Betsy Whitt

I read. I write. I think. I live.

Who are you writing for? -or- For whom do you write?

John Scalzi, who almost always has something interesting to say over on The Whatever, has posted some interesting thoughts on simplicity in writing today. People have left plenty of comments, and I feel the urge to add my thoughts on this particular section:

The point of all this is that I think simplicity, for want of a better term, is very often underrated relative to craftiness, which is to say when writers (be they songwriters or authors or playwrights or whomever) say things in a purposefully complex way to show off their skills to a relatively small group of people who will get the joke. That’s all fine and good if all you intend to do is to entertain that small group of people solely. If you’re planning to get your words out to a larger group, filled with people who don’t know your jokes, however, it presents, well, a problem.

Now, I have a friend who is a literature buff, and I mean that in the sense that she’s studied all the literary theories and criticisms and although we are good friends, half the time I just smile and nod when she talks about Literature. It’s intimidating, to a certain extent, and sometimes makes me wonder if I’m cut out for this whole “author” thing until I remember that I’m not aspiring to be that kind of writer. I don’t mind knowing the “jokes”, because I’m not catering to the people who know the punch lines.

My friend, whose name is Kristina, and I often wander through bookstores together, and I always find it interesting to take note of what each of us finds interesting in a book we might potentially read. At one point we were in the spec fic section, which is like a giant candy store for me. I was pointing at books saying “That one was good, ooh and I know that author, and this one’s supposed to be one of the best books out this year.” Kristina found one with a clever title (and no, I honestly don’t remember what it was, but I would have picked it up, and I might go back to that store and that shelf so I can find it again to read it at some point) and pulled it out. Me, I would have flipped to the back cover copy to see if the story looked interesting, but she opened to the first chapter and read the first paragraph. Then she commented on how it was very clever of the author to have used a variation of iambic pentameter for the phrasing, because it complemented the offbeat tone of the content.

I blinked. And, though I hadn’t heard of the author, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I very much doubted the writer had consciously thought, “Hey, I’ll play off of the reader’s expectations of iambic pentameter as I play off their expectations of what this sentence will say.”

This is not to say that fantasy or science fiction writers or even genre fiction writers in general don’t put thought into their craft. It is simply that in my experience, most of us are more concerned with entertaining a large group – to the point that we don’t even consider that smaller (more literary? I cringe to use the term…) groups might read their own “jokes”, as Scalzi puts it, into the material when it really wasn’t intended. The sentence was funny. Catchy. Very witty. Thoughts of what poetic meter it was or wasn’t didn’t even flit at the edges of my mind. Craftiness only registers with those who go around looking for it.

Which is all to say I still intend to pay pretty much no attention to things like literary theory, and if someone chooses to comment on my brilliant use of iambs when my work is finished, they’re welcome to do so. I just hope everyone else thinks it’s a good story.


1 Comment

  1. That reminds me of our HYPERION discussion in Arnzen’s group, about how Simmons was a clever genius, and he certainly used HYPERION to exercise it. But how successful that genius is depends solely on the interest of the audience.

    I’m not sure I’m making sense…I’m too tired, so I’ll shut up now.

    But the quote from WHATEVER? Good quote. :)

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