Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Big Words

with 5 comments

Before I get down to the actual discussion, I’d like to point out something.

This is the way I write this blog:  I get up in the morning, work on my fiction while drinking vast amounts of very strongly brewed tea and then, when I’m done, I access the WordPad page.

Then I sit down and type whatever comes into my head.   Just like that.  I don’t think it over first (which ought to be obvious from some of these posts).   I don’t write it out and then edit it.   I rarely change words or fix sentences.

What you see here is the way my mind works, left to itself, with no help at all.   The vocabulary is the vocabulary my mind uses, without trying.  The sentence structure is the sentence structure my mind uses.   This is the way I think.

I’ve spend virtually my entire life, from fairly early childhood, being accused of using “big words” and being a “phony” because I’m trying to “put on airs” by sounding “all snobby.” 

I’ve actually tried to fix this in myself on and off over the years, only to run into the same roadblock each time:  I’ve got no idea what other people think are “big words.”  When  I try not to use them, I fail, because I invariably think that something isn’t a “big word” that my accusers think is very big indeed–like, say, “invariably.”

I bring this up because of what should be obvious–there is nothing a writer can write that will not lose him some audience.

In my case, I literally can’t sound like myself without losing a hefty chunk of audience, and it’s not because I’m importing a deliberately “fancy” vocabulary to put some people off. 

But it’s not just the vocabulary.   Take the basic techniques of fiction.   We’ve gone into the problem with third person multiple viewpoint in fiction before.  It’s a very basic technique, not something fancy and esoteric, and I honestly don’t think that people who can’t recognize it can really be said to be able to read.

But a lot of people aren’t able to recognize it, and are angry and confused when a writer uses it.   The writer has the choice of ditching one of the oldest and most useful techniques in fiction or losing some audience.

I  agree with Robert on at least some things–no, writing 25 word sentences isn’t automatically better than writing short ones (and contemporary literary fiction adheres riigdly to the short-sentence formula), and using lots of references isn’t automatically better than using fewer.

But anybody who produces a first rate work of fiction is going to lose a lot of audience to the simple fact most people won’t get most of it, and don’t want to.

I’ve taught Small Gods to classrooms full of students who declare that they don’t understand a word of it–and when I point out the Crucifixion scene have no idea what I’m talking about.  I mean, they know Jesus had something to do with dying on a cross, but what’s that supposed to be about anyway, and why should they care?

I’ve taught Gaudy Night to classrooms full of students who found it completely boring and didn’t understand a word of it, and the same with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

These are not difficult books written for highbrow audiences.

Just how far down into the depths of least common denominator is an author required to go not to lose audience? 

And will anybody notice that long before he gets to the bottom of that particular pit, he’d have lost that part of his audence known as me?

I did get both the references to Space Invaders and the Almanach de Gotha.  Any truly well-educated reader would get both, as he’d get both the references to Alisoun and truth, justice and the American way. 

The point of referenes is not to create a puzzle, any more than the point of vocabulary is to send the reader to the dictionary–the point of refenes is in the assmption that everybody who reads the book gets them without thinking about them.

Yeats didn’t write “The Second  Coming” as a puzzle he hoped the reader would work out.  He wrote it under the assumption that the reader wouldn’t have to think twice about the references, because the reader would already know them just as clearly and automatically as he knew his own name.

And, in fact, I did know them the first time I read that poem, and I never had to sit down and “work out” what it meant, and the first time I saw The Exorcist I knew immediately that the film was referencing the poem, which told me something about the meaning of the film I might not have known otherwise.

All writers use references.  All of them.  No writer could create a work of fiction without them.  Films are full of them, including films meant to be light comedies or mass-cult horror fests.  Mel Brooks is as full of references as Woody Allen is.  Maybe more.

What is “a good book for John” may not be “a good book for Mary,” but what is a good book is a good book irrespective of whether either of them “likes” it.

And it is definitely not the mark of a good book that its author carefully and meticulously dumbed down the entire project so that it wouldn’t upset the fragile little egos of his least educated and most determinedly slothful potential audience.

End of rant.

Written by janeh

July 29th, 2009 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Big Words'

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  1. I’m sitting uncomfortably in the middle here, as far as references go. Generally, I find the appropriate use of references the mark of a good book – and it doesn’t bother me much if a few references fly over my head or some are from pop culture. But OTOH, not only are all writers not equally skilled in their use of references (anyone else seen character development done entirely in terms of brand name references?), some references are much more…meaningful, perhaps?…in any case, better, capable of conveying far more broad and still subtle meanings than others. I mean, it’s perfectly legitimate to use as part of characterization the fact that the character wears a Versace dress, and I’d probably get ‘expensive and fashionable’ our of that even if I can’t visualize a single example of a Versace dress. But someone who refers to, say, the Crucifixion, can call to mind an incredible range of ideas and connections to other works from music to sculpture to other written usages that, in the hands of a good writer, the reference can be far more powerful than a comment about a character’s clothing or (as I’ve encountered several times recently) to music I don’t know the titles of performed by people I’ve never heard of. Partly the difference is due to my ignorance of popular music; partly, it is due to the vast wells of connections to a really important cultural reference, from the most serious to the most banal. (When I was a child ‘crucify’ was used in phrases like ‘That child’s crucifying me!’ and ‘Don’t crucify your sister!’, which has to be a commonplace and banal use of a powerful symbol. No, no one was literally crucified or even abused in my childhood home!)

    I sometimes tailor my vocabulary to the situation and the people I’m talking to. I supposed everyone does, to one extent or another. I was never teased about my vocabulary as a child, although I and my next-oldest sister were teased about our pronunciation because we had vocabularies that included a lot of words we’d read but never heard in use. I’m still a little sensitive about that. The best was my sister’s first attempt at ‘hieroglyphics’, but there were also ‘initial’, ‘fragile’, and ‘Belle Island’, none of which are long. And I still think that in a properly-regulated world, if ‘decision’ has a short i in it, so should ‘decisive’.


    29 Jul 09 at 8:48 am

  2. “I’ve spend virtually my entire life, from fairly early childhood, being accused of using “big words” and being a “phony” because I’m trying to “put on airs” by sounding “all snobby.” ”

    Well me too, without the Connecticut accent. ;) I did learn fairly early on in my working life on the assembly line, to adapt my vocabulary to the audience. It’s no different than assuming a dialect to fit in, many people do it every day.

    I doubt when you were teaching your children to speak you didn’t modify your vocabulary. I remember using the big words as was natural to me, and then redefining them for my son. I remember well the day he asked me what “Lacerate” meant. And when I told him, he said “Who lacerated the cheese?” We laughed. But he learned the more complex and subtle words along with the simpler ones.

    Oddly, one of the current works most filled with references is The Simpsons, especially the earlier years. Some episodes will have 20 or 30 references to everything from Mel Brooks to Hawthorne to the Transubstantiation. I”m sure I don’t get all of them. The writers clearly *have* read The Canon and they use it.

    But…The Simpsons also works on levels where none of the references come through. Kids laugh at it. Ignorant gits laugh at it. It’s not high art, but it contains elements that appeal to an extremely broad audience.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that art doesn’t have to be targeted exclusively at a single level of understanding, so that if you appeal to the masses, you lose the educated audience. After all, even if none of the Sistine Chapel’s references makes sense to you, it’s still a pretty picture. If you don’t know anything about the vocabulary of dance, it’s still nice to watch.

    Knowing what references are there, and training in perception of the vocabulary of the art, makes any art experience deeper and richer. But art that can be enjoyed on many levels may be intrinsically better than art that requires prerequisites.

    Deliberately making one’s art inaccessible to the untrained and/or uneducated when one is capable of multi-level accessibility *is* the mark of a snob. It’s like walking into a kindergarten class and putting the milk and cookies on a high shelf.


    29 Jul 09 at 2:13 pm

  3. Speaking to two paragraphs only:

    “What is “a good book for John” may not be “a good book for Mary,” but what is a good book is a good book irrespective of whether either of them “likes” it.

    And it is definitely not the mark of a good book that its author carefully and meticulously dumbed down the entire project so that it wouldn’t upset the fragile little egos of his least educated and most determinedly slothful potential audience.”

    Are we feeling better now?

    No, “dumbing down” is certainly not the mark of a good book–which is why I didn’t call for it. What I said was difficulty of access is also not the sign of a good book. It is sometimes the CONSEQUENCE. To tell the story properly and make the point one is trying to make you will, of course, always lose someone, and sometimes you’ll lose almost everyone. But that ought not to be the objective. Actually I was thinking a little of Steiner who does sometimes describe literature as though obscure references are the point.

    I have on the shelves a copy of SM Stirling’s IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS. The nine page prologue takes place in the Authors’ Suite at WORLDCON 1962. About 20 of the greats of SF are refered to by description, position or first name. On a good day, I can nail 17 or 18. The book is full of plays on SF and related concepts from atmosphere plants to rodents of unusual size, with many of the tropes of long-vanished “planetary romance.” (We didn’t have tropes when I was growing up. Too poor. But we still had fun.) Steiner, I think, would catch none: Jane maybe one in three. I’ll keep the book, and I’m glad I bought the hardcover. But I’ll more often re-read CHESSMEN OF MARS or SECRET OF SINHARRAT which lack these things, but make up for it in plot, character and the famous “narrative drive.” You can write a highly compressed poetry by making it more reference heavy, and it has a place in prose fiction. But one ought not to confuse the spices with the bread and meat.

    And, no AS I WROTE BEFORE, literature is not totally subjective. But it IS subjective to a degree, which seems to drive the literary brigade nuts. Whatever Jane Austen was, she is: but she is less good TO US than to her contemporary readers, because most of us don’t know a gig from a coach from a phaeton, and thus miss some of how she describes and defines characters. (And in 200 years, how many readers of OUR novels will understand the that driving away in a Prius is not the same as hopping into a Ford F-150?) Shakespeare suffers from this as well. At most, if we study hard, we can make up some of the difference.

    And apart from this, how DO we define a good book? Yes, I’ve heard the phrase “the way we live now” but when was the vote? And how did it edge out “the way we ought to live?” No one is obliged to accept another’s standard in that respect–merely to be honest about the standard chosen. And even if we accept that standard, how DO “we” live now? It might be fairly easy on campus to arrive at some agreement about what a “realistic” character and setting are. A survey of Twentynine Palms and Fort Bragg–or Fort Wayne and Fort Worth, come to that–might show a very different notion of such matters. Or several such notions. And if “realism” is the goal, wherein lies the art? Answer: in trimming away fact to arrive at truth–and does anyone think there are not multiple answers to that one?

    People may perhaps simply be good. A novel, like a hammer, is good to someone or for something.

    And yes, I too was known to “talk funny” in my youth.

    Too long a reply, but they’re important points.


    29 Jul 09 at 5:24 pm

  4. I too have a large vocabulary, both of words and of literary references, as a result of a lifetime of reading. And I don’t have the foggiest idea which words and references of that vocabulary would be regarded as ‘big’ by somebody else. They’re all just ordinary words to me. I decided long ago that automatically assuming the person I was addressing was so stupid or ignorant that I should deliberately try to restrict my vocabulary (if I could figure out how to do it!) was pretty insulting to whoever I was speaking to–including children. If they seem puzzled, I’ll rephrase whatever I just said.

    Being a librarian may help–people *expect* me to know a lot about books, and language, and to basically be an egghead. It’s the *real* world where I’m supposed to be ignorant!

    Lee B

    29 Jul 09 at 11:19 pm

  5. Oh, geez, of course I use big words! Even at the university, among large numbers of PhDs, people say things like, “I’ve never heard anyone use that word before!” But no one accuses me of being snobby or putting on airs–it’s quite obvious that this is authentically me, I guess! Plus I can code switch into rural Kentuckian, urban Black English, and stevedore, so maybe it balances out….

    Sometimes the day care worker had to ask the director what a word meant that my son used…when he was 3.

    The references are what make things rich and resonant. Have you read The Watchmen? My son helped me with some of the visual references, I gave him a copy of Ozymandias, and we still probably missed 2/3 of what went on. I highly recommend it.


    1 Aug 09 at 5:25 pm

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