Friday, April 22, 2016

I Don’t Like Being Told Readers Are Stupid

“I understood it. I just don’t think anyone else will.”

I can remember three specific times someone stated it in that exact way, and am sure of several more occasions that have lost details to the recesses of my mind. Point is, it’s an odd statement to be repeated so frequently.

What does that even mean?

I’ve never wanted to be a dense writer. I’ve never wanted to be pretentious or unapproachable. I aimed for readers to fall in love with characters in the same way that I fell in love with some of my favorite books’.

But simplicity can be just as jarring as purple prose.

I read most as a teenager, and predominantly chose books from my high school library. Many were, obviously, young adult, and I loved them, but I found myself often feeling talked down to, having obvious things explained to me, and seeing clever jokes, awestriking settings, inspiring ideas, and exciting characters ruined by the writer’s belief I was an idiot. Over explanation was the bane of my existence. Even before I began to examine fiction from an author’s perspective, way back in middle school, I remember thinking, “I get it already!”

I tend towards a young adult tone of voice, especially in my earlier fiction when I was officially a young adult. It is often presumed, sometimes accurately so, that I write for children, and find myself often being told that they can’t understand whatever it is I’m saying. Which is a fair point because neither do I usually.  

But, actually, that seemed completely incongruent with my personal experience.

I began writing prolifically when I was 12. I didn’t edit much, just wrote, but eventually I started to really go out and seek criticism, around 20, and I finally worked some of the past manuscripts. And, at 20, I was not much older than my (presumed) target demographic, and yet was being told that my writing wasn’t obvious enough. I also found that the people who struggled to understand them weren’t my peers—fellow classmates, friends, or younger critique partners—but were of the older generations, 40 at the youngest.

It seemed to me that young readers, when coming across a word they didn’t understand, were more prone to making an assumption about what it meant and continue one while the older readers were more inclined to say, “I don’t know this word,” and shut down.

It also might have to do with an issue of “authority” and respect. In many cases I found the person who told me that I couldn’t do something because my audience wouldn’t understand it tended to be The Writer of the group, the person who took him/herself very seriously, who believed he was more competent (sometimes accurately so, sometimes very much not) and knowledgeable than the rest of the room. Our arrogance bounced off each other like magnets, and I felt like they had a very low opinion on everyone else’s ability to comprehend, so it could be hard for me to be unbiased. In some cases, I could see frustration and, at least on one occasion, I watched a sixty-year-old man seize up just like I’ve seen a child do when confronted with a very hard math problem. To me, it felt almost as though he was annoyed that he was struggling with the words of someone one-third his age. I can’t say for certain, but I speculate he was truly annoyed that he didn’t know more than me.

I understood it…”

Did you really? Because if so, that’s all I care about. I too can speculate on how I think others would react. What I need is to see what those actual reactions are. Criticism works better if people told the truth, the whole truth, from their point of view.

It was often the same people who, when I finally revealed to them that I was getting conflicting advice, would tell me to just “listen to me.” Those who contradicted them were wrong. “You can trust me.”

I didn’t like to be told to simplify.

Here’s the thing, and I knew it even in the beginning. I am a confusing writer. Or I can be. Some of it is “ingenuine” in that I toy with words and see what I can get away with—for variation, to explain a complicated thought without preconceived notions, to solve some sort of problem, or, yes, to be clever—and sometimes it’s very natural. I’ll use words I know, ones I don’t think twice about, to be told that I’m being pretentious and no one uses it. To be told by only one person no less. Which is to say that there are those who will claim their vocabulary is everyone’s, however, when a manuscript has been read by many people, it often proves true the “big” word for one individual is not a big word for someone else.

You can see my conundrum. As a twenty-year-old girl I was being told that my natural vocabulary could not be understood by an eighteen-year-old because a sixty-year-old didn’t know it. Or I was being told he did understand it, but then why, if I knew the word and he knew the word, would he question if others understood it as well? Wouldn’t you think that having someone my age say it lead him to believe he was mistaken?

I could only think of so many things.

1. He did not understand it—and lied about it.

2. He thought I was trying to use the biggest word I could find.

3. He was misleading me about why he wanted me to change it.

4. He did understand it, but it took him too long to have the intended effect.

I was dealing with the issue that people’s most common complaint was a vague, “I’m confused,” unable to really clarify how they were confused. When people told me specific words to change, no one agreed on which ones. Having been talked down to throughout my entire reading career, I couldn’t tell if these older people assuring me that I needed to explain something wasn’t just the fallout of adults’ ignorance to children’s understanding, or if I truly was being far more complicated than what was effective.

I knew from experience I did not want to over explain anything. To do so would be death. But I got so much excitement, a thrill from understanding something difficult, when I put two and two together and solved a problem. I loved books with wordplay, poetry, interesting and clever phrasing, a voice unique and distinctive of the author. I loved Calvin and Hobbes, Jane Austen, Douglas Adams, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Buffy the Vampire slayer, all of which have their own noticeable rhetoric. I also knew, having read my own writing, that I could jumble up words, poorly explain visuals, wrongly assume assumptions would be the same as my own. Yet, I have been lied to about words unknown, misled about what the problem really was. All of these things combined suggested that I did want to use larger words in new ways, balance a genuine sense of voice and immersion, but I couldn’t be sure if I wasn’t successful in doing so, hence the complaints, if the complaints were a matter of taste (perhaps the critics enjoyed simplicity), or if they came from competition and a lack of faith. “You can’t do what the experts did because you’re not them.”

The solution wasn’t easy. Nothing needs to be explained fully to be explained effectively, and you can certainly go overboard. I wanted to explain just enough, no more, and so if people lied to me about what enough was, it ruined my gauging of balance.

Over time, I let the comments get to me. While in the beginning I took the time to understand each individual suggestion, hoping to separate my bias from theirs, the ideas started to merge together. Then I went through cutting a manuscript down to a more reasonable size, slashing any word that could be considered excess and many embellishments, and my resistance to simplification slipped away. Good things came of it, of course, but it isn’t all beneficial, and I always wonder if I went too far—and if I’m still confusing.

And then I picked up a book. As some do.

It was the beginning of a series I always intended on reading, but found myself bored every time I started, even in the movie and the television show. I’d already read another book by her and loved it, but it had its problems. The author didn’t push herself much, and I knew going in that she was considered one of the mediocre young adult women who got away with sloppy writing. Normally, my judgment is reserved for everything that ever existed and therefore meaningless, so I usually ignore it altogether and at least try to be open minded.

Turns out, I do really like this too, and I understand what the hype is all about. Except…

God, she thinks her readers are stupid.

As some people point out, being 26 might factor into why I find a book for teens so patronizing. I thought that too, but then I remembered the truth of it: that has always been my problem with young adult books and the problem for many of my peers when discussing young adult books.

Besides, the way the author makes a joke and then explains it, the way she shows and then tells… it’s not as if she’s merely writing with the assumption people won’t understand her; it’s that her efforts make it completely moot.

If they didn’t get the joke, it wouldn’t be funny. If they did get the joke, after reading the explanation, it wouldn’t be funny either.

I’m currently switching back and forth between The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and this series, and nothing has helped me understand the issues I had with young adult fiction and having a writer act like I’m an idiot like comparing the two. It also reminds me what I loved about young adult works, some of the “sillier” crap that adult fantasy authors often don’t allow in their work.

I’ve been having re-revelations recently as I delve back into the world of my writing career, typing up pieces of fiction in abandoned notebooks from years prior. I never realized how much I wrote my younger self off, funnily enough, for being an idiot. I constantly tell others that your younger self had her reasons for the decisions she made, not just out of naivety, and when you forget those reasons, or claim that you had no sense then, you tend to make the same mistakes, thinking the situation is different when it really isn’t. I can’t say I am entirely shocked to be proved a hypocrite, but I didn’t think I’d be about this.

It’s easier, I think, to believe that your readers are stupid and want everything explained to them. It’s easy to just cut down sentences, not take risks, and censor your words for fear of looking pretentious. But easy and effective are two very different things. Simplicity and frank writing does not immerse me necessarily. Not trusting your audience, treating them like they’re stupid… I’d forgotten how much those rules had rung true for me as a reader.

I don’t believe readers are stupid. I don’t believe young people are stupid. My work can be pretentious, it can be muddled, it can be challenging and unexpected and work for some when it doesn’t work for others. It can be many things, and it is hard to determine when it is what I want it to be. It does depend on what other people think—or rather, how they think—and so it is of the upmost important that my critique partners are honest with me.

If you did not understand it, that’s all I care about. I don’t care how you think other people will react. I don’t share your pessimistic view on society, and that’s surprising considering I see glasses as half-empty when they’re completely full. If I’m not showing off, if I’m just being me, if I’m using words I know and saying things I think and you tell me that I’m unnatural, it’s going to confuse things. If you say it because you believe it—if I can trust you believe it—it’s one thing. I can then examine what happened to make you think that way.

But I can’t stand being told readers are stupid.

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