Challenging prose can be rewarding on many levels
I have ADHD when it comes to tackling purple prose. While reading someone like Heidegger, my mind wanders off to my inadequacy in the one petty, inconsequential argument that I lost yesterday or to how Panda ice cream’s discontinuation changed my life. Faust gives me nightmares and finishing ‘Ulysses’ once and for all has been my dream for years. It is the wont of philosophers to let their reader get lost in twisted sentence structures that look like complex, winding mazes. Heidegger and the likes of him, believe in dismissing a peasant like me in her heightened spasms of search-for-meaning. There is a prevailing belief that intelligibility in philosophy becomes its death or is a mark of inferior ideas. Literary giants from the formalist tradition are proponents of obscurity, verbosity and unintelligibility. Their works maintain an ambiguous beauty and a distance from the layperson. One must have faith that they are more than just a mess of semantics to be unravelled — perhaps obscure treasures one must scavenge for wealth of knowledge.
Challenging prose can be rewarding on many levels. What comes out from under the layers of verbosity could just be purely accessible genius — especially in case of stream of consciousness. Faulkner renders meaning in his novels such as ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and ‘As I Lay Dying’ using non-linear narrative which makes for intellectual exercise for all and an idyllic journey for most. At the same time, someone not formally trained in reading non-linear narratives or extracting meaning out of a mountain-sized heap of big words in literary fiction is doomed to frustration.
I enjoin you to consider, for a moment, one person who might have had an epiphany one day and decided to rework their world view — replenish it with an investigation of the body of knowledge ‘supposedly’ equally accessible to all. They could decide to spend their nights and days researching consequential questions, looking for answers in academic journals, philosophical texts, seminal literary works and so on. What they are doing is, really, just signing up for daily hours of exercise in futility that is to reap no fruit until they are to learn to comprehend academic interplay of jargon. In order to try and absorb it, it seems, they must devote a lifetime to build a template for philosophical or literary study first.
Imagine going to a black tie event, your invitation says to dress up in formal attire. You would use the conventional notions attached with ‘formal’ from memory and put on a suit, or a formal dress. If someone showed up in a wedding gown, you would be nonplussed. If someone made an appearance in their Bermudas and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, you would be amused, but they would unfairly become persona non grata for such antics. Conformity, although generally seen as the virtue of the average, plays out on different levels of day-to-day exchange. Conformity in writing is by no means a fixed idea. These days, while the new formalists work against the current of contemporary literary trends, they also aim to make poetic criticism a personal game for an exclusive group of critics and academics, closed off to the outsider. This is just as bad as reserving the rights of participation to a select few people in a political rally. If the aim is to gather as many people as possible under one agenda, people from all walks of life should be allowed to join. Similarly, to the end of being read by a large audience, simplicity is rightly the means. Simplicity does not equate to being reductive. I could well say all the things that I am saying in terms that only I could understand, which would make for lazy writing punctuated with terms I have constructed my complex ideas in. If I am able to denude what I am trying to say to its essence, it might be more widely read. If it is loud and clear, there are more chances for it to be heard than if it is whispered in abstruse terms.
To Zinsser, clutter in writing is a disease. I am not programmed to find meaning in my laundry basket. I am not resolute or adept enough to fumble through a mass of pi prose for meaning — I would give up half-way and do something easy like watching a brainless sitcom on television that makes me laugh without my having to displace any brain cells. Inflating words to sound as if only a very smart reader can understand what you wrote is the more serious disease. It reflects on one’s pathological need to be classified as smart- not a very smart thing to do, paradoxically.
Imagine you were assaulted on street as you were not commuting your usual weaponry in your shopping bag (or you were and have slow reflexes). They came at you with their machete and threatened to slit open your jugular but you survived. Terrified, you decided to take classes for learning techniques for self-defence. Someone suggested that you enrol in Jiu-Jitsu, a Japanese martial art, to disarm an attacker. You took the advice and went to this fancy building where they were offering classes, and entered a room full of daintily dressed men and women, twirling around in remarkably flexible ways. You enrolled yourself in that class and started taking lessons. After two weeks, you felt notably more flexible and healthy. Your friend, who had suggested that you take the classes in the first place, met you, saw how your confidence had been boosted and decided to rejoin the martial arts classes with you. Upon entering the Jiu-Jitsu class, your friend burst out laughing and revealed to you that you had been taking ballet classes all this while, which is just so stereotypically opposite to martial arts. The point of this horribly constructed metaphor is simple, you could be doing something unintentionally and may deviate from its strict motive but it may serve the intended purpose — like feeling flexible and confident as a result of ballet classes and reaching out to the audience in case of writing. There are no set rules that you must conform to — the only rule is accessibility, which does require some down-to-earth hard work.
I may not be the best person to give writing advice to anyone but I suppose a few big names like Gore Vidal, Charles Bukowski and David Foster Wallace may know a thing or two about writing. These three writers, with their massively divergent styles, understandably have very different audiences too. Gore Vidal, predictably acerbic and glib in his writing advice often claimed to have never had a writer’s block. It would make laity like you and I, who take time to think, organise and compose their thoughts, deficient and ineffective. He played with words. He also reduced his art to construction of sentences:
“Are you happier eating a potato than a bowl of rice? I don’t know. It’s all the same. Writing is writing. Writing is order in sentences and order in sentences is always the same in that it is always different, which is why it is so interesting to do it. I never get bored with writing sentences, and you never master it and it is always a surprise — you never know what’s going to come next.”
He said one could never succeed with a novel and that he occasionally wrote a good sentence or two. Of course, my myths are punctured and my ambitions stray without direction upon listening to Vidal’s advice. What is remarkably true, however, about what he says in relation to every writer is that, those who are terrible at expressing themselves verbally, pick up a pen.
This idea is reminiscent of Hemingway’s short Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he remarked at the end that he had spoken for too long for a writer and that a writer should write to say what he had to say, and never speak it. This questions Vidal on two levels: for one, that since he was known for his rhetorical and oratorical skills and spoken acerbic-wit, does that invalidate him as a good writer? Second, he is elevating the part, that is the sentence, while dismissing the notion of a cohesive whole in writing. Does that mean his real talent lay in composing glib sentences and saying them out loud instead of writing them?
This is not to suggest promoting the idolisation of these writers or a blind acceptance of whatever they say, however absurd it may seem. They contradict themselves and others. For another pop-culture icon like Bukowski, writing was an honest process. He claimed he never needed to adhere to the tedious process of writing and rewriting his words — he just wrote once. He said that whatever he composed spontaneously was the voice of his soul — unfiltered, unadulterated, unedited. Vidal would not agree. He would say writers like Capote discovered good writing — in the form of the art of lying. He would say that trying to inhabit the consciousness of someone who you have nothing in common with and depicting through prediction what they would think or say or feel would be but deceit. Bukowski wrote mostly about what he knew most — he wrote about himself, his flaws and the eccentricity of humankind. This would bring me to the question of whether it is this phenomenon of being able to get into the consciousness of someone who you have nothing in common with that makes you a good writer.
It would be unusual, downright perplexing, for me to suggest listening to David Foster Wallace for advice on clarity. It would be deeply paradoxical for a man who is incomprehensible to people without an extraordinary vocabulary, to stress any virtues opposing ambiguity and complexity in writing. He is, however, credited for his remarkable talent for accurately depicting multitudes of differing voices. He successfully manages to portray varying levels of complexity of human consciousness in his quintessentially grunge novel, ‘Infinite Jest’. Against the backdrop of time that has been sold to consumerism, (with each chapter named after each year which is named after a product to be marketed) there’s your addict indulging in his rut, thinking in painfully simple terms, towards one simple, isolationist end of gratifying himself. There is also Hal Incandenza who sees others outside of his self, sometimes as an orb of pure consciousness, possibly from the other end of an epileptic attack — unable to understand the concerned glances of people around him. Hal’s monologue with himself is more layered, a lot like Benjy’s from ‘the Sound and the Fury’. Orin Incandenza, with his superior intellect, might contemplate the past, the present, the future all at once. Maybe like Faulkner’s Quentin. While many of these empathetic and autobiographical, many bear no resemblance to the writer. These characters come to life in my imagination, they are real to me. The point is, it does make for a good writer to rise above this debate of truth vs deceit to be able to translate the visceral realm of another — even if their consciousness is completely separate from the writer’s.
I would not deny that my impassioned examination of these writers’ styles does unveil my biases and preferences. The reason that I allowed for two controversial writers to have a dialogue with each other was simply to demonstrate that this debate of whether writing is deception or truth may sound beautiful but is empty and crippling. In this vacant loftiness, one does find the voice of the writers that people found accessible. For they are inclined to love the misfits as they make us feel more human. I look towards this fashionable anti-hero worship with curiosity. For the longest time, the glorification of plentiful misanthropy, misogyny, and blatantly racist jibes in confessional literature confused me. This cultist worship should not blur the real purpose of writing.
In the end, the purpose of writing could just be as simple as having a story to tell. From ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ to ‘The Tropic of Cancer’, nothing has stopped writers from telling it, except maybe censorship laws of a particular country in any given era. The parable resides in your imagination, above its claim to honesty. You have to have the will, freedom and skill to tell it. Great writers made up their own rules and came up with an array of opinions over what good writing is and there has never been any consensus. The only rule to writing is to keep writing and maybe to try and accommodate clarity and comprehensibility for your audience. Otherwise, it is just gibberish in garb of sophistication and nothing more.