Readability

I meant to write a blog post earlier, but I became fascinated by a documentary on the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. It was about his creation of a dance based on the life and impact of Abraham Lincoln. If you want to see what a magnificent dancer he is, here is a YouTube segment that will give you at least a sense for how he moves.

But what fascinated me about the documentary is what always fascinates me about those sorts of things: seeing an artist work. And Jones is an artist with a capital A, brought up on modernism and its sense of the centrality of art and the artist. (The segment will demonstrate, also, something I’ve always believed: that dancers are the most beautiful people. Jones is sixteen years older than I am, and I could never hope to have a body as strong, as limber, as beautiful as his.)

The dance he was choreographing was particularly important because he wanted it to be accessible for a general audience, while not insulting the sort of intellectual audience that usually goes to see modern dance.

And that’s really my subject for today, because I’ve been reading Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.

And I’ve noticed something: certain writers are remarkably readable. They just keep you reading. You know what I mean, right? The Harry Potter series are remarkably readable. The Steig Larsson novels are as well. Readability does not mean a novel is great literature. But it’s an important quality to think about.

So I’ve been looking at these stories in terms of their readability. Gaiman himself is always remarkably readable, and I read “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” in one sitting. I liked how it was structured, the twists and turns. Michael Swanwick’s “Goblin Lake” was readable and humorous. Elizabeth Hand’s “The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” was readable and classic Hand, meaning simple on one level and intensely complicated on another. And beautiful, and a joy to read. But I expect that from her. I haven’t read many of the other stories, but I’ll confess that I could not get through Joyce Carol Oates’ “Fossil-Figures” (it just kept going on and on, so I skipped to the end), and I’m in the middle of Walter Mosley’s “Juvenal Nyx” and may end up doing the same thing because it’s a vampire story and it too keeps going on and on, as though the technical aspects of life as a vampire were interesting. But Mosley is also a readable writer, as anyone who has read his detective stories knows.

I also recently read “Covehithe” by China Miéville, which is lovely in the way Miéville often is at his best, which is that he turns the grotesque into the lovely. (Who else could give me a vision of oil rigs mating under the sea?) And he, too, is a readable writer. At least in Un Lun Dun and The City and the City, although I confess that I became bogged down in Perdido Street Station.

I know, readability is a strange word to use, because technically all writers should be readable – I mean, we read them. But what I mean is having a sort of narrative pull. This is important to me because I want my writing to have that, to pull the reader along. I want it to be remarkably readable, for the reading experience itself to be a pleasure. (Remember, it doesn’t have to be. There are important writers whose writing is not particularly readable in that sense. Whose writing you have to work at.) I honestly don’t know if my writing has that – I think it does in my best stories, and it’s something I want to work on.

Maybe accessibility is another way to look at it – like the dance on Lincoln, I want my writing to be accessible to everyone, but not to insult an intellectual reader. If that’s possible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about issues like this, reading consciously. Because now that my dissertation is done, I want to be the writer I can become. And I’m not sure what that is yet, exactly.

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4 Responses to Readability

  1. ridlerville says:

    Interesting post. STORIES is, IMHO, a very uneven antho in terms of readability. But that’s the nature of readers to a collection of different kinds of stories. One key, I suspect, is that the nature of a writer’s voice is a key ingredient to being readable. I know many folks who loved the JCO story, loved how her voice sang through the brothers’ lives, and hated the Lansdale story which just seemed to plod along. I was the reverse. Lansdale’s story had me from the first page, where the JCO story was so distant I couldn’t help but be reminded that I was reading a story (and those losing some readability for me). I think it was the appeal of the voice telling the tale that can act as a magnet for the suspension of disbelief.

  2. Brady Allen says:

    “I want my writing to be accessible to everyone, but not to insult an intellectual reader.” Exactly! I know what you mean.

  3. Sofia says:

    I think there’s a difference between readability and accessibility. Accessibility just means something’s not hard to read, but readability is what you’ve described here as “narrative pull.” This means that a book can be challenging at the sentence level and still be readable (if it’s really good, people will not even notice how complicated those sentences are–think of Valente’s “Fairyland”). It also means that a book can be very easy to read and yet impossible to get through. (To give a counter-example involving fairies, if your kid reads those fairy books–the weather fairies, the holiday fairies, the animal fairies–well, let’s just say I was delighted when my daughter moved on to Harry Potter.)

  4. I haven’t read the Landsdale story yet, but I am finding the anthology uneven. I find myself skipping around a lot, stopping reading stories in the middle, etc. On Twitter, Damien Walter suggested “compelling,” and I think that’s a good term too: a story that compels you along, that keeps you reading. I agree, some books are “easy to read” and yet impossible to actually read because the style is so dull and plodding that it’s as though your eyes glaze over . . .

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