the majority of what I am writing here. I am, then, assuming that most of these sentences are accessible. To do that, I have to make some assumptions about my audience. I assume that you are literate in English, by which I mean not that you can simply decode the denotative meanings of English words, but that you have a mature vocabulary, experience with complex sentences, and at least a basic understanding of expository modes of writing. I assume that you have some ability to follow a logical argument, and that you will judge what I write based on how well I construct that argument. I assume that you are a reader of fiction of some sort (probably science fiction and fantasy, given the venue I'm writing for, but not necessarily) and that you have at least a vague interest in thinking about fiction's writers and audiences (because otherwise why are you still reading this?), and in particular the fiction that grows out of literary traditions in Britain and North America. I'm sure there are other assumptions I am making about you that are less apparent to me, but the basic fact is this: I am assuming you and I are mostly working from the same conventions of communication and a shared body of knowledge.
The accessibility of these sentences has nothing to do with their value. They are not useful or interesting sentences to a child just learning to read (and to whom they are inaccessible), but they are also not likely to be of much use or interest to a graduate student in literary theory, either, at least not if that person is looking for some new and original insight, because, despite the accessibility of these ideas to such a person, there is nothing particularly new or original here.
Perhaps everything I have written so far, despite its likely accessibility to my target audience, is utterly worthless. I'm sure at least one reader thinks so.
To cry that a type of writing "is not accessible" and then to decry that "writing should be accessible" is to make a narcissistic claim. The claim builds off the expectation that what you read should conform to the conventions you know and are most comfortable with. It universalizes personal preferences. It is a totalitarian impulse.
Gertrude Stein: "Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean no matter what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometime and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding any one." (Four in America)
Consider the insults hurled at some pieces of writing. Self-indulgent and masturbatory are two common ones. These are not words used to create dialogue and discussion about a particular work's merits; these are slurs that insist the writer sought to please only herself and that the writer himself is the only person who could possibly find pleasure in that work. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is lying. It is a judgment on both the writer and the audience, and it is damning, because it does not merely say, "I do not like this," but, instead, "I do not like this, and neither can you."
When someone calls a piece of writing "self-indulgent" or "masturbatory," they say more about themselves than they do about the writing or writer being insulted. A person using such terms claims to understand what is going on in the mind of the writer, that, against all evidence, the insulter knows the writer intended to give no pleasure to anybody, that the writer was not solely concerned with giving the imaginary audience their rightful jollies, because the imaginary audience must be composed entirely of clones of the insulter.
The fear of inaccessibility, and the contemptuous insults that arise from that fear, are linked to fears of ignorance, fears that there are things in the world that cannot be grasped, pleasures that are not universal, ideas too complex for every mind to comprehend, beauties visible only to some people, miracles that affect the few.
The push for writing to be "accessible" to a general audience fails to question the assumptions that allow a concept of a "general audience" to make any sense, and it seeks to force writers to work within conventions of writing that may involve compromises the writer does not want (or need) to make.
There might be good reasons to privilege some types of accessibility. A relativistic argument, one that suggests all writing is equally good or bad because no writing can truly communicate, may lead to some intriguing discussions, but it's not practical or even particularly satisfying. People tend to want to judge things, and they tend to want to be able to share both their enthusiasms and their frustrations. To do so we must differentiate, we must create dichotomies and taxonomies, hierarchies and privileges, loves and hates. At the same time, we must criticize each we encounter: each dichotomy, each taxonomy, each hierarchy, each privilege, each love, each hate.
Jonathan Culler: "The ideal would be to contemplate thought directly. Since this cannot be, language should be as transparent as possible. The threat of nontransparency is the danger that, instead of permitting direct contemplation of thought, linguistic signs might arrest the gaze and, by interposing their material form, affect or infect the thought." (On Deconstruction)
There is the danger of fetishizing The New, of praising anything that looks new and different because we so yearn for the new and the different. It may not be the new and the different that we most need. We may need to rediscover old ways of doing things. We may need to remember what has been forgotten. We may need to repair rather than rip, to console rather than castigate. When we are in the grip of these different needs, what is or is not comprehensible will change, and how it is comprehensible, and to what extent, will change as well.
The first time I read William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, I threw it across the room after the first twenty pages. I had never actually thrown a book before, but I couldn't figure out what kind of novel this was, I didn't understand what was happening, I couldn't find a way in, and I felt stupid, a fool. But I also felt guilty for throwing the book, and so I walked over and picked it up and continued reading. After reading thirty more pages, I threw it across the room again. Still, I felt guilty. I picked it up, continued reading. After forty more pages, I threw it across the room again. I screamed. I gnashed my teeth. I whined and moaned. I picked up the book, and continued reading.
It remains my favorite novel, the only book that gives me absolute, euphoric pleasure when I read any page of it.
I was sitting in a graduate seminar recently when a fairly young student and the professor got into an argument about clear prose. The student complained that what we were reading was written in such a way that it excluded most readers, because the language was too complex, the ideas too abstract. He thought that the ideas he had encountered in these dense texts, or at least the ideas he felt most comfortable with, were ones that it could benefit the world at large to know and to understand. It seemed to him that, instead of sharing their knowledge, the academics who had written what we had read were writing in a kind of code for the initiated. He believed that if the ideas were not ones that would be "useful" to "ordinary people" then they were not particularly good ideas.
I wanted to agree with him. I have had similar thoughts when reading difficult texts. I get frustrated, because I lose the ability to know whether what I am reading is worthwhile or whether it is a sham, whether the language matches the complexity of the ideas or whether it masks a profound emptiness.
I could not agree with him. I have struggled for a long time to develop the skills to read complex texts. I am not always successful; in fact, more often than not I fail to comprehend writing I would like to be able to comprehend. Sometimes I get too tired. Sometimes I read too quickly. Sometimes I want easy reading. Sometimes I want to forget about shared conventions, to let them stay invisible and unquestioned. Sometimes I think ideas should be presented in the clearest possible prose, and ideas that are not must be hiding something. Sometimes.
But most writers are not paid well for their work, and most poets are not drug addicts. Great writers strive—they strive for effects of language, they strive to convey complex ideas, they strive to communicate across the gulf of potential incomprehensions lurking between each person. Readers must sometimes strive, too, if they want to reach toward the greater accomplishments of human art and thought. There is a difference between what is easy and what is rewarding, although neither is mutually inclusive or exclusive.
I once also believed that ideas should be useful to ordinary people, but the longer I lived and the more I experienced, the less I was able to define any of the terms such a yearning relied upon.
Useful. Who gets to decide which ideas are useful and which are not?
Ordinary people. Who are they? Have you met them? Where can I find them?
There is a secret lost continent full of ordinary people, and I must go there. I have some ideas that might be useful to them, and some prose I know they will find accessible.
Perhaps what we need is to stop talking about "accessibility," to admit it is a concept that leads us only to insupportable generalizations and insulting accusations.
Communication is all about shared definitions and shared knowledge. But it is also about shared desires, shared fears, and shared experiences.
All writers are rich, and all poets are drug addicts.
Define writers and rich. Define poets, drug, and addicts.
Tell me why you want this to be true.
Tom Lehrer: "I feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up."
—for Klaus Milich