In class yesterday, one of my students asked, “In order to be a great writer, do you need to write works that are difficult to understand?”. He was frustrated by an essay I had assigned: “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He cited Crime and Punishment as another example of a tedious book – why was it necessary to read 20 pages of description about a room? I hope he never has to read Moby Dick.
I let the other students answer before giving my own opinion. Most of them agreed that, yes, Emerson is difficult to read. However, we try to read his work because we know we are going to learn something new, that we will find a reward once we reach the end.
But the student kept pressing for answers. “But why should we have to read complicated sentences and unnecessary words to get to that point?”
I tend to agree. If Emerson was living and writing today, in the same style, very few readers would tolerate his work. We expect information to be delivered to us clearly, without embellishment or “word garbage” (coined by another student). Writers, if they expect to have any readers, must cater to this attitude.
Some students remarked that, in 1844, reading was the only form of entertainment – what now seems like torture was once a pleasant diversion.
While reading Emerson’s essay in preparation for class, I found myself wanting to condense every paragraph. I could strip down most of the sentences to simple, coherent statements and only keep some of the flowery language that particularly struck me. For example, I really like “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it…” but could do without the rest of that long, convoluted sentence. Easily, I could knock off three full pages, and the reader probably wouldn’t miss anything.
In addition, while reading, I had to focus intensely in order to read every single word. Emerson meant for us to read every word – his diction makes that obvious. However, the long paragraphs and complicated sentences make my eye want to jump to whatever seems most important.
Reading Emerson is more a history lesson than a model of how to communicate today, to contemporary audiences. Experiencing the writing of that time, a reader can’t help but wonder why someone would want to write that way. The writing reflects the culture of thought; sentences like “We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety” gives us clues about the ways that intellectuals discussed topics like philosophy and science.
In response to my student’s question: In order to be a great writer, you do have to write a “difficult” work. But what’s “difficult” is the subject matter, the relationships between the characters, and the emotional weight of the story. “Difficult” should describe the reader trying to get the work out of his or her head, even months after reading it. A great writer shouldn’t be difficult to read; a great writer should understand and anticipate his or her reader and make consolations for that person.
At the same time, a great writer will never “talk down” to the reader; he or she trusts the reader will understand complicated concepts. A great writer is like a professor who teaches a very complicated subject to a class of beginners. The subject matter is heavy, but the instructor must explain it in a way that intelligent, mature students can understand. That means: making consolations and having patience while remaining stringent.
A great writer knows that he or she can’t win them all.
(Photo by jennaddenda)