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October 04, 2006

In Defense of Transparent Prose

I wrote this post in mid-July and stopped, because I had more to say about it, then forgot about it. I'm posting it here now, because I'm working my way back in to the "fad writing" issue and this sort of belongs with that set of questions. Please excuse the untimeliness.

Via Gwenda Bond, I read this post from Elizabeth Bear on beautiful prose and SF/F. Also recently I was pressing my copy of His Majesty's Dragon on a friend, saying it was the perfect example of what transparent prose should be, and he asked what "transparent prose" was.

Our brief discussion brought up some of the knee-jerk reactions anyone with any literary pretensions has to the concept of transparent prose, so I went searching on the internet for a definition and came up only with befoulments and complaints . (With the dramatic exception of this ancient and delicious essay, "A Reader's Manifesto".)

I'm not about to say here that everyone should write transparently any more than everyone should write "poetically" (wait for it, I'll be taking issue with these terms later.) Everyone should write how they best write. I'm just sick of this discussion that has everyone should-writing either one way or another. I'm ten-fold sick of this coercion that has everyone with (again) any literary pretensions padding their prose with ill-considered detail and unintelligent meditations because both are de rigeur. And I'm a thousand-fold sick of stories that aren't stories, but rather 3 - 5000 word-strong masses of undigested would-be poesy, because "style" and "voice" give bad writers permission to vomit on the page and pass it off as considered work.

I'm currently more than halfway through a novel by an acquaintance that has no story. I was encouraged to read this novel not merely because of my acquaintanceship with the author, but also by some enthusiastic reviews, as well as the blogasms of various other acquaintances, one of whom said that s/he wanted to slow the reading down because the prose was so beautiful. I quailed at this, but soldiered in.

After all, there are novels which you want to slow down your reading of because the prose is so beautiful. One Hundred Years of Solitude is almost a cliche for being one of them. However, Solitude's forward movement---its structure and "plot"---are so compelling that you can't slow down. And this causes a great deal of the tension in that brilliant book. In fact, you can't possibly want to slow your reading of any novel down, unless it has that compelling forward motion, because, otherwise, why wouldn't you just slow down?

And that's the problem with this current novel. So far the writer has given a great deal of detail, many meaningful and poignant "moments", but no actual story. Now, more than halfway through, I've given up hope of goodies over the horizon and do not look forward to the next chapter, or even the next page. This might be okay if there were other goodies besides plot, but the author has glued the authorial viewpoint so closely to the first person narrator's (oh yes) that there are no little peeks around the narrator's obstructive, big head.

There's no greater perspective than the narrator's moment-to-moment philosophizing about a whorl of dust or a secondary character's sudden quirk. The era in which the book was written---one positively swarming with opportunities for global political and cultural exegesis---is frequently referred to, never felt. Even a greater understanding of the immediate community is lacking. The characters have refused the arc of great novel characters (from stereotype, to particularity, to archetype) and have jumped directly into the realm of delicately shaded archetype, without any intervening characterization.

I wish I could say the novel is unusual in possession of these faults, but it's actually fairly typical of the results of brain-wringing among our Literary Writers of Today. In fact, it's better (so far) than most of the NYT-reviewed sludge tainting Borders' bookshelves of Our Era. When Elizabeth Bear in her post (above) writes:

most of us find one easier to do than the other [i.e. slammin' plot and slammin' prose style], and we learn pretty early in this business to play to our strengths. We won't please everyone; the trick to surviving as a fictioneer is to find one's audience (those persons who are in sympathy to what one is good at or what one is interested in talking about) and satisfy their expectations and desires.

Also, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that writing is too hard to do well. It's a juggling act, and a balancing act, and one is working with limited space and resources (and there's the necessity of maintaining pacing), and every decision one makes, as a writer, means that several other possibilities can no longer be explored. And then, of course, there is the issue that this thing is not easy.

all of what she writes is true, but it sounds too much like an excuse. I think only genre-fiction-as-entertainment has that excuse. Nothing with literary pretensions ever does.

That is to say: if you're writing to sell a lot of books and to entertain people only, then you can play to the strengths you already have, and ignore your weaknesses. But if you're trying to be a conscious practioner of an art form, if you're trying to be an artist, then you have to work the muscles you don't have until you're able able able. As Bear herself wrote: it's a balancing act. This is why it's "too hard to do well", because playing to your strengths alone is a cop out. So you have to work harder and not let yourself get away with easy, meaningless crap.

Basically, what I'm saying is: everyone has to attempt their own sort of balance, but they have to attempt it! That means no saying "My novel is all about beautiful language." Well, then, it's not a novel.

Which brings us back to the defense of transparent prose in the title of this post: Who says prose that buries itself in favor of the story is easy? That's what's constantly implied. What's also constantly implied is that transparent prose is bad. But the whole point is that transparent prose is ... transparent, as in, you can't see it. That is so hard to do. There's no question of doing it right or doing it wrong. If it's transparent, you've done it right ... and if it's not, if the prose trumpets its own presence, if the prose is noticeable, noticeably bad, then it's not transparent. Period.

Which means, of course, that transparent prose is the best and the most difficult and the rarest of writing styles, 'cause, frankly, you almost never see it. It's really, really difficult to write without particularity of voice because everyone writes with particularity of voice. It's almost the whole reason why we write: to screech our presence as writers to the skies. It's really, really difficult to write without mistakes or misjudgements of style. I don't need to explain that; anyone who's been in a writers workshop knows this is true. It's really, really, really, really difficult to know your plot, setting, and characters so well that you don't need to obfuscate them (or their lack) with language, voice, or style, but can rather bury language, voice, and style without revealing your poverty of plot, character, and setting.

Transparent writing is, in the purest, best sense, mature writing. It's writing that isn't adolescent, that isn't selfish, self-centered, and self-absorbed. It's writing of the most difficult, that realizes that the better it does its job, the less it will be recognized for doing its job. You have to be a grownup even to want to write transparently, much less to succeed at it. I don't even want to write transparently, although I worship the rare few who are able to do so.

So can we stop being silly teenagers about it, and talking about the dowdiness of grownups, as if we were the first children ever to discover a generation gap? Just because you've stopped writing like a robot and started your petty thief's ventriloquism career, doesn't mean that: a) we care and b) transparent prose (ooo! notice the presence of the word "parent" in the term!) is somehow lesser than your Jonathan Safran Foer derivation. 'Kay?


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Whew. You realize, of course, that you quoted what I said completely out of context, and in the process you almost entirely reversed the intent of what I was saying?

Because I must note, if you finish that paragraph, and include the next one, what you get is:

(It's also the only thing I've ever done that gets harder the better I get at it, because while my skills grow, my awareness of everything I need to accomplish with those skills grows faster.)

Which brings us to the issue of aesthetics. Can science fiction be beautifully written? Can beautifully written stories cook along at a high rate of speed? Can one maintain a literary and a pulp sensibility simultaneously, in other words? (If one's really ambitious, can one get an eloquent sense of character in there, too?)

you're right about taking you out of context, but i'm not sure how placing the quote back in context reverses your intent. complicates it, certainly.

my main takeaway from your piece was that there was a dichotomy between transparent prose and "beautiful writing" and i think it's a false dichotomy. maybe i was reading too much into what you wrote, but that dichotomy is at least implied in your piece.

i think truly transparent prose is truly good writing, and much of what is called beautiful in writing is merely fashionable or trendy. i'm just trying to complicate this dichotomy is all.

Actually, if you reread, you will notice that I specifically called such dichotomies false, and I said that much of what was praised as transparent prose was 'workmanlike,' and anything but transparent. As opposed to the best transparent prose, which I called "craftsmanlike."

So, no. I did not in any way suggest such a dichotomy.

What I did say was that most of what people call transparent prose is crap writing, although not in those specific terms.

Wow, interesting timing. I just posted something about this over at the othermag blog, except that I argue that *all* good prose is transparent. Even super fancy, crafty clever prose. If it conveys something, creates an image in your mind, or elicits a reaction from the reader, then it's transparent. Otherwise, if it just draws attention to how beautifully written it is without conveying anything, it's actually not good prose.

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