Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Defense of Wordiness

                Consider this selection from a hypothetical mystery story:

                 The bar was close to empty, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was empty in a glad-to-see-you kind of way. The bartender looked sidelong at me as I entered.
                “Something I can do for you, friend?”
                That was one mystery solved.

                The preceding passage is, if I may, pretty good. It says a lot without using a lot of words. Evocative without being descriptive, it pretty well conforms to the ideals of American prose since Hemmingway.
Now let’s dissect the bird. The narrator doubts whether he will be welcome in the bar. Upon his entry, the bartender’s greeting is chilly and sarcastic, indicating that the narrator is not, in fact, welcome. The text mirrors the narrative: by omitting descriptive phrases like “he hissed” or “he asked sarcastically” or descriptions of the bartender’s expression, the reader, like the narrator, must rely on his wits and social acuity to a certain extent if he wishes to unpack the pronouncement’s implications (although those implications are fairly unambiguous).
That’s all cool – for a contemporary American reader. A contemporary American reader would be familiar enough with retail procedures to know that it would be considered extremely rude to greet a customer (or anyone really) with “Something I can do for you?” Likewise, such a reader would know that native American English speakers never use the word “Friend” in that context when they are speaking with a real or potential friend. Addressing someone directly as “Friend" is actually interpreted as openly hostile by many people.
But non-native, non-American, or decades-distant future readers may not grasp these schema. To them, the “solution” to the “mystery” may at first seem that the bar is friendly, and they may be confused when someone’s nose gets broken or something. What we initially valued as straightforward, unadorned prose turns out to be a complex dirty trick on a reader who actually takes the words at face value.
It is often quite convincingly argued that the “text” emerges as the effect that words have on a reader irrespective of the author’s original intent. However, all but the most ridiculously pretentious of the proponents of such interpretive frameworks agree that the author should try to get his point across as effectively as possible. Though a reader brings his own experiences to bear on any final reading of a work, I can’t imagine many writers who wouldn’t be (perhaps quietly) disappointed to hear that a reader interpreted a book, scene, or line completely differently than the author had intended.
In reality, the fewer words we use to get our point across, the more we rely on intersubjectively shared assumptions and experiences to be understood, and the more we exclude those from different social and cultural positions. Or, more correctly, the less different someone has to be before they are excluded.  Obviously, an author isn’t writing for everyone – at the most fundamental level, not everyone reads English. But as writers, we have to ask ourselves, how many people do we wish to exclude?

“The grounds are nice, I suppose,” he intoned over a neat Bruichladdich, “but run by an old Dulwich boy? Well, I suppose they at least have some standards.”
“The grounds of the club are nice, I suppose.” He stepped to the bar to tip a bit of Bruichladdich into a tumbler, eyeing the ice bucket distrustfully. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. Ah well, it’s the public school set at least.”

“I do like the grounds at Kensington Men’s Club,” he said as he nursed his glass of Bruichladdich, his favorite scotch, and coincidentally one of the most expensive. He never took it with ice, as in the view of most who enjoy scotches of that caliber, both the intense cold and the water from the melting ice conspire to deaden the nuances of its flavor. “But I can only chuckle when they call it ‘exclusive’. The president went to Dulwich for heaven’s sake. I suppose it should be enough that he’s a public school boy, but Dulwich isn’t exactly the most prestigious.” His father had instilled in him from a young age that breeding was everything, and that the best way to judge breeding was by school. From time immemorial it seemed, an education at a public school (as the finest independent boarding schools in England are called, perhaps confusingly to Americans) had been a prerequisite to accessing the highest echelons of British society.

Which of these three versions of the exchange are better? Well, “better” is a loaded word, but certainly the first is nigh-incomprehensible to someone who isn’t wealthy, or at least British. When we write, and when we avoid wordiness and thus rely more heavily on cultural assumptions to be understood, we say to those outside of our own cultural milieu “keep out”. This can be oppressive, as in the above “royalty only” passage, or it can be revolutionary, as when Chicanos speak proudly in their own voice without shame. But even then, it is important to realize that some readers are being shut out. Maybe you want that. I don’t know.
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that we all need to write like 19th century dime novels, but rather that a writer needs to keep in mind the sometimes unexpected ways concision can restrict his readership. Many of the most compelling tales of even just fifty years ago are virtually unknown to many modern readers who would absolutely love them, were it not for the unexplained references to contemporary figures and events, colloquialisms, and other cultural assumptions that may have made them resonate clearly with readers at the time they were published, but make them opaque now.
                You know, unless you don’t want anyone to ever read anything you write, in which case just do whatever, I guess.