So my mother-in-law is in town to help out with things as we adjust to life with a newborn baby. She reads a lot and is often willing to discuss what she reads. We recently talked about a few books and an issue came up that kind of crystallized some thinking that I’d been doing about craft versus readability.
For the purposes of this brief blog post, I will use Gene Wolfe’s The Knight and R.A. (Bob) Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy.
Also, when I refer to craft, I am talking not about those things kids in kindergarten get to do all day. I am talking about the writing craft. The combination of technique, skills, art and everything else that go into fashioning a story with compelling characters, interesting plot, engaging world and so on.
By readability, I am referring to a somewhat more abstract concept: the accessibility of a story or book; the potential for a reader to just quickly connect with the characters and world and story so that they want to keep reading.
Now, first off I have to say that I don’t think that Craft and Readability are diametrically opposed, or even opposed at all. Truth is, good use of writing craft really ought to increase readability, all things considered.
But what do you do when you find a book that is really a remarkable demonstration of writing craft, but is just not very readable, at least to you?
Take Gene Wolfe’s The Knight, which is the first in a two-parter which is I think called The Wizard Knight. The concept of the book is not particularly out there. A young lad is taken from our world to one of magic, feudalism, mythology, honor and chivalry. He grows up, is taken under the wing of a wise mentor and then goes about seeking his fortune and changing the world around him. He does this while somehow glimpsing and sometimes inhabiting yet another world inside the magical world he has been snatched to.
The thing is, this book is written in a very unusual way, with sometimes varying perspective, in a very ‘telling’ fashion, rather than showing, and seems to wander. There are remarkable descriptions, it’s an unusually interesting world and the voice is certainly unique. Much effort was expended stylistically, making the book into a very interesting piece of art which deserves your attention.
But it’s not much fun. And it is impossible to connect with the protagonist on an emotional level, because he doesn’t ever seem to exhibit any emotion beyond what he narrates. We don’t feel the emotion in moments of stress. This happens because the protagonist, Able of the High Heart, insists he doesn’t want to dramatize things but instead just wants to tell the story straight. What is more, there is no visible antagonist to lend real weight to conflict that is depicted in the story.
I don’t know about you, but I would really like to experience the emotional arc of a character who grows up pretty much overnight, never goes through puberty, makes love to a fairy queen immediately after growing up overnight, and then spends the book in love with that queen.
I never felt an emotional connection. It was weird, because the book was so lyrically interesting. The prose was so finely crafted. The entire experience was a mighty demonstration of a type of craft.
But it was very difficult to finish. I never felt connected to it. I never felt I was escaping into the world or having the emotional experiences I expect from my fantasy novels. Despite the remarkable ability and craft that went into it, I didn’t LIKE the book. This is surely very subjective, particularly because the book was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2005.
I have to say that Gene Wolfe is obviously a spectacular writer. Was I too lazy, too tired, or too something else to be able to fully enjoy the experience? I don’t know. I appreciated the lyricism and word smithing.
Now on to Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy which is part of the Forgotten Realms series. This is a series I read about twenty years ago and I still love it. In this series, Bob Salvatore introduced the very storied and popular Drizz’t Do’urden character.
The prose isn’t lyrical or poetic, but it is effective and the descriptions of the world are vivid. You can feel the frigid wind and see the stark landscape in these books. The characters sound like people we know and their relationships really drive a lot of what they do. The relationships are also very interesting. Characters are not perfect beings and they make real mistakes.
But the characters have familiar motivations. They want to help the people they love. They want to make connections. They want good to conquer evil. And the antagonist is real, visible and convincing. There is melodrama to this type of fantasy, and there are epiphanies and there is redemption.
There is emotional connection and pay off.
No, it’s not epic fantasy, but it’s solid and extraordinarily effective.
It’s very readable.
The point to all of this is that a book can be beautifully written, and demonstrate real mastery of much of the craft, but if a writer doesn’t enable an emotional connection to the characters, the writer is failing the reader and will have lost the reader’s trust.
When all is said and done, providing that emotional connection is also part of the craft of writing. Take Sanderson’s recent The Way of Kings. It’s epic, has a steep learning curve, is staged in an exotic, very alien world, is lyrically impressive and also has strong emotional impact. He demonstrated craft mastery.
Rothfuss did the same in Name of the Wind. I think Dan Wells also shows mastery of the craft in his John Cleaver books.
I am sure these writers would be the first to say that they have not mastered the craft, but my reply is that they have studied the craft long and written lots.
In the end, writers need to master the many aspects of the craft of writing in order to assure readability as well as a very impressively written story.
All of this from a non-novice and non-expert. From a somewhere-in-the-middle.