Thursday, April 02, 2020

Accessible Writing

The April 2020 issue of RWR (magazine of the Romance Writers of America) contains an article titled "The Literary Craft of Accessibility," by Rebecca Hunter. She begins by analyzing the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, for which she focuses on level of accessibility: "Literary fiction expects the reader to come to the book, while genre fiction books come to the reader." To put it simply, literary fiction expects the reader to work harder. It would be easy to conclude that denser novels are therefore of higher quality than less "difficult" works, a "false—and harmful—hierarchy" the author warns against. I readily agree that a "literary" novel may be difficult and dense for the sheer sake of difficulty, putting unnecessary roadblocks in the reader's path from the mistaken notion that lucid prose and a clear narrative thread equate to "dumbing down." And a genre novel can include deep themes that make a reader think and challenge her established assumptions.

Hunter undercuts her cautionary reference to false hierarchies, in my opinion, by contrasting "lyrical" and "thoughtful" with "fast-paced" and "light," the latter suggesting a "more accessible style." A genre novel can be accessible, yet sedately paced and deeply emotional. Some factors she lists as contributing to degree of accessibility include length of sentences, breadth of vocabulary, balance among action, atmosphere, and ideas, moral clarity or ambiguity, how clearly the characters and plot fulfill "expectations set in the beginning of the story," and "use of cliches, idioms, and other familiarities." I have reservations about some items on the list. For example, I don't think a novel has to lean heavily toward "action" to be accessible. Many romance novels don't, nor do many vintage favorites in other genres. GONE WITH THE WIND is one perennial bestseller that has many more reflective and emotional scenes than action scenes in the popular sense of the word. I find the mention of "cliches" off-putting; while familiar tropes, handled well, can be welcome, an outright "cliche" is another matter. Another feature, "amount of emotional complexity spelled out for readers," sounds as if excessive telling over showing is being recommended. Every writer must balance all these elements in her own way, of course, and Hunter does address the shortcomings of cliches and "telling." She points out that "frankly, there are lots of readers who like this familiarity and clarity." So an author needs to know her target audience well. "Each reader's preferences are different. . . .there are readers for all accessibility levels." Hunter also discusses theme, which she defines as "an open-ended question our story asks" and briefly covers the possibility of increasing a work's complexity by adding additional thematic layers.

Personally, I enjoy a book with a varied, challenging vocabulary and complex characters and emotions. What make me impatient are works that appear to be confusing for the sake of confusion, such as failing to clearly distinguish characters from each other or coming to a conclusion that leaves the reader with literally no way to be sure what happened—by which I mean, not an ambiguous ending deliberately designed to allow multiple interpretations, but one in which it's impossible to puzzle out the plain sense of what transpires on the page. As Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say in her submission guidelines, "If I can't figure out what happened, I assume my readers won't care." Levels of acceptable "accessibility," of course, vary over the decades and centuries according to the fashions of the times. Long descriptive and expository passages, common in nineteenth-century novels, would get disapproved by most editors nowadays, no matter how well written. Something similar to the opening paragraphs of Dickens' A TALE OF TWO CITIES ("It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. . . ."), although accessible in the sense of easily understandable, probably wouldn't be accepted by most contemporary publishers. It also used to be common for authors to include untranslated passages in foreign languages, especially in nonfiction but sometimes even in fiction. Most nonfiction writers up through the early twentieth century assumed all educated readers understood Latin and Greek. Dorothy Sayers inserted a long letter in French into her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery CLOUDS OF WITNESS; the publisher insisted on having a translation added. On the other hand, to cite a contemporary example, in Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries, set in Louisiana of the 1830s, January's erudite friend Hannibal often includes Greek and Latin quotations in his speech. They add flavor to the story's atmosphere, but understanding them is rarely necessary for following the story; when it is, Hambly clues us in as needed. Readers who'd be put off by this kind of linguistic play simply don't form part of her target audience, but then, such people probably aren't fans of historical mysteries in general, which require openness to navigating an unfamiliar time and place.

Hunter's article also doesn't discuss accessibility in relation to genre conventions. For instance, Regency romance authors probably assume their target audience has some familiarity with the period, if only from reading lots of prior novels in that setting. Science fiction, in particular, expects a certain level of background knowledge from its readers. We should know about hyperdrive and other forms of FTL travel, if only enough to suspend disbelief and move on with the story. Some SF stories expect more acquaintance with the genre than others. Any viewer with a willing imagination can follow the original STAR TREK, designed to appeal to a mass audience. Near the other end of the accessibility spectrum, the new posthumous Heinlein novel, THE PURSUIT OF THE PANKERA (the previously unpublished original version of his 1980 NUMBER OF THE BEAST), envisions a reader with a considerable fannish background. The ideal reader knows or at least has some acquaintance with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books and E. E. Smith's Lensman series. That reader also has a high tolerance for dialogue about the intricacies of alternate universes and the heroes' device for transiting among them, on which the text goes into considerable detail at some points. Optimally, that fan will also have read Heinlein's own previous work, at least his best-known books. This novel is not the way to introduce a new reader to Heinlein, much less to SF in general.

It seems to me that "accessibility" forms a subset of the larger topic of reader expectations. So the question of how accessible our work is (or needs to be) comes back to knowing the expectations of the target audience.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment