Why Readability Matters

2015 Artwork Why Readability Matters article sketch

A few months ago, I read a couple of really thought-provoking articles (one by Joanna Scott and one by Paul Mason) which argued in favour of fiction that is difficult to read. Long-time readers of this blog will probably already know my views about “difficult” fiction, but I thought that I’d approach the topic slightly differently this time round.

The reason that I am mentioning these articles is because of a part of Scott’s article (which is also referred to in Mason’s article too), where she basically argues that “readability” is a bad thing, especially when taught in writing courses: ‘But despite the fine-arts degree they confer, the credo of “craft” predominates in these programs, especially in the genre of fiction. The goal is to produce a solid, sellable product—a “good read” distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing—rather than a work of art.

My response to this quote was simply ‘Well, yes. This is a good thing!’

At the end of the day, if a story is to come alive in a reader’s imagination (which I would argue is the definition of “art”, in the context of writing) then it needs to fascinate that reader. It needs to grip that reader. It needs to be a “good read”.

A good writer needs to make sure that the reader is as close to the story as possible, so that it can take root in his or her imagination as easily and quickly as possible.

Putting lots of needlessly descriptive, needlessly dense and/or needlessly experimental writing in between the reader and the story is like putting an intricately-patterned wooden screen in front of a beautiful painting. The wooden screen may look beautiful, but it’s blocking out something even more beautiful.

The internet is filled with fan art and fan fiction. Every piece of it shows that someone’s story has come alive in someone else’s imagination. It is very telling that most of this fan art and fan fiction is based on things that aren’t designed to be “difficult” to read or watch.

In other words, you’re probably going to find a lot of “Star Trek”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Doctor Who” and/or “Harry Potter”-based fan works on the internet – but you’re probably not going to find that many James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Richardson or Will Self- based fan works on the internet.

Scott’s article also quotes Virginia Woolf whilst arguing how reading “difficult” fiction allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us: ‘When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

From my own personal experience, I haven’t really had many of these moments when reading “difficult” fiction. However, I’ve had more than my fair share of them whilst reading comics, reading genre fiction, listening to punk and heavy metal music, playing computer games, reading online articles and even watching TV shows and Youtube videos.

Or, to quote a Wingnut Dishwashers Union song [NSFW]: “A punk rock song won’t ever change the world/ But I can tell you about a couple that changed me.

In other words, this quality isn’t something that is only ever found cleverly hidden within dusty old novels and modern “literary fiction”. And I think that I know why.

If a story is the kind of great thing that shapes a reader’s worldview and gives them a better way to understand their own feelings and their own thoughts, then it needs to be something that they feel comfortable spending time with. It has to be something that welcomes the audience like an old friend, rather than something that austerely gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, your story won’t “enlighten” anyone if they don’t read it.

This doesn’t mean that fiction can’t be intelligent, it just means that it needs to be easily accessible. It needs to be written in a way that actually makes people want to read it. It needs to be written in a way that makes them want to read more.

People tend to focus more intensely when they’re enjoying something. If your readers are fascinated by your story, then they’re probably going to be thinking and daydreaming about it for a long time afterwards.

In other words, instead of sternly requiring your readers to *yawn* “study” your story in order to understand it, if you tell a suitably readable story, then your readers are going to want to study it. They’re going to want to think about it, to write fan fiction and to debate it with other readers.

So, yes, don’t make things needlessly difficult for your readers.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

4 comments on “Why Readability Matters

  1. I can agree with this. I think that art reflects the culture it grows in and we live in an age where people don’t have time for things they don’t understand right away. They want enough description to keep them going without counting candle sticks.

  2. TheDoxieTruth says:

    I enjoy reading both types of literature. People that say only “difficult” writing is worth anything sound very snobby.

    Great job on this post!

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Thanks 🙂 Yeah, I’ve read both before – although I tend to lean more towards “easy to read” stuff these days (although I seem to still be going through a “hardly reading anything” phase at the moment).

      But, thinking about it more, there’s a good case to be made that the best fiction is kind of somewhere in between these two things – it tells interesting genre-style stories, but with slightly more complicated writing (that is neither “easy” nor “difficult”). Kind of like in George R. R. Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels, like in Clive Barker’s horror fiction etc…

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