Simplicity

First, let me tell you about the auction to benefit Terri Winding. Terri has been one of the benefactresses of the fantasy community for many years. She is a writer, artist, and editor, and writes one of my favorite blogs, The Drawing Board. She is also one of the loveliest people you are ever like to meet. Because she’s been dealing with medical and legal issues, her friends have set up an auction to help her out. The most astonishing things are being auctioned: art by some of the best fantasy artists, plenty of signed books, opportunities to have your manuscripts critiqued, and some truly strange and interesting items. If you’d like to see what the auction has to offer, click here:

Magick 4 Terri

I’ve donated some items to the auction as well, and when they are listed, I’ll let you know!

Today’s blog post is inspired by a post written by Damien G. Walter, the Guardian columnist who does such a wonderful job bringing attention to important fantasy works and writers.

Yesterday, he wrote a post called “Why Crap Books Sell Millions.” It’s a response to an interview with Umberto Eco in The Guardian in which Eco says, “I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Walter has a different opinion. He writes,

“I wish I could agree with Umberto Eco (who I LOVE) in The Guardian when he says that ‘people are tired of simple things, they want to be challenged.’ And by wish, I mean that every fibre of my superior, snobby little soul is vibrating in agreement. But the rational part of my mind that retains a tenuous engagement with reality knows that more people will watch X-Factor this Saturday than will ever read any one of Mr. Eco’s sublime novels.

“When it comes to complexity in novels, it is lost on most people. Worse than lost, it will likely make a text incomprehensible to most people. Because most people, whilst literate, just aren’t very good at reading. Dense, poetic prose, rich in symbolism and thematic depth, the things us writerly smarty pants all love so much, will just confuse the hell out of most people. That prose passage you’re so proud of, the one that switches seamlessly between the internal monologues of the novel’s five key protagonists whilst expanding the narratives core philosophical argument? Most people just couldn’t make it go in to their head even if they tried. You may as well expect them to read pure binary machine code.

“Bestselling books are, by and large, simple books. Simple stories, simple language, simple ideas. But, simple is as simple does. Perhaps the real art of the novelist is saying the most complex things in the simplest ways, so that even stupid people can understand.”

I disagree with Walter’s use of the word “stupid” here because I think it’s imprecise. I know people who put one of Eco’s novels down after a couple of pages. They’re not stupid. The ones I know personally tend to be doctors and lawyers, and they’re more likely to watch (and love) Downton Abbey than X-Factor. They like to read John Grisham. They pay attention to the latest bestsellers. They’ve read The Da Vinci Code and Eat, Pray, Love. They like nonfiction, such as Atul Gawande’s books on the medical practice or books by political figures.

Bestselling books are generally simpler, I think that’s true. Two summers ago, I was staying at Lake Balaton in Hungary. The house had very few English books in it. I ended up reading a John Grisham. After a while I began skipping, because I realized that if I read random pages, I could still follow the plot. And I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

I mostly liked it, although it lost me toward the end, when Santiago turned into the wind. At that point it became too religious and mystical for me. I lost the connection the book had made, all along, between my personal journey and Santiago’s allegorical journey. And for some reason, I didn’t like that Santiago’s journey was to find his treasure, while the journey of the woman he loved was to find him – her love. She should have been on a quest to find her own treasure. I don’t think your treasure can be another person. (Imagine the pressure you put on someone, expecting them to be your life’s goal!) But I could absolutely see why the book had sold as well as it had.

It’s a simple book, in that its meaning is immediately accessible, and I think Walter is absolutely right that simple books, without the sorts of erudite complexities that one sees in Eco, appeal to a much wider audience. So often when we sit down to read, we want simplicity: a clear path into the book, an easy escape from the reality we’re leaving behind. If the book contains a lesson, we want it to be evident, not hidden from us.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Simplicity can be done badly, or done well. The Little Prince is a lovely book, and it’s simple, accessible. The novelist has to make choices, and one of those choices is prose style: between “dense, poetic prose, rich in symbolism and thematic depth” and something else. I suspect the reason Eco’s supposedly simpler book did not sell well is that it wasn’t written in his style. When people buy Eco, they want Eco. They are prepared to be challenged. If they weren’t, they would buy something else.

So I suppose what I’m doing here is, first, saying that “simple” and “crap” are not the same things – that simplicity is an important tool for the writer, that there is a reason simplicity sells, and that it can be used well. And second, I’m saying that what Eco claims may be true for Eco. Readers may go to him when they are tired of simplicity. What is true for one writer may not be true for another – after all, Eco’s best-selling book is The Name of the Rose, and how many readers put it down when they get to the chapter in Latin and just watch the movie? Simplicity and complexity are tools for the writer. You need to know which tool you’re using and why, and also know yourself – which tool is appropriate for the writer you are.

(I write this as someone who has been advised in the past, by a kindly relative who no doubt wanted to see me on a bestseller list, to read Dan Brown and write more like that. Just so you know.)

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8 Responses to Simplicity

  1. Just home from a long time away in the woods and read your post–reposted same because I too love Terri and many others in my circle do too (http://mscomfortzone.blogspot.com/2011/11/wednesday-world-muse-terri-windling.html)

  2. Thanks for spreading the word, Michelle! 🙂

  3. Emily says:

    Thank you so much for writing your response to the article. I had similar frustrations with how the author was disparaging simplicity like it was a bad thing. One of the things that frustrates me is that dichotomy a lot of people create between “complex” and “simple” in order to justify why their reading choices are inherently more valid than other peoples’.

  4. Linda Adams says:

    I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to review an ARC for a spy novel. The area I’m having the most trouble is summarizing the story. The story is so complex that I had trouble following it while I was reading it, and honestly, I still haven’t figured out how it actually solved the problem presented by the story.

    A question to ponder though might be what the definition of simple is. I think some people might think of it as walking the reader through everything in an obvious way like they were two years old and not a story that buries itself in complexity. I like stories with a lot of plot, which means there’s more story there, but I also shouldn’t have to work to follow the story either.

  5. I unabashedly read children’s books even though my children are grown up now. For simplicity
    I read Maurice Sendak, Beatrice Potter and Randall Jarrell’s ‘The Animal Family,’ as well as his
    fairy tale inspired poetry. Italo Calviino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millenium” is a priceless
    work, a how to of writing with forceful simplicity. As far as complicated books go, I love A.S. Byatt
    and the recent The Children’s Book has many characters and some have found them hard to
    keep up with. It is catnip for me, big, bold, beautiful, political, magical and instructive for novelists.
    I’m in writer’s group with several aspiring novelists and while some books I try to read are, oh
    well, this doesn’t help me, I get the hair standing up reaction when it is wonderful.

  6. Blood Meridian Or The Evening Redness In The West By Cormac McCarthy is a simple book. Relatively slim, lacking even the ornateness of punctuation, and thrusting its story forward like a bayonet into your chest. It is also a profound, intensely moving and literate novel.

    So yes, simple doesn’t mean stupid. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Chandler, not to mention more contemporary writers, are proof of this. But their work is at the same time brimming with intelligence of one sort or the other, parred down to deliver visceral blows to the reader.

    The Da Vinci Code is on the other hand, a near textbook example of poor writing and bad ideas conflated by a popular appetite and the perfect storm of clever marketing and controversy.

    Downton Abbey isn’t exactly the Wire either. Or even a good production of Wuthering Heights. It’s a dowdy, reactionary soap-opera with considerable charm but little brains to commend it. Lots of outward posh and polish but it is just as much accessible popular TV as X-factor or Strictly Come Dancing.

    “They like to read John Grisham. They pay attention to the latest bestsellers. They’ve read The Da Vinci Code and Eat, Pray, Love. They like nonfiction, such as Atul Gawande’s books on the medical practice or books by political figures.”

    Doctors and lawyers are not stupidity-proof. And more to the point, I think we’re talking here about a very clear distinction between people who love literature and literate books, and those who want “simply (sic) entertainment.” Some people enjoy both, this is demonstratively true. But others seem for a number of reasons, to never be fully comfortable with novels that demand something more than just showing up to turn the pages from their readers.

    Contemporary best-selling novels are fighting against the tide then, and since a best seller by definition needs to appeal to the widest possible base, why would we expect complex literary novels to be the norm and not the exception?

  7. Liz Ziemska says:

    Simplicity is important. As I sit here and try to help my 17-year-old stepson edit his college essays, I have to keep reminding him not to withhold information from the audience, not to leave things out just to be provocative, ‘post-modern.’ Writing is about producing/inducing a certain emotion/state of mind in the reader–that state of mind should not be confusion or boredom.

  8. Post in haste. Repent, well not in leisure. After a busy day I woke up and it came to me I had
    misspelled ‘Beatrix’ Potter. If she were Beatrice, she probably would have written cook books,
    honorable but not magical cook books.

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