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Glass

Posted Oct 17 2008 9:14pm

Writing about writing always makes me feel like a pretentious self-important idiot, because really: one story published, a column, a handful of essays accepted for anthologies and a month in a writing programme do not make me any kind of expert on literary craft. So on what basis should my own opinions be privileged? None at all. Unless you count the several thousand books I've read, including a few dozen on writing, which might not have made me an expert but has certainly given me a number of very strong opinions.

Good writing is a clear glass window. It's invisible.

Writing that is decorative or flowery achieves this only when the flourishes serve the subject matter of the piece. For example: if you are writing for a highly-educated audience that likes to congratulate itself on being superior to the hoi poloi, you may very well be more successful if you use the fancy-pants $10 words and allusions to Shakespeare and Milton if only because, subconsciously, the audience's egos will be fluffed and they'll be more receptive to your ideas. But fancy-pants $10 words and allusions to Shakespeare aren't going to make you a more effective communicator with most audiences, who will only feel excluded and talked-down-to.

I'll choose as an example a blogger I'm 99.999% sure doesn't read me, and I won't name him anyway. But he's a well-known daddyblogger with a large following and a nutty pseudonym, and his blog title references female anatomy, and now I think I've been sufficiently unclear that he'll never google this but clear enough that anyone who reads him will know exactly who I'm talking about. (But this sentence is a pretty good example of bad writing: "references female anatomy" is, in this case, necessary precisely because it's unclear; in most contexts I'd be better off just spitting it out.) I read one post of his; in it, a mean man yelled at his son, and his son "shattered."

It was very, very pretty, the description of the blogger going out to "sweep" the shards of his son into a dustpan and take him home to glue him back together again. But as writing it sucked, because after reading it you have no fucking clue what happened. Seriously. Did his son cry, fall down, have a seizure, yell, slump his shoulders, shake? Did the father go out and give him a hug, a slap on the shoulder, a pat on the head, a kleenex? Does he glue his son back together by taking him out for ice cream, watching a movie curled up on the couch, leaving him alone in his room with a book, play-wrestling in the backyard, snorting cocaine? Can you picture it? Of course not, because he doesn't describe it.

After you've read it, you have no idea what happened except that a mean man said something awful to a little boy, who didn't like it, and so his dad took him home to make him feel better. You haven't learned anything about the people involved, as you might have if you knew that the boy "shatters" when he cries or throws up or shakes a middle finger at the mean man or that he is comforted when his dad bakes him chocolate chip cookies or when they flip through a few porn mags together.

I think of this kind of writing as being a stained-glass window. You can't see through it at all. Everything on the other side--the ideas or events or theories or personalities that are supposed to be the subject of the writing--is completely obscured. You have no idea what happened or what the writer is going on about. But it doesn't matter because the point of such writing isn't to communicate anything, it's to create a functionless piece of writing that is pretty as an object and can be discussed as a pretty object.

Perfect writing is a window so clear that you can't see it at all. It doesn't draw any attention to itself whatsoever. All you can see when you look at it are the ideas, people, events on the other side. It facilitates understanding, which is after all the point of communication. If there are metaphors, similes, allusions, fancy-pants $10 words, fifty-word sentences or academic theories in it, it's because they make the meaning of the writing clearer --because they are necessary--not because they serve the writer's ego.

Good writing is when the writer's ego gets out of the way so that the audience has a clear view of the subject of the writing. Unnecessary decorative frills are like the writer jumping out on stage to say, "Look at me being poetic! Look at me being smarter than you! Look at me being well-educated! Look at me being In The Know!" At which point the audience has no choice but to look at the writer because they can no longer see the performance; there's a writer in the way. In practice of course this is unavoidable some of the time, if only because we human beings tend to be very attached to our egos and we can't always see our own motivations clearly. But I do think that a writer who is trying to write in order to communicate is going to do this less often than a writer whose goal is to impress an audience with how fabulous or wonderful or clever or poetic they are.

Unfortunately (in my view anyway) the internet encourages ego-driven frippery-laden bad writing. There are no gatekeepers--no editors, no publishers, no fact-checkers--so there's no one to gently suggest to a writer that a certain passage is unnecessary or that they are talking down to their audience. The writer clicks "publish" and whatever flaws their own personality brings to the piece get carried into the final version (my own included) and, as much as the democratizing influence of self-publishing is wonderful, I do think this facet of it is kind of awful.

When it comes to my own writing I would much rather be able to communicate a complicated idea clearly than construct a beautifully-written object whose subject is so obscured behind pretty words and metaphors that no one has a bloody clue what I'm talking about. Pretty words and metaphors have their place, of course--serving the subject of the piece. And I think you'll find, if you go back over your own favourite print books and stories and articles, that those authors too got themselves out of the way of the writing most of the time; and when flowery, academic or symbol-laden language was used, it was used to a good purpose.

I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, though. What do you think? Is there a point to the fancy stuff? Does it serve a purpose on its own?

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