Monday, August 3, 2009

High Brau BS

I’m generally impressed with myself when I can get through a difficult book. War and Peace or Don Quixote. I can even up the ante from there and profess that I not only finished, but enjoyed, The Brothers Karamazov… Excellent reads that took most of my brain cells to follow. Strike that… ALL my brain cells. It may be why I love them so much; I had to work REALLY HARD to read them. I’m not sure if that makes me a lightweight literarily (or cognitively) speaking, but I do appreciate a book that takes some effort. I am more engaged, and therefore committed. What I DON’T get, or appreciate, is an assumption that a book HAS to be difficult to have merit. I publish scientifically in my day job. And I’ve learned unequivocally, that it is HARDER to put things in plain English--to make them accessible to people who do NOT specialize in your specialty, than it is to use big words and run on sentences. In fact I believe that people often try to HIDE lack of communication skills in exactly those features (even try to hide a lack of having something to say). I have a former boss who actually prided herself on getting new words into vernacular by getting them in print (do it twice--fool the publisher into printing it, I mean, and it‘s a word--I kid you not), but if a REAL word already exists, then that’s just a venture in silliness. Not that I have anything against silliness, but it seems silliness in the pursuit of prestige should not be the fastest route, unless you are David Sedaris--THEN, silly on! But the two most brilliant women I’ve known personally are statisticians who could make ANYBODY understand a difficult point. PLAIN ENGLISH. (Nancy Perrin and Deb Bybee--should you ever stumble across--that’s for you--THE two most brilliant women I know) What I’m really grumbling about is the English teachers disrespecting J.K. Rowling because Harry Potter isn’t ‘literary’. Well if they mean not a single sentence takes three pages, I suppose that’s true. But (and I mean no disrespect to Falkner lovers *cough*freaks*cough*) a three page sentence that is grammatically correct is not story telling, it is showing off that one has an ability that puts him above the rest of us and therefore fails to communicate. I don’t even like three page PARAGRAPHS. I have to steal my reading time and need at least three stops a page to ensure I don’t have to go back to where I just started because I’ve been interrupted. I think though, what some literary types fail to understand is the goal of writing is communication. It is not one-upsmanship. It is not a wrestling match with the reader to see who wins. It is the sharing of a fabulous-needs-to-be told story. And while difficult CONCEPTS advance thinking, and so in my opinion deserve an audience, difficult LANGUAGE is begging for alone-time in an ivory tower. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.


Joris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joris said...

Do I have any ranking in the list of smart people...? [/preliminary aside]

Anyway, on to the interesting part :)
Personally I enjoy a book that uses a more, shall we say 'refined', vocabulary. I agree with you on three page sentences and the like, interesting though the message they're trying to convey might be, that is something that should have died out with Latin -- a dead language ought to take its excesses with it to the grave, ne?

But my favourite books are all written by people that use a style that shows that they actually understand the words that they're using, and *like* using the more elegant examples. After all, Latin might be dead, but that doesn't mean its descendants don't have a rightful place in the modern world either :)

So, when I come across a book that has words that I recognize from the other languages that I happen to read littering its pages, I am very happy and settle a little deeper into my chair knowing I'm in for a treat. That doesn't mean I like people just inventing words, or using 'difficult' words just for the heck of it, or showing off (although I suppose it inherently is that, somewhat), but I very much prefer the interesting word over the plain version -- after all, we all like our cookies with the chocolate chips better than without, don't we? ;)

Watery Tart said...

Oh Joris-I actually LOVE a book that can teach me linguistically--the trick is using it in a way that makes the meaning apparent, so I learn it, or gives a little (subtle) lesson. And I LOVE beautiful language--carefully chosen words that evoke imagery--an much 'literary' writing has that as its strength. I guess my GRIPE is the believe that simple language can't be just as elegant. Look at all the audiences Jo is able to reach because she has layered complexity--her most basic tool--LANGUAGE is very simple, so any yaya can get it, but it is the STORY where she begins to take people deeper.--yet she doesn't make the people who CAN'T go deeper feel stupid. THAT I believe is where the real art lies.

Joris said...

You're right about something not necessarily having to be difficult to be appreciated, and I completely agree with you on that (although there are times I do feel that if someone doesn't understand a word perhaps they ought to just look it up, or have a better base to start from...), but I think there might be more than just one version of 'elegant' at play here :)

First of all there's the plain elegance of the language, the amount of words that showcase the author's sophistication. But then there's the, perhaps much more important, elegance of the message the author manages to convey with their text, no matter the level of complexity.

I can appreciate both versions very much, the first because it makes me feel good about knowing the history of the words and the different layers of meaning they convey (I remember once translating a segment of Latin text on a woman some emperor killed in which nearly every word was etymologically connected to death -- or at least appeared next to deathly words in the dictionary), but I also love it when an author, in fiction at least, writes a story that allows you to dig deeper and deeper into the story and find new layers of plot.

I suppose it boils down to the fact that elegance might consist of (subtle, and not really important to the understanding of the story) layers of meaning, and layers of plot that enrich the story itself, perhaps making you appreciate it even more on rereading :)

I like both, but as to which one is more important, well, that has to be the plot, doesn't it? After all, if it's beautiful language you're after: read poetry. :)

Alix said...

For the moment, I just want to chime in, "here here!"

Carnimire said...

Quite agree with you, Tami (When do I not?/ digression), and you, Joris.

I like reading books that are well written. Don't mind big words - even like them at time. But the words and sentences have to be appropriate to the context.

What I do mind is books that are clever for the sake of being clever. When people speak in a way noone is ever likely to speak in real life, when reading a passage almost gives the impression of going through a thesaurus - that is when I gently put the book aside... unless it has any other great redeeming features.