The OF Blog: You must be this high IQ to read ***'s writing

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

You must be this high IQ to read ***'s writing

The reactions to my linking to that MJH comment on urban fantasy have been interesting, to say the least. While I knew there'd be some opposition to what was being said, it seemed at first (and second?) glance as though much of the criticism stems from certain readers' prior exposure to Harrison, usually through his blog posts that I've linked to in the past and not so much to his fiction writing (most either haven't read any of his works or read only parts of Viriconium).

Among the criticisms, well-argued or not alike, was the notion that Harrison uses "too many big words" and that he comes across as being unnecessarily verbose. It is a rather odd accusation, tantamount to calling an author too erudite for an audience. Claiming that a writer, especially one who has been lauded in the past for his prose, uses "big" words in an attempt to "impress" or "humble," is a bit...odd.

Leaving aside the particulars of that discussion (I agree with those who noted that urban fantasy can be more than just what is commonly marketed as such), I wanted to address briefly the issue of writers using "big words" and the claims of erstwhile audience members that such things smack of "pretension." After all, isn't the semantical arguments brewing in those linked posts but just one tiny part of a larger argument about what an author ought and ought not to do?

Writers write for various reasons and to various people. Most are going to write, or at least start out attempting to write, a story that they themselves would want to read or tell. Others, especially essayists such as myself, want to engage in discussions and their words will be chosen to create the maximum effect toward that end. Some writers doubtless bend their stories towards the specific desires and expectations of an audience. Each of the three approaches can work to an extent, but what happens when a writer from the first group encounters an audience from the last?

Should a writer such as Harrison be expected to write to the expectations/reading skill levels of a very specific audience? Should such an author be urged to curtail the florid, baroque qualities of his/her prose in order to satisfy that audience's demands? Or would it be okay for that hypothetical everyman writer to just grab his/her crotch, spit, and tell that demanding audience to go fuck themselves, as s/he is going to write for the "fortunate few" who are willing to work their way through allusion-rich prose in order to grasp the full nature of the story the author aims to tell?

There have been many works that have failed to engage me. Sometimes, that is the author's fault, but many times it is mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. And if I use Latin or other foreign expressions, it's not because I want to "impress" or "humble" whoever is reading what I'm saying, but rather because whenever I struggle to put a voice to a je ne sais quoi notion, I want to use the most precise language tools at my disposal. But yet there are those who for whatever reason (I suspect that many times it is because of a struggle with some of the expressions, although that is not always the case) want to criticize another for expressing him/herself by using "high" language. What is "wrong" with using such, if the writer knows how to use it appropriately?

Sometimes, I wonder if there is this expectation that an author has to "lower" her/his prose rather than readers aspiring to aim higher and to learn more. But perhaps this is now a day and age where we have to check our IQs in at the door?

6 comments:

Alan said...

I think there's something to be said about the current state of how many see prose in fantasy. We seem to have this Creative Writing 101 approach where Teacher has said all sentences must be crystal clear and simple. As if we've culturally inherited a business writing mentality, rather than feeling free in fiction. It's the sort of thing that kills language and limits what prose can be. If I don't understand a word, I look it up, and expand my vocab. It's what people do to develop.

Martin said...

It is immensely depressing that any of the words in the Harrison quote are considered "big". What are the scary words? Frisson? Paradigm? Normative? It says a lot about the fantasy blogosphere that words that should be part of any reasonably intelligent person's vocabulary are signs of elitism and pretension.

And I'm amused that most of the people who have reacted against his description are actually in agreement with him once you look past their knee-jerk reaction.

The Witchfinder said...

This may seem like a strange occurrence, but truly, it's not. People hate elitism. Always have, always will.

Aidan Moher said...

You forgot to work taste into your equation Larry.

And pretentious jackassery on the part of the 'big word' user.

~Aidan
A Dribble of Ink

P.S. Heh, the captcha word verification was 'spell'.

vacuouswastrel said...

Well, I was probably one of the ones you were referring to, so perhaps I should explain my point.

First, we ought to distinguish storytelling from essay-writing - or, if you will, rhapsody from rhetoric. It's all very well claiming a great degree of leniency in rhapsody, where all is a matter of taste. After all, rhapsody need not provoke the same reactions in everyone to be effective. But rhetoric has a purpose it is heading to - a conclusion.If somebody reads your rhetoric and doesn't know what you've said, or thinks you've said something other than what you think you have said, your rhetoric has, at least partly, failed. With rhetoric, the writer can't be happy if the reader doesn't understand but just likes the sound of the words - whereas in rhapsody, that's a perfectly valid attitude.

Now, inevitably rhetoric will not be able to work for all audiences. Some people just won't understand what you are saying. But rhetoric aims at understanding, and so it should attempt to be comprehensible to as many people as possible. Its subject matter may close down the audience somewhat, but its style should not limit its appeal any further than the subject already has.

Otherwise, we the readers will feel that the writer is not writing rhetoric at all, but is instead writing rhapsody - in other words, by presenting something as not a story but an essay (or whatever word we might want for the shorter, less argued and more suggestive equivalent of an essay), the author is playing with us, is claiming some superiority to us.

Or, to put it another way, the relation of storyteller to audience is an unbalanced one - the storytellers has the power and the glory and the authority and the prestige. But the relation of two disputants in a discussion is an equal one - in stepping down from the role of bard and into the role of disputant, MJH is putting on the mantle of equality. We expect to be treated as equal partners, to the extent that that is possible. By demonstrating his prowess for no legitimate purpose, he shows us that that is indeed only a mask - that in fact he still sees us as inferiors. Of course, this could be, and probably is, unintentional. Nonetheless, I think that that is the root of why his grandiloquence offends people.

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It may be objected that he is not doing this - that his register is fully appropriate and necessary. But come on. You yourself say that others agree with his points when they are restated in actual English. His points CAN be restated in good English, and if they were they would be more accessible, more convincing, and more genuine. It's thus hard to avoid the fear that he's chosen not to do so either to keep his point incomprehensible or to demonstrate his intellectual superiority.

What does his word-choice add to his argument? Nothing. I've read a fair amount of the sort of philosophy he gets his language from, and even I can't drag anything extra out of it. And no, it's not a matter of lacking the IQ to understand what the great MJH has said. I've a philosophy degree from Oxford, I read the stuff in my spare time, and I still think his word-choice is vacuous.

To take an example: what is that phrase "trait paradigm" doing in that sentence? Let's begin with the old-fashioned meaning of a paragon or ideal. Well, no, urban fantasy doesn't "correct" any paragon or ideal traits, as they weren't seen as ideal to begin with. Nobody ever said that the most brutal vampires were 'paragons' of vampirehood. It's obviously not a paradigm in the grammatical meaning. Moving on to philosophy, is it a 'paradigm' in the philosophical sense - a text that acts as an exemplar defining good practice? Well, if so a 'trait paradigm' would be a trait that acts as an exemplar in this way. But while we may talk of the depictions acting as exemplars, to talk of the traits being exemplars is nonsense - good practice in writing about vampires is not taking any trait as an exemplar, as a vampire is not a trait. OK, so we can assume that MJH is just playing with English syntax and instead means paradigms that define/guide traits. In that case, something like DRACULA may well be taken as a paradgim FOR vampiric traits. But clearly urban fiction does not 'deny' the existence of Dracula, or the fact that it has been a paradigm.
Now, psychologists do use the phrase "trait paradigm" - but they appear to mean another thing that doesn't fit here. Psychologists talk of THE 'trait paradigm' - the concept of the "trait" is a 'paradigm' in an extended analogy to grammatical paradigms, which is to say that it is a category or 'slot' in personality descriptions, with everything that can fill that slot having a parallel significance in the whole. And lets leave aside the fact that the "traits" MJH is talking about are not the sort of thing psychologists call 'traits' at all.

In short, MJH uses vocabulary that looks technical and precise, that looks to be be taken from some tradition that we would have to learn about to understand him fully. In reality, it's vocabulary which he's made up himself to give the illusion of depth. At best, he's picking shiney phrases from such traditions and squeezing them into his essays in a way that doesn't fit their actual meaning. In this case, he's not talking about traits, he's not talking about paradigms, and he's not talking about trait paradigms. What is he talking about? Well, if we're charitable toward him we can put together a vague idea, but frankly that's an effort we have to put in to overcome his poor writing, where the writing should instead be our guide and aid.

In fact, for this particular example, if you google for "trait paradigms" (which I did, to see if I was missing something) you'll find that No.3 is your post on ASOIAF and No. 5 is MJH's original post. I'd hazard that that's not a good sign - when I see someone using jargon, I'd rather it was jargon other people used as well, or at the very least jargon that he chose to explain before using it.

----

It's not about the length of the word per se, I don't think. It's about the appropriateness of the word choice. When every second word is a) unusual, b) barely appropriate to the apparent meaning and c) replacable by more accessible words, it's not a case of a high-IQ writer talking about an inaccessible subject as best as he can, it's a case of a writer who likes people to think of him as high-IQ choosing to make his points less accessible than they would otherwise be in order to show off his vocabulary - even if precision of word-use has to take a blow in the process.

----

Stylistically, he seems to borrow from Continental philosophy. As someone 'raised' on the Analytic side of the Great Philosophical Civil War, I naturally view Continentalism as vainglorious obscurantism (just as they view Analyticism as pedantic scholasticism) - but at least I can concede to Gadamer or Foucault or Vico a degree of intellectual vitality, originality, insight, that might to a degree mitigate the horrors of their undisciplined, imprecise, showboating and intentionally-confusing writing. MJH is making a perfectly pedestrian (albeit probably justified) point that could have been made in a clear and pedestrian fashion. He chose the obscurantist route - hence I find him deserving of ridicule.

---

This, of course, has nothing to do with any literature he may or may not have perpetrated outside his role as a blogger. Perhaps he writes well there. Certainly obscurantism and sesquipedalianism are no imsurmountable obstacle to good writing. The Book of the New Sun, for instance, is one of my favourite books. Donaldson used to be one of my favourite fantasy writers, and if his themes and plots and characters and dialogue were better, he still might be, despite his assault on my thesaurus.
That said, if MJH writes like this intentionally in his blogs, I have little interest in hearing what he has to say in his fiction - and if he writes like this because he cannot help himself, and cannot chose registers appropriate to contexts, then it's hard to have much faith in his English abilities in other spheres. Either way, viriconium is on my to-read list - but it's a very, very long list, and every time I see one of his blog entries it drops another rung down into never-happen.

[Bugger. That was meant to be a lot shorter. It's easy to see what part of my own prose I've insufficient control over...]

Larry said...

Alan,

I totally agree. If I didn't bother to learn how to use the "hard" vocab at all, I know I wouldn't have learned my second language (Spanish) at all.

Martin,

Yeah, it's depressing to realize that there's been such an emphasis on a less sophisticated vocabulary for such a long time that those words have become viewed as being "big" or "unnecessary." And like you, I've been amused to see the similarity in reactions to urban fantasies, but I will admit I thought there'd be more tacit agreement and less vitriol spilled when I posted it.

Witchfinder,

True, but with the irony of those who hate "elitism" tend to engage in an Orwellian adaptation of it...Two legs bad...some of the time.

Aidan,

I didn't forget, rather I referred to it obliquely. If an author is not obliged to write for a specific audience, then why should that author be criticized if his/her writing is geared towards the tastes of another set? Considerations like that are why I so rarely use words such as "pretentious" without at least using them in an ironic or sarcastic sense.

VW,

I would argue that if the author is speaking to another, imagined "ideal" audience and someone outside that imaginary audience were to read it and fail to grasp it, that it is not the fault of the author as much as it would be failing of the reader to possess the necessary interpretative tools. Si escribiera mi ensayo en español y un forostero habría leerlo y no lo comprendiera, tendría falta? Some things readers are not prepared to process/comprehend. I muddled my way through Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatlogy several years ago; one of the few books in English/English translation that I have struggled to comprehend. Yet I wouldn't argue that Derrida was a pretentious asshole because I could barely follow his arguments, but instead I would try again before weighing in.

In regards to MJH's language choices, it depends on whether or not he views his blog as being a personal musing (based on what I've read of it, I would lean towards this view) or as a place where he can stake positions. If he's writing for an imagined select audience or mostly for himself, then wouldn't it stand to reason that he gets to choose the semantical battleground?

To put it another way: last night, I was IMing with a friend of mine from El Salvador and I was talking about how I wanted to develop my ability to write in Spanish by writing a few select reviews in Spanish and posting them here. I thought I might compromise, since over 90% of my reading audience likely doesn't read/speak/write Spanish fluently, by posting an English translation, but if I were to do so, then I'd lose something of the power of my intended expression by switching languages. So I think criticizing an author for word choice might be short-sighted if the author's intentions are not accounted for. Death of the Author only goes so far, I suppose.

Don't know what search engine you used, but "trait paradigm" comes up quite a bit in psychological discourse on personality theories. The phrases he uses there are familiar to me and I didn't detect anything that was invented by MJH. Rather, I thought he used those terms appropriately in his consideration of the psychological profiles being constructed by urban fantasy writers. As for restating his points in simpler English, I don't think that's completely possible, as he appears to have very specific things in mind by using those terms. If the discussion deals in part about character traits and how they may be related to psychological theories on personality development, it may have made more sense for him to choose the semantic scalpel than the dull straight-edge razor to probe at the trouble spots.

As for MJH's fiction writing, there are lengthy quotes from two of his more famous stories in reviews that I've posted in the past week. In those, he demonstrates an ability with semantic wordplay that few writers in English have displayed in the past century. It is because I am familiar with his fiction that I find his blog entries to be condensed versions of his reflective thoughts and that when trying to judge whether or not his writing is "pretentious" or not, one would first have to ascertain what the "audience" is.

 
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