Part I: What it means to be an accessible writer
…Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
– T.S. Eliot, ‘On the Metaphysical Poets’, first published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921
“I don’t understand it.”
“It’s just not very accessible.”
I’m often told either/both about my writing: the content eludes, the style obscures, the tone inflates. Jen, piss off with your pretentious patter, please; that self-indulgent bombast of yours, eugh.
Three years ago, my slightly more defensive self would have dismissed these as ad hominem remarks, purposely made to make me feel bad about myself because WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T WRITE WORTH SHIT. These days though, I tend to take them on board as instructive feedback. I’ve never been a sucker for clichés, but it takes two to tango, and so goes the relationship between a writer and his/her readers, I guess.
Or maybe now that my readers are no longer college tutors paid to hear students spew feel-good BS on a weekly basis, but real people in real life, I’ve come to be more aware of my stylistic quirks and flaws.
Which is why, over the next few posts, I’m going to reflect on why I write the way I do, or, eh, as quasi-Freudian argot would have it – my ‘stylistic subconscious’*. Basically, I’m going to be my own ‘style shrink’, mostly by asking the 3 questions below:
1) What is it that (some think) makes my writing inaccessible?
2) What are the formative influences over my style? (psychological, educational, cultural, literary etc.)
3) What can I do about this? Or, should I do something about this?
Before I answer these questions though, I’d like to kick-start this project by thinking about what it means to be accessible with a passage from Don DeLillo’s 1971 novel Americana.
I’ve been a DeLillo fan ever since I read White Noise (1985) (arguably his most critically acclaimed work), so last week I decided to give his first book a try. I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed: in its own quirky way, it’s a great humanistic meditation on what it’s like to live in late 20th-century America (the 70s, in New York City, to be exact). In a nutshell, the story is about a privileged WASP who reaches breaking point, ditches his suffocating corporate job and roams across the Midwest on an impromptu road-trip to ‘find himself’, devil-may-care style. Seeing as my current life goal is to save up some bucks so that I can gallivant through all 50 US states before I hit 25, perhaps the romanticism in his plot speaks to me all the more.
Speaking of which, a lyric by Whitman comes to mind:
We dwell a while in every city and town;
We pass through Canada, the north-east, the vast valley of the Mississippi, and the Southern States;
We confer on equal terms with each of the States,
We make trial of ourselves, and invite men and women to hear
(Lines 7-10, ‘On Journeys Through the States’, in Leaves of Grass)
Isn’t this wonderful? Well, I think so.
But back to DeLillo. His writing, while not ‘difficult’, isn’t always ‘accessible’, at least not in the sense of being ‘easily understandable’ to everyone.
It’s ironic that he’s labeled a postmodernist writer, because DeLillo himself identifies mainly with the Modernist heavyweights. He’s got mad love for James Joyce, whose novels Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he read and re-read in his twenties while working as a parking attendant (both works are brilliantly parodied in Americana**). Allusively dense as his prose may be, his references are usually regional-/US-specific. He piles on the cultural allusions the way McDs used to super-size everything across the Atlantic – so, great for the Americanophile, but not so much for those who don’t give two hoots ’bout Uncle Sam.
I wouldn’t call his style ‘Joycean’ though (read: esoteric as fuck). His words aren’t ‘hard’, by which I mean you don’t need to reach for Merriam-Webster every five seconds to understand what he’s saying. When Joyce refused his French translator Benoîst-Méchin’s request to explain the difficulties in Finnegans Wake, he was straight up bad-ass about not making his work ‘less difficult’:
I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.
Yeah, by which he meant something like:
Pschtt! Tabarins comes. To fell our fairest. O gui, O gui! Salam, salms salaum! Carolus! O indeed and we ware! And hoody crow was ere. I soared from the peach and Missmolly showed her pear too, onot three and away. Whet the bee as to deflowret greendy grassies yellowhorse. Kematitis, cele our erdours! Did you aye, did you eye, did you everysee suchaway, suchawhy, eeriewhigg airywhugger? Even to the extremity of the world? Dingoldell! The enormanous his, our littlest little! Wee wee, that long alancey one!
(Some section (i don’t even know) from Finnegans Wake, 1939)
Ah, generous in both spirit and words, that Irish babe. I swear, if it weren’t for his narrative labyrinths, postwar Modern Lit departments would’ve long gone extinct. Makes me laugh to think that back in 1907, Henry James dissed Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s brick-sized novels as “large, loose baggy monsters” – little did he know that Joyce had a whopper in store for history. Well played, I say.
Of course, DeLillo isn’t anywhere near as wilfully opaque as his literary forefather, but I don’t think something like the following really argues his case for universal ‘accessibility’ either:
“In bed at night I often converse with the great English-speaking figures of history. […] I develop philosophies, legends, autobiographical notes, small bits of wisdom, anecdotes and lies [and] present these to someone like Swift or Blake; then, as Swift or Blake, I comment and criticise. […] I’ve rehearsed this story… told it many times, refining, editing, polishing, getting nearer and nearer the awesome truth. But I have never yet revealed that truth. I have never told the whole story, not to Coleridge, not to Melville, not to Conrad.”
(Americana, p. 322, Penguin 2011 edition)
The character speaking here is a woman named Sullivan, whose defining traits are her gypsy coat, her fractured sense of identity and her ancestral rootlessness:
People speculate on her ancestry. Many seemed to think she might be an American Indian. Others thought her origins were Catalonian or Polynesian or Dead Sea. Once I heard an admiring woman describe Sullivan’s face as pre-Columbian. (p. 9)
I’m sure most would agree that there isn’t a ‘difficult’ word in this passage. But whether the underlying sentiment is (or can be) accessible to everyone is moot.
To the reader who’s acquainted with the works of these literary big dawgs, this could be a poignant and tragicomic moment, as it reveals the speaker’s desire to moor her ambiguous identity to a bloodline that, while highly esteemed in Western civilisation, is foreign to her native and personal ancestry. Also, all of the authors mentioned were either travelers/big on travel-writing, fascinated by the difference of what’s exotic, but at the same time attuned to the fundamental oneness in all that’s human. As a woman with an unstable identity, the multi-ethnic Sullivan chooses to identify with these ‘dead white male’ traveler-authors who have long been canonised as cultural and institutional icons. Oh the irony.
But what if I didn’t know who Swift is or what Coleridge is all about? Nor why Blake/Melville/Conrad matters so much to this moment? Would this lyrical interval still speak to me as much – or in fact, would it even strike me as being lyrical/human in the first place? Sure, we may be blessed with having Wiki at our fingertips as a kind of 24/7 digital shorthand for knowledge, but (a) looking up a bunch of references when I just want to read a book is (or could be) annoying, and (b) even if I knew all there is to know about the authors mentioned, the hard facts may still be too fresh in the mind for any emotional resonance to sink in.
My point, then, is that what counts as ‘accessibility’ is almost always subjective. I know, I know, that doesn’t excuse my pathological obsession with turning people’s names into adjectives. Apparently, this Independent columnist Miles Kington reports that there’s a Literary League Language Label Committee headquartered in Essex, whose job is to decide on serious matters like whether Hemingway deserves Hemingwayesque/Hemingwayian/Hemingwavian as his adjectival afterlife.
Wow. Will they please just hire me already. The only problem is that it ain’t real and it’s all just satire. Which means the world is still sane and I’m weird as per. So all is well.
I wonder when critics will start saying ‘DeLillean’.
Also not happy that ‘Chan-ian/Chan-esque’ doesn’t sound quite right.
Must be karma.
*I know this sounds ridiculous, but the residual effect of an English degree will wane over time, I promise…
**For example, one character refers to cajoling his homely-looking wife as “Mollycuddling my Bloomless bride”, which is an allusive play on Molly Bloom, who is the wife of Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses.
[Photo credits: NYBooks, Mad Magazine, WSJ, Stefano Reeves, Book to the Future, Ashmpeck, Matthew Ashton]