December 28, 2009

Clear vs. Fuzzy

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. (Well, let’s face it, I always read a lot of short stories.) But lately I’ve been noticing how some come across clearly and some seem fuzzy in my brain.

Some of this has to do, I think, with how far the sensibility in the story is from mine. If it’s fairly alien, fairly far from what I’ve experienced, I often have to reach more. However, a good writer can explain something clearly that is fairly alien (think Denis Johnson), but sometimes the writer chooses a less conventional style to get across a feeling. And that’s part of the problem: When is the writer just being self indulgent and when is she or he legitimately thinking of the reader’s experience?

But even when something is fairly close to my experience, it can come across as fuzzy. The writer’s choice of words are imprecise or doesn’t express things concretely. The structure is unnecessarily complex. It often relates to how concretely ~ or un-concretely ~ things are expressed. Showing vs. telling. It might occur when the writer is trying too hard, trying to be writerly rather than just go inside the character and write from the character’s voice.

And often it relates to interiority ~ how far inside the consciousness we are. Abstract concepts and feelings are hard to describe, and so when we’re deep inside a character, we don’t have the common vocabulary that accurately depicts the inner life.

But I would argue that this complex interior life and the complex moments between people can be expressed clearly ~ and often through sly gestures and hints and omissions. I really don’t mind working hard at understanding something, and especially if it’s something I can read over again and get more out of, but I don’t like the feeling that the writer is more concerned with showing off or masking insecurities than just telling the story.

Another thing I struggle with in this regard is that the more interior writerly language is thought of as being the more well-crafted, better, higher on the literary/art scale. There are times when this is true, but there are times when this is not true. Abstruseness or lack of regard for the reader is sometimes mistaken for depth. Things can be clearly expressed, even using writerly language. And when people write in simple language (e.g., Hemingway), their work can be just as writerly, just as subtle and nuanced. In fact, I would suspect that the stories that are most easily read are the ones that the writer worked very very hard to make that way. And they thought about the reader as they were doing it.

I’m kind of conflating fuzzyness with writerliness, I guess, which I don’t want to do, but the two can be related.

Writerly language vs. spare clear language will always be a tension for me ~ and I suspect for many writers ~ because of the connotations of worth and because that weird balance of hubris and insecurity is the writer’s condition.

What I’m Reading Today: More Anchor Anthology. It does not quite attain the Ecco Anthology’s shear awesomeness, but nonetheless it’s a very good anthology with a lot of really great stories. I think part of my reaction is because a number of the stories are more experimental and outside my comfort zone, which is very good for me to read and cogitate.

PS We’re headed out on vacation tomorrow, so I may not be able to post anything this week. Happy New Year to everyone!

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