Superior Readability

An exploration of what makes a book readable and hooks readers, in which I alienate beer drinkers… .

Readability is not a joke.  Of course, this is how I treated it a few weeks ago when I first noticed the readability of Peter V. Brett’s debut novel The Warded Man.  The speed at which I read the first book of Brett’s Demon Cycle series and the way I kept going back to reading it–and actually enjoying it–left me thinking it was just really easy to read.  This was funny because a book should be easy to read, and if it’s a pain to read, and you have to drag yourself into reading it, then why are you reading it?  It reminded me of a billboard for Bud Light that hung over the entrance to the O’Neill Tunnel in Boston: “Superior Drinkability.”  If you’re selling a drink it really ought to be drinkable, or else something is wrong.

Readability is a primary need for readers

Beer and books have other desirable qualities.  Apparently.  I’ll have to take your word for it with beer, but books don’t just have the words on the page, i.e. the execution or style, but they also have their content.  Quite rightly, many writing instructors and books point out that readers will forgive a lot if the story presents an interesting situation, compelling characters, and an exciting setting.  I agree with this for the most part, but in my own experience as a reader, I find that readability can keep me with a book that doesn’t even have an interesting story.  I won’t like it as much as a book that has everything, but the truth is that some of my favorite books don’t have much of a plot.  Paul Goat Allen recently published a “hierarchy of needs” in the March/April Writer’s Digest, where he placed readability at the bottom, as the most basic need, and characters a step up from immersion (setting and description).  I might invert levels 3 and 4, but readability is my most basic need.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, for instance, mainly excites on the basis of its voice and readability, not by any strength of plot:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.  The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone.  A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.

Good fiction in any genre is written at a middle-school level

I mention Atwood as a literary writer, since literary fiction is often dismissed as unreadable garbage, but Atwood’s work is consistently at a middle school reading level.  My own experience is that most literary fiction is not unreadable, but boring because some authors rely on social indignation or reader expectations of what causes unhappy families. Sound familiar? Relying on genre conventions too heavily makes boring fiction in any genre, not just genres with dwarves and spaceships.  Actually good literary fiction like Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, and Tom Wolfe, is incredibly readable. In fact, none of the best writers write above a ninth-grade level, not even David Foster Wallace.  Hemingway is comprehensible by fourth graders (I first read The Old Man and the Sea in sixth grade).  The message is clear: readability doesn’t make literary quality, but how will readers go along with an author contemplating critical issues like life and death, good and evil, and human inadequacy if they can’t read the prose?

What is readability?

Clear sentences.  That’s about it.  Here’s the opening of The Warded Man:

Arlen paused in his work, looking up at the lavender wash of the dawn sky.  Mist still clung to the air, bringing with it a damp, acrid taste that was all too familiar.  A quiet dread built in his gut as he waited in the morning stillness, hoping that it had been his imagination.  He was eleven years old.

Notice the “rules” this passage breaks: three sentences in a row with gerund-infinitive clauses, and how about that last one?  Show, don’t tell!  Hello!  But it’s very easy to read, so screw those rules.  Obviously these stylistic oversights would get repetitive, and might irritate a reader, but again a reader will forgive a lot (even in terms of content) if he doesn’t have to struggle to read.

Right after finishing The Warded Man I thought I would finally read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, which I’d managed to collect with two of its sequels for a grand total of $2.  The prologue was exciting, and the first paragraph was good, but after about a page, I got into a serious readability problem:

Dawnlight illumined the tumbled landscape, the unplowed fields in the valley below.  Dawnlight fell on twisted orchards, where the sparse herds of milch-beasts hunted stray blades of spring grass.  Grass in Ruatha, Lessa mused, grew where it should not, died where it should flourish.  Lessa could hardly remember now how Ruatha Valley had once looked, sweetly happy, amply productive.  Before Fax came.  An odd brooding smile curved lips unused to such exercise.  Fax realized no profit from his conquest of Ruatha…

Two sentences in a row begin with the same unnecessary coined word, and the first features an awkward verb: how often do you hear someone say “the kitchen is illumined?” It was that second-to-last sentence that made me say “This is a classic, but I don’t have to read it.”  The use of “curved” as a verb really threw me off, as that’s usually a modifier and it’s in the midst of a bunch of other modifiers.  If you read it three times silently and it doesn’t make sense, read it aloud and it doesn’t make sense, the reader will struggle too much.  I picked up The Magus by John Fowles and I’ve been reading it since then.  I’ve been easily reading thirty pages a day without noticing.

Another example:

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.  On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again.  Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue.  Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in according with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass.

What none of them new, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.

That’s the opening of Stephen King’s Carrie and what strikes me is how simple it is.  I always have the feeling that King is telling me the story over a cup of coffee.  It’s also worth mentioning that readability is subjective: King himself loved A Game of Thrones, but I found it completely unreadable.

For writers…

Writers get so much advice about making the first sentence totally awesome that they might not notice the readability of their favorite authors and what a huge difference it makes.  It’s worth asking yourself why if Stephen King can write at a sixth-grade level, why you would bother to try to make your prose more challenging.  Who do you want to challenge?  Challenge yourself to make every sentence as clear as possible.

It’s easy to fall into purple prose

Fantasy writers, in particular, like fancy-sounding prose, but it often comes off as purple prose, loaded with modifiers in which very little is actually happening, and there’s little connection with the characters.  Ed Mcdonald’s hilarious caricature strikes me not as a caricature of literary fiction, but of beginning fantasy authors, myself included. Another practice that leads to low readability is micro-managing, where the writer blocks out everything the character does, trying to avoid any abstraction whatsoever.  Example: “He stretched his arms above his head, arched his back, and extended his jaws into a wide open maw, collapsing after a few seconds,” instead of “He yawned.” Show don’t tell can only go so far.

Why not spend the time you spend on challenging prose on coming up with a more interesting setting, and outlining impossible situations for your characters to get out of?  If readability is the basis of a good read, then it’s something to shoot for in itself.

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