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On “Word Garbage” and Heavy Reading

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)


  1. There is sometimes a temptation to force one’s self to love the complicated, uncomfortable or otherwise taxing prose of what has been deemed “literature”, because in so doing we can call ourselves smart. Or at least highly cultured. I’d say that would go for either literature from a bygone era or literature from today. (Though the line between what should qualify as literature, always a blurry one, is even less defined for new works than it is for works pre-1910.)

    But sometimes, a perfectly intelligent and cultured person doesn’t want to have to work to read prose. It’s good to be challenged by some of what we read, yes, but that challenge should not be in getting through the page. The challenge should be emotional. We should struggle with an issue or theme. In other words, I feel our hearts should struggle when reading truly good literature, but not our brains.

    I am usually one such person. I don’t like 20 page descriptions of chairs, and sadly, that is often how literature, at least from a certain era, works. I very much understand that with such works, it is the theme and the prose itself on which our attention ought to be focused, and not so much so on plot and character. Therefore, in theory, 20 pages of exquisite prose could be dedicated to a chair, and if we are fans of sentence structure, we can fall in love with what we are reading.But in the end, it’s all over a chair…and I usually can’t get into that.

    Yet I love great prose as well as great poetry, and I think that the drawn out prose of some books intrigues us, while that of others would not. Even others by the same author. I’m willing to read 10 pages of some prose more than I can read 2 pages of another.

    So I am usually more of a fiction reader, than a literature reader. But fiction can challenge the heart as well. But when I find prose I like that does so, which is very rare, I have found the great literature in the library of my mind.

  2. Can you condense this to a tweet?

    Reading should be an engrossing diversion and distraction from the cacophony of media and advertisements calling for our attention. Let Emerson, or Franzen, or whatever author whose book we plant our nose in enthrall us and focus our attention, even if it is 20 pages to detail a room. The deficit is in your attention, not in their artful prose. Reader, heal thyself…

  3. Can’t agree with Tom. The reader is such a subjective creature, can we really assign blame to him/her simply because they do not consider such laborious reading to be of any interest to them? Why do we so often automatically associate difficulty with a work with intellectual superiority? That sounds elitist to me.

  4. Laryssa Laryssa

    My students also think that difficult writing is the mark of elitism. However, we have yet to argue whether that’s a good or bad thing. In a previous class, we discussed the Poet Laureate position and how, despite the Library of Congress’ best intentions, the distinction makes poetry seem more elitist than it has to be. In many cases, the same people who preach that the literary arts should be made more accessible to the masses are the ones who are keeping them within a small, closed circle.

  5. Tommy: amen.
    Ty: I can certainly see your point here–I think it’s a matter of what one is looking for in literature. Some people like emotion in literature–I like intellectual literature. I don’t think there is a “right” way to write (or read, for that matter) a great work, but I lament the seeming death of the long, ponderous, word-heavy and “difficult” literary work. Too much of what I see these days is “fast food literature”–we seem to have bought in to the ideology of the business world that faster is better, time is money, incident is everything, thought is nothing. Bang, boom, in and out. I even had a student today ask me, about one of the readings I assigned, “what am I supposed to get from this text?” As if there’s supposed to be some short message, a payoff, a takeaway, literature as means rather than end. I really miss the days of Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and other ponderous writers. And that’s basically the stuff I read these days, because I’m not finding this scope or depth in contemporary literature. Not such a bad thing, though, because these kinds of works are inexhaustible…

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