Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Essay: Vegetable Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

There are typically two types of stories that I look forward to when reading. The first one, and probably the type that most people can relate to, are stories that "go down easily" using a food analogy. These stories are either full of excitement or simply enthralls me with the language. They make me forget that I have to eat dinner and that it's way past my bed time. An example of authors who elicit such a reading experience from me are the likes of Jim Butcher (well, there is a reason why he's mainstream after all), Tim Pratt (the simple yet elegant use of language), and Patricia McKillip (lyrical without being verbose).

Now the second type of story is what I want to talk about in this essay. I'll call them "vegetables" and you can probably guess why I deem them so. These are stories or novels that don't initially catch my attention. There are several reasons as to why a story will not pique my interest--at least in the beginning. It might be the language: either the words utilized are too esoteric (H.P. Lovecraft anyone?) or too bland. It might be the writing style: blocky paragraphs, weird syntax (imagine reading a novel using Yoda's mindscape), too many footnotes (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), or simply outdated English (Shakespeare!). Another reason is because there's nothing "exciting" happening at the beginning. Or, let me admit it, the text is too smart for me (I'll never get back the days I spent reading James Joyce's Ulysses--and I have no intention of tackling Finnegan's Wake and reading the text out loud with an Irish accent.) There are even times when I don't like the implied moral of the story (C.S. Lewis's The Final Battle comes to mind.) Such works are challenging and require my full concentration (despite repeated attempts by my brain to dwell on something else such as writing D&D stat blocks).

Having said all that, vegetable stories can be rewarding. Slowly, it dawns on me the layers of meaning in a particular phrase. Or how important all the details mentioned truly are. Maybe the conflict was subtle. Or characterization and exposition finally pays off in the end. Sometimes, it's just me overcoming my four-year-old attention span. Just because some stories are challenging does not mean they're not well-written (and similarly, just because some stories are easy to read does not necessarily mean they are good stories).

Of course at the end of the day, I determine what stories I "enjoyed". Maybe after all I went through with a vegetable story, I didn't really enjoy it. I don't have to like it but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it or respect it. Now it's tempting to avoid reading vegetable stories. But as a reader and as an aspiring writer, I want to get better, I want to expand my horizons, and the only way to accomplish that is to get out of my comfort zone. And in my particular case, hey, I developed a taste for vegetables (fiction or otherwise)!

So why do I bring up this entire topic of vegetable fiction? Well, a local columnist/blogger has written an essay asking why "classic literature" has to be complex and why such texts could not be as written as simple as Hemmingway. And while she's as it, bashes a poem that consists of poems and a comma. Now I'm the type of person that believes in the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) but there's a point where, well, what we read--or write--can't be simple.

One example I'd like to use is Math. Technically speaking, we don't need to know how to use multiplication. We can achieve the same numbers using addition. But when reams of bond paper are stacked in front of you, it's quicker to estimate how many they all are by calculating 5x5 instead of counting each and every ream. It is for the same reason that people might use jargon. As unfamiliar to laymen jargon can be, it gives professionals a more accurate term for what they require. And as critical readers/writers, here's one thing we should be well aware of: there are no "perfect" synonyms. For example, "stroll" might sound similar to "walk" but each of those words have minute differences compared to each other. There's also a point where applying the KISS philosophy constantly makes you sound condescending to your readers (imagine substituting the word "stroll" with "to walk at a leisurely pace" in every instance). Or that using precise terminology IS an application of the KISS philosophy (why use "aimlessly walked" when "wandered" would do the trick?). So sometimes, it is necessary to be complex and difficult.

Besides, can you imagine a world where there are no vegetable stories so to speak? You can say goodbye to your Shakespeare and your James Joyce, your Tolkien, your Lovecraft, your Stoker and -gasp-, all the hard science fiction authors. And why stop with fiction? Why not remove mediums like poetry altogether? After all, isn't poetry one of the most challenging texts to read, especially with all its underlying meanings and metaphors?

Now I'm not saying that all writing should be complex and intricate. I love Antoine de Saint Exupery (even if I can't pronounce his name)! I love Isaac Asimov! However, at the end of the day, my reading is not limited to The Little Prince or I, Robot. Simplicity, ease of language, and even "interesting" topics are all part of a writer's toolbox. Just because you have the option to use them doesn't mean you have to. Take for example Ursula K. Le Guin. On one hand, she's written a plainly-written but compelling novel in The Wizard of Earthsea. On the other hand, she's written books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed which can be quite dense and difficult. That's not to say reading the latter is less rewarding than the former. As a reader, I can appreciate both types of fiction. And in the case of the author, she utilized the tools necessary to convey her stories. I don't think you can achieve the same effect of The Dispossessed using the same language and style of The Wizard of Earthsea (and vice versa).

Admittedly, literature at times acts like an exclusive club (and certain works ends up getting ghettoed) but for the most part, it's an inclusive field. Hemmingway can sit side by side with Shakespeare. Canon is composed of both plain and difficult texts, some interpretations come more easily while we have to work at others. No one's forcing you to like Shakespeare but by golly, we can't proclaim that every written work should conform to a specific aesthetic. Literature isn't objecting to the "use of simple language" but rather it's not limiting itself to that spectrum alone.

As for the fiction that I want to read, again, there are two types of fiction that I enjoy. A world full of vegetable fiction is as dull and boring as a world devoid of it.

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