August 27, 2010

Deliberate Murkiness

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful The Hobbit! What joy! What craft! What a great story!

I was thinking lately about writers who are deliberately unclear. As you know, I’m wedded to clarity in my writing. I believe that you should choose the simplest and the right word, rather than one that makes you sound like you’re really smart. Communication over self-congratulation. Substance over style. Readers ~ heck, even writers ~ take it to be depth, when it’s really laziness and self-centeredness on the part of the writer.

In my modern literature class years ago, we read Ezra Pound, and I hated him. I thought he committed the mortal writer sin of not considering his reader in the least. He expected his reader to worship him as a god and to learn his cosmology. There were some French theorists who I thought did the same thing.

There are writers who are trying to get at difficult subjects, which is something different. Sometimes things are just really hard to nail down, to describe. They’re very subtle or outside our common knowledge. This is not the same thing as writers totally disregarding the reader and being deliberately obscure.

As I’m thinking about it, sometimes maybe it’s writers not being brave, trying to shield themselves and/or their readers from the honest emotional truth of the situation. I have a feeling that I would be tempted to do this if I wrote more memoir or personal essay.

I like poetry, especially since it teaches you to weigh each word, and its meaning is packed so tightly. It’s like an elaborate code with many layers. However, poets are some of the worst offenders of this. I think that’s why I don’t read much poetry lately. They’re more focused on the beautiful language than they are on meaning. Style over substance.

As you can see, I feel strongly about this, but today I wanted to argue the other side. I wanted to tell myself why people would want to be deliberately murky, what the benefits are. Let’s see.
  • As I said, sometimes subjects are hard. You need to push the language and reach outside convention in order to try to express it.
  • Also, this obscurity extends beyond sentence-level language to structure and beyond. Sometimes, people are trying to do something novel. They’re trying to say something in a way that hasn’t been said before (e.g., Barthelme’s short story “Indian Uprising” in which he juxtaposes the atrocities of war with the small atrocities of love affairs).
  • It allows for such playfulness in language.
  • If you give yourself free reign, you may surprise yourself and arrive at someplace completely new. If you kick the censor out, your kid gets full reign.
  • To veil something, to protect the people you love.
  • For the pure love of language.
Questions of the Day: If you have additional reasons, please add them. I’m sure there are many I haven’t thought of.

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