Thursday, June 23, 2011


"Indeed, there is a risk that a short, concise, clear book won’t be seen by one’s colleagues as having sufficient gravitas."

At Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein has an interesting piece up about academic books and why they are so often so hard to read. Even the ones that aren't long, he points out, feel long because of how they are written. I read some theology and the same thing happens with books by Puritans; their compelling need to bring out every single possible thought about any given subject gets a bit long to read.

Books by professors or graduate students are that way on purpose, he argues, giving three reasons:
  1. Many academic books are revised Ph.D. theses. When you write a Ph.D. thesis, one goal is to show your review panel that you have mastered the literature. The easy way to do so is to cite and discuss everything even tangentially related to your narrative.
  2. For books written by law professors, law reviews encourage (indeed demand) turgid literature reviews and overfootnoting, and attorneys often equate a “thorough” legal brief with a legal brief that addresses any possible argument that the judge may think of.
  3. Many professors aren’t writing for their readers. They are writing to impress tenure committees, to join an intellectual conversation followed by only a handful of others, or to create the equivalent of a reference book.
So you get books with incredibly tedious and pretentious titles, packed with academic jargon, far too many links, and topped off with repetition and extraneous emphasis. None of that makes for very pleasant reading.

I'm reminded of a bit from the Patrick O'Brian sea novels in which he notes that in the Napoleonic era, the drier, less glib, and harder to listen to you were as a scientist giving a lecture, the more credible and scientific people thought you were.

Its kind of like now, where if your computer repair guy comes in all suave and charming or looking like a hipster with an orange tan and a fauxhawk you don't trust them to know what they're doing, but if he looks like a pathetic nerd wearing a pocket protector and is totally awkward, you figure he's got to be a genius.

For academics I suppose this works, but the problem is its miserable for anyone else to attempt to read what is written and I deep down suspect it is for academics too. In fact, I suspect they don't read these books any more than anyone else, they just scan them for references, the correct sort of language, and just enough information to get the point they're trying to make, then presume it genius because it follows the official, proper sort of pattern. He must be right, look at all these references and how many buzz words he drops!

The same thing happens in business, with a middle manager throwing around words such as leveraging, utilize, synergy, go offline, impactful, knowledge economy, low hanging fruit, and so on. You might be talking total nonsense, but if it includes the right terms and gives the right feel, some managers will think its brilliant to avoid seeming ignorant. Plus they don't have to pay all that close attention to what you're saying.

I have another suspicion that lawmakers are doing the same thing when they come up with a bill that's 87 pages when 3 would do. However, I suspect they have another motive: you can bury things easier in 87 pages, adding in features that otherwise might be rejected but may be missed, particularly by legislators who openly say they won't read bills and don't "have time." That's like a mechanic saying they don't have time to tighten any bolts.

When you're writing something you hope people actually read then that's another story. You have to write less what they expect to see and skim over, but what they'll really want to spend the time reading. And that's where you can run into two extremes; and I say this based on an avid, life-long reader, not some great, successful writer.

At one end is the tendency to put in too much information, too much dialog and too much description. I tend to think that Stephen R Donaldson gets a bit carried away in his lush descriptions, but then others think that J.R.R. Tolkien got carried away in information in his books. The problem with too much is that readers start to skim, and they may miss something significant you want them to read. I know that if my eyes start to glaze while I'm reading I will throw a few pages over to see if it gets better soon, or to move to a part I care about.

There's a form of this that Robert Parker fell into in his writing. I really enjoyed most of his books, but he had a really bad pattern in the Spenser books of alternating chapters like a clockwork (literally, like a pendulum), between Spenser doing his job and Spenser talking to someone about the psychology of doing his job, usually his sex partner Susan Silverman. I got to the point finally I just started skipping those chapters and I found that not only was the book faster to read but I never missed anything important to the story.

And that's what you never want readers to find out; that they can skip some of your book and never miss anything. They should either be entertained (which admittedly, perhaps many probably were by those chapters I missed), or get important parts of the story in each part of the book - preferably both. If someone can skip a part of what you're writing and miss nothing that part has to go. All you have is padding and probably something that came to your mind while writing and you didn't think about editing out.

The more writers skip the usual editorial/publication process and go to e-books, the more this will become a problem, I fear. Without that step to cut back on the creator's imagination and love of their work, the worse the product can get: witness ten thousand "director's cuts" and movies that prove even great directors need editors.

The other end of the extreme is becoming too terse. You can technically get your point across or tell a story without examples, illustrations, dialog, and description, but your book will move too quickly (ruining pacing) and tend to read more like an outline.
Frodo is given Bilbo's magic ring. He sets out with friends to Rivendell while eluding enemies. At Rivendell he is sent to Mordor to destroy the ring. The friends split up, and Frodo meets an old enemy who guides him closer to Mordor. His friends defend a keep, then fight an army outside a city. Frodo manages to get to the mountain and the ring is destroyed.
That's The Lord of the Rings condensed to practically a bare minimum. Did it tell the story? More or less, leaving out enormous sections. Was it entertaining? Not at any level. This tale is so stripped down you have no idea who anyone is or why they're doing what they do. Nor do you care.

I have a tendency when I'm writing to be on this end of the scale, paring things down too far. I don't flesh out characters much (or even describe some beyond very basic pieces of information). I leave out dialog and sum up what was said, I keep description to a minimum in most cases, and overall the book is about a third what it could be.

Now some of this is style, and some of it is just "I want to get to the good parts I really want to write" so I have to fight this tendency. The stories I write move along pretty well and do pull readers in, I'm told, but I have to work harder at fleshing them out a bit more.

For example, my latest effort is about a mage trying to help a king recover his kingdom. I had him show up in the city after talking to the king, get a room, cast a few spells, and go to sleep. What I didn't do was adequately show something I'm trying to bring out in this book: how arrogant, presumptuous, and often thoughtless mages are in my world.

Think about it: if you could summon what you want, manipulate reality how you wish, and do pretty much anything... and most people around you cannot and are terrified of you... how would you grow up? It would take an exceptional person not to feel incredibly important and superior, even dismissive of others.

So I'm rewriting that section to include some dialog with the innkeeper and to illustrate how the mage just takes a room instead of paying because he doesn't even consider that he might have to pay. Why would he, he's a mage.

Oh, he takes a room because he's trying to be less conspicuous and ostentatious than creating a place to stay for himself like he might in other circumstances.

The challenge for me as a writer is to use dialog and situation to show the character without making him seem offensive and unlikable. I had a rough time with this in Old Habits because the main character is a thief and a street rat, so I had to make him seem authentic but likable.

What's interesting in all this is that when a book is really well written, you don't notice any of this. Ideally the reader forgets he's reading a book and doesn't notice the writer at all, it just reaches into their mind and becomes part of them for a while. Putting too much in bogs down the process and violates that connection, while leaving too much out makes the story too spare and stark to pull readers in.

For an academic writer, I suppose that's fine, but for a fiction writer, you can't afford to bore your readers in today's low-reading, high-competition market.

Hopefully this wasn't too boring.


Rob De Witt said...

Maxwell Perkins dead an gone
Lef us here with all this crap out of Hollywood.....

Excellent stuff, and especially interesting from the point of view of a fiction maker. I agree totally, btw, with the point about much of the latter work of Robert B. Parker, sad as I was to witness it.

It's, ah, "ironic" that Patrick O'Brien made the comment about the tediousness of Napoleon-era scientific expression, only to disappear into the same thing himself about half-way through his oeuvre. Chapterfuls of botany did little to pique my interest.

Formula o'ertakes the best of 'em - even the powerfully Southern James Lee Burke, whose evocations of his youth are endless. Though to be honest, I've never yet skipped over a passage even on numerous re-readings, while I've never been able to read Tolkien.

Banshee said...

Tolkien writes with perfect pacing. Assuming you're a person with the same kind of neural pattern as his. :) (No, seriously, there does seem to be some kind of neurolinguistic factor in who likes Tolkien and who doesn't. Don't know why.)

I'm assuming that Donaldson has stopped repeating the same thirty vocabulary words hundreds of times per novel, unless he's still using "carious" 5000 times a book.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I’m an independent writer -- here's my oeuvre, in case anyone cares -- and I must concur with the author unreservedly.

It wasn’t until I took counsel of a sharp editor, well into my writing efforts, that I began to grasp how much of my first drafts consisted of side trails, irrelevancies, and just plain filler. I’ve drawn the moral: for the sixteen years since, nothing I write has been presented to an audience without first getting mauled by a disinterested professional editor. And thus shall it always be...until the money runs out, at least.