Monday, November 05, 2012

Clarity and Complexity

There seems to me to be a bit of a false dichotomy between "difficult" and "accessible" writing, whether in poetry or prose. Perhaps its the same in other art forms. Certainly if you're watching the X-Factor you'll only see a transparent, linear art - for with the odd exception, these are interpretations which - in the "saving" song, for instance - tend to want lyrics that reflect the situation. Yet even the most apparently simple of pop songs can be obscure, with no real lack of meaning or understanding. If the "love song" is the main theme of pop music, then love is a perfect medium for both the clear and the complex - for as a concept it is simple, understandable; yet our endless artistic (and personal) ruminations on it tell of its infinite variety, and its complexity. So though you can sing "I love you" in a pop song, you can also sing "you're my wonderwall" or "left the cake out in the rain" and the obscure has meaning. Of course, the tune is often a clue. (And it can work the other way - Springsteen's Born in the USA may be a cynical anti-war song, but its punch-the-air chorus belies that - so no wonder it has often been co-opted by the right.)

One of the reasons, I think, that Carol Ann Duffy is so well read is because she doesn't just do simple, it just appears simple. A poem comparing love to an onion is simple in terms of its image, and could appear (and probably does, in its many workshop imitations) banal, but actually such simplicity is hard to come by. Similarly with Simon Armitage, his poetry manages to sneak the metaphysical into even the most anecdotal of situations. Yet there's that false dichotomy we see where Geoffrey Hill is referred to as "difficult" and Duffy as "accessible." Taking those broad brush themes such as love and death and you can make them either. Hill's poetry at its best doesn't seem particularly difficult to understand the heft of it; but you may struggle with the references. I guess the question I always ask is if a poem (and a poet) is being true to itself. I'd feel uncomfortable researching something just for a poem; yet that's different, I think, than writing about something one is already interested in. It's why "The Wasteland" remains so much of a touchstone - you can read it either way, and perhaps the scholarly approach to the poem might cast less light than the emotional one.

But poetry always has a little bit of a veil over it. Fiction shouldn't be hard, should it? Again, I'm not sure what we are talking about here. Henry James can be hard, because he spends so long getting to the nub of what he is saying, yet he can also write one of the best ghost stories in the language in "The Turn of the Screw." Language, it seems, can get in the way of understanding, and perhaps in James there are times when it does; in Conrad or say, Saramago its the density of the writing that creates any difficulty, yet "Heart of Darkness" or "Blindness" have an ability to express quite simple truths with a depth that resonates along time after reading.

I don't think I've ever had an ideal reader - though I probably write for people my own age, my own generation, and perhaps, with my own cultural reference points. I remember reading that Ishiguro things about what he writes in English now, knowing it will be translated. This seems a strange kind of compromise; but at the same time, if its not clear in your own language then what are you trying to do? I've read a lot of unpublished work over the years and I'd say that the one thing that sometimes lets new writers down is not their obfuscation, but that it sometimes appears that they don't know what is happening in their book. The uncertainty is there. I'm never quite sure I agree with the idea that its up to the reader to "interpret" - the death of the author seems to forget that the author is also a reader (an interpreter) of his or her own work - and though I don't think its the only interpretation, the intent is important. Anyone who has written with any kind of serious intent will know too well how often we fail to achieve what we set out to do. Language, and its complexities, seems to offer the best way out of this bind - that, rather than complexity. Books that I enjoyed, but felt suffered a little from the author's lack of intent, are often ones which seem to get the psychology all wrong. We can, I think, believe anything if the author makes us believe it. I often use the example of "The Godfather" movie, where Micheal Corleone moves from someone who is determined not to be part of the family business, to being a cold-blooded killer who is even more ruthless than his father. This shouldn't work, but the motivation is so well done (and the part so well played), that the change is inevitable.

With the unpublished writer having few readers other than friends and family, you tend to jump on particular comments - either as a sense you've got things right, or an acknowledgement you've got things wrong. A novella I wrote was read separately by a couple who came up with quite different views on the core relationship in the story. I felt that I must have done something right here; for the story was open to an interpretation - these imaginary characters have motives that I have given them, but which are only transmittable to the reader via my prose and their actions.

I don't think of myself as a particularly "clever" person in that I don't know science or languages or mathematics or music and I wonder what sort of writer I might be if I did? However, as an imaginative writer, you can pretty much imagine anything. The essay by James from which this blog takes its name, makes that very same point - that a writer doesn't need to have been a soldier to write about a barracks; but may well have been near a barracks at some point. (In "The End of the Affair" Graham Greene muses that she'd have probably had to have slept with a soldier at least.) So for me to write something complex is for me to know something complex to at least the extent that I can make it believable. What I can't legislate for is my readers being less erudite or more erudite than I am. Chances are I might know more about pop music and computers, but chances are also high that they'll probably know much more than me about nearly everything else.

But a writer tends to be a knowledge sharer in many ways - in which an academic, for instance, may not be. I've found out something good, or interesting, and I'll make a story from it and share that with the world. You should find something new from a novel I think, if only because of the work that has gone into it. "Wolf Hall" and "Bring out the Bodies" aren't a replacement for a history of the Tudors, but you don't need to know that history to enjoy the books - and oddly enough, how ever many histories you've read or seen, it can often be the fictional representation that sticks the facts more in your head than even the best scholarship. But this risks writing as being merely utilitarian. I was at a debate in Norwich a few years ago where a number of writers gave fascinating talks about advances in neuroscience. Here was the classic case; none of us were scientists, specialists in the room; some had spoken with specialists and got an insight that they were able to share; yet at the end of the day, it struck me that we were being a little too much in awe of the experts. Where, I wondered, was our experience in this matter? For if neuroscience is about what it's like to be human, then surely that is what good novelists and poets (and readers of good novels and poems) are experts in?

With the exception, I think, of children's books, which are clearly written, even at their best, with a compromise or two in language and form based upon the perceived audience, there is no monopoly on complexity, or indeed on clarity. A badly written book can be unecessarily complex, whilst a well written one by a good writer may sometimes be bland or banal. 

Because I've no "ideal reader" if I do think about readers its probably those friends I grew up with, or have made in later life. I want, I guess, people I know and like to enjoy or at least understand my writing. If I write something obscure then there must be a reason for it; there must be some clarity; but if I write something very plain, the same transaction is required - why am I doing it? And am I doing it right?

Over the last few years its been my poetry that has been read the most, and its been interesting that it seems to have gone down better with non-poets, and possibly non-poetry readers, than with poets. I guess that I'm writing a recognisable world, at least - for its often contemporary of theme and language. Yet, paradoxically, the poems that seem to resonate best are those where the meaning is not linear, where I'd have some difficulty in paraphrasing what I'm saying. I like to think that that's the moment where I've successfully managed to integrate clarity and complexity in such a way that one looks like the other, and its impossible to untangle either.

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

There's also minimalism to contend with - a black rectangle on a white canvas. Accessible? Lotman wrote "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system". A simple sign can be an allusion to a chain of artistic development.