Twitter and Difficulty


This post is brought to you by an unseemly urge to over-expound.

Anna and I are now both on Twitter. Already, I’ve been involved in genre wrangles. Jonathan McCalmont is currently reading In Great Waters, which you might remember I liked, though not as much as some. Apparently, he’s been reading some classics, too, and remarked that moving from Fitzgerald and Camus back to genre writing was a curious experience: like moving, I guess, from cordon bleu to pub grub. I’ve some sympathy with this feeling – rare has it been that I’ve moved from a out-and-out literary text to a pure work of genre (which In Great Waters is not, despite its clear relationship to SF&F) and not felt the downwards gear change. This, however, is also true of moving from a canonical author to a contemporary novelist yet to prove his mettle – so the contest is somewhat rigged.

In Whitfield’s defense, her own eatery is a gastropub rather than a boozer with a few sarnies on the bar. And here lie the limits of Twitter – Niall Harrison objected to Jonathan’s use of the word ‘simplistic’ to characterise In Great Waters. I’d agree with him that ‘simplistic’ is not the word to use – because, yes, it suggests distorting naivety – but by the same token I think we both agree that In Great Waters doesn’t quite pull itself together. That is a fault, ultimately, of its prose style, which cannot sustain and stretch itself across the novel’s length and breadth. To this extent, then, the spirit of what Jonathan was saying was spot on – he was experiencing less powerful prose.

Twitter, however, is not the place to have a semantic debate – it pretty much demands poor choice of words. How is it possible to have a proper debate about difficulty in prose (and there is now a putative Obfuscatory Writers project abroad) when you are being forced to limit your own words to 140 characters? Whitfield’s writing is not simplistic in the way that – as again we all agreed – much genre writing can be; but it isn’t as rewardingly complex as the writers Jonathan cited. Again, important semantics are unexplorable in a Tweet.

What are the pleasures of difficult writing, though? A plain, unadorned style can be a thing of beauty – Kurt Vonnegut remains one of my very favourite writers, and it is stunningly difficult to emultate his spare, skeletal style. Whitfield’s own writing is comparably full of allusion and play, and, if it is without the on-the-other-hand poetry of a Fitzgerald, is that so bad a thing? Some baroque edifices are ugly; there is a limit to the virtue of ornamentation. But it also seems to me that the fault of Whitfield’s style – its ultimate failure completely to encompass its theme – proceeds from what Jonathan may or may not still call its ‘simplicity’. Moby Dick, for example, is a forbidding novel; but its success lies in that repulsion. Its discursive, Biblical, roiling style provides the echoing space and inward movement required fully to explore depths not entirely divorced from Whitfield’s. The difficulty of the style supports the easing of the theme.

Not all books benefit from an excess of style. Dorothy Parker wrote of Ernest Hemingway (not a writer I care for, but still) that “Hemingway stands as a genius because Hemingway has an unerring sense of selection. He discards details with a magnificnet lavishness; he keeps his words to their short path.” This control – a word used by Niall to describe (some of) Whitfield’s prose – is, like Vonnegut’s, key not only to the merits (as they may be) of Hemingway’s writing, but also the success of its content. It’s missing the point, of course, to think all good writing must be difficult; but there is still a difference between Hemingway’s unadorned prose and the simplistic failures of genre: a clarity, a precision. It may well be harder to achieve this trick, this stripping back, than Melville’s deep soundings. Parker on Hemingway again: “The simple thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.” Even unadorned prose is difficult.

Jonathan was aiming, perhaps, at the descriptive rather than the evocative function of genre prose versus its literary counterpart’s. In this lies the real issue, not the ‘simplicity’ or ornament of the styles in question: it is not enough to tell; prose, as much as the story it strives to contain, needs also to show.


11 thoughts on “Twitter and Difficulty

  1. In Twitter’s defence it’s not really intended to be a forum for intellectual debate, and is unsuited to it. In defence of everything else, no medium is really intended to be a forum for a GDOD.

    I have gradually come to appreciate the 140 character limit on Twitter. One one level it feels like the kind of restriction that would be rejected by the FIA as being too arbitrary, but it also forces discipline. There’s pleasure in having to hone down a thought to its essence, discarding preambles and digressions, making hard choices. Seemingly casual utterances are often the shell-shocked survivors of brutal culls.

    All the things I never normally do when I’m writing, as this comment suggests. πŸ˜‰

  2. Iain – you’re absolutely right about what Twitter is and isn’t good for. I suppose I was more or less angling for an excuse for the above witterings. I’m enjoying it so far, since I, too, am inveterately loquacious.

    Suspect everyone is glad of the 140 limit in this particular case. πŸ˜›

  3. Iain is absolutely right about what makes Twitter both fun and an interesting challenge to use to its full potential. What it also requires, I think, is an extra effort on the part of the reader in many instances, to add the nuance that has by necessity been stripped away by the character count. Whilst there is no good place for semantic quibbling, Twitter is *really* not the place for it; quite the opposite, it’s the place for the reader to fill in the gaps, and to extrapolate a broader meaning.

  4. Simple vs. complex writing is an age old debate. Faulker one said of Hemingway that he “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway’s reply to this was “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

    Which writer is ‘correct’, I cannot judge, as I’ve only read Faulkner (my only expsoure to Hemingway being in pastiche – “The man went to the sea. The sea was wet.”) Perhaps there is something to be said for a sparse, unadorned style, yet I seem to prefer some measure of complexity.

    That aside, you’re absolutely right about Twitter not being quite the right place for such measured discourse. πŸ™‚ More than a few times I’ve typed something, retyped it, cut it down, and then eventually discarded it as not being fit for Twitter.

  5. Nick – if you asked me, I’d say I prefer complex stylists, too. But on reflection I’m not sure I’m that dogmatic. (Uncharacteristic of me, I know.) Different styles, of course, suit – indeed, probably shape – different ends. It’s that consciousness of style, perhaps, which separates great writers from functional ones?

  6. I’m not entirely sure consciousness may have that much to do it. Mainly because I can think of several authors who have never managed to top their first book – working under the assumption that with the first book they just write, and it is with the later books that they’re putting more conscious effort into.

    Am I dogmatic? Possibly. Even if faced with examples to counter my view, I’m sure I could find a way of arguing they count as complex instead of simple after all.

    Certainly, on the face of it I find myself disagreeing with Hemingway in the quote above. A book that simply says “The man loved the woman” isn’t going to move me much, whereas one that uses big words and metaphor and so to express what is essentially the same thing, I’ll find more meaningful.

    Perhaps another way to look at it is to consider whether the book is plot driven, or whether the book is actually trying to say or explore something deeper. Plot driven books would tend to the simple style, where ‘deeper’ books would tend to the complex style. Coincidentally, the former would fall into genre camps (Crime, what have you) and the latter into the ‘literature’ camp.

    In any case, if there’s one thing I’ve managed to convince myself of, it’s that I’m long overdue on reading any Hemingway.

  7. Hmm. Not at all sure there’s any such thing as ‘just writing’, to be honest – in the case of first-time wunderkinds an unpressured fidelity to personal vision, perhaps…

    But aren’t you essentially saying you’re easy to bamboozle? πŸ˜› Big words and metaphors still don’t make ‘the man loves the woman’ any more an exciting story – and arguing with a bon mot, especially one of Hemingway’s, is a hiding to nothing. The key, again, is the suitability of the chosen style, I think, not throwing in verbiage just because you can. Why and how does Hemingway think big emotions can come from smaller words?

    Thus – Vonnegut’sBreakfast of Champions isn’t plot-driven, but its prose is very bald (and deeply affecting). Likewise, many Shakespeare plays are hugely invested in plot, but pause every few scenes for a flowery soliloquy. Perhaps we need to define ‘complex’ and ‘simple’ styles, given the get-out clause you’ve set up for yourself!

  8. Hey there,

    I just stumbled on this blog whilst browsing through your older entries with my free time.

    I have to say that as I’ve gotten older I have started to lean toward writers with a more sparse, simple writing style. I disagree with the ‘A man loves a woman’ example. I tend to find that the great writers of more simple prose tend to rely quite heavily on showing and not telling, and make great use of subtext.

    I think what seperates a great writer (Hemingway, Vonnegut etc) is that you get a real sense of craft from how they do it. It’s like their trimming away all that is unnecessary and leaving you with whats truly relevent. That they are taking great care with each line and not wasting time. They also leave a great deal up to the reader. I think Bukowski said it best when describing his literary hero John Fante ‘ The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it’.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love writers who use more complex material also; I adore the poetry of TS Eliot and Michael Donaghy and of course Shakespeare’s what started it all for me.

    hope alls cool

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