All literature is about being as clear as possible. This is an art form of smoky images and emotions, of myths and legends. Deciphering from a written language, we conjure in our minds the setting, the characters, the actions; and within all of this is its either plain or complex style of language. Every piece of literature that has been produced and ever will falls prey to being boring and bland to the casual onlooker. Literature doesn’t have the advantages of the visual to show itself right away–it must be worked for. And because it can always be whittled down to just blocks of words, it is clarity that separates inspiring, meaningful, and artistic work from the rest. If a work is clear, it rises out above the page it is printed on and catches us in the dream it is weaving. Then we miss our train stop and love the book for that.
The genius of Woolf, Nabokov, Faulkner, Joyce—hosts to some of the densest, most complex literature ever imagined and produced—is that it has clear, strong threads of clarity weaved throughout the abstract, the symbolic, the obscure, and the poetic. I remember when I decided to give ‘The Sound and the Fury’ one more try. Up until that point, I had thrown it across the room in frustration about five times one summer (a habit keeping me from buying a Kindl). ‘Stupid writer, just trying to be vague and artsy. Forget it.’ But there was something there that made me reconsider. It was nothing important, really, just a smidgen of something, a streak of familiarity. I’m a man who loves puzzles, and so, when I read stuff like this, I look for patterns. In Part I of the novel, there was something there, something I could feel more than know. Swirling within that mass of past and present, swirling within the mind of this character, there was meaning. Then I found it. I can’t tell you what it was, I don’t remember, but all of a sudden, I’d seen the pattern, and it made me skip all the way back to the beginning of the novel and reread it. Everything made sense after that and it became a thing of beauty and wonder. If that novel didn’t have at least that little something, that thread of clarity, I would’ve put down the book and never picked it up again, and Faulkner would never have gotten it published. And it’s there all the time, in great works–that something that lets you know that it is all part of a pattern. When you find it, swirling within the mass of words, the whole piece changes. And, at first, when you said, ‘I can’t stand this obscure, wordy crap!’, now you say, ‘I adore this treasure!’ The Sound and the Fury is easily one of the greatest American novels ever written and it’s because of not only his complex writing style but also his attention to clarity that keeps us reading. We do this with obscure, complex things because it challenges us. And every reader, deep down, loves a good challenge.
On the other end, you have the straight-forward writing of Hemingway and Chandler or the 19th-century realists of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mann, and Flaubert. Their genius is not in the weaving of the abstract with the concrete, but in the oak tree of the concrete detail casting the shadow of the abstract. This is realism, the examination of the everyday and the larger questions that evolve from its constant details of people and places. It challenges us in its own way by seeming almost too clear, making us look closer at what is unfolding in front of us. Realism fools us with its sometimes overtly clear words, but don’t be fooled: there is more there than meets the eye.
By knowing that great works are clear and purposeful, you can now get to work on being as clear as you possible can in your own work and making sure you are keeping clear that dream on the page. Be deliberate in your words, knowing that all the while, there is a reader right there nodding their head, and hopefully, muttering, ‘Go on, go on.’
Clarity is always the first and most important–and therefore the most difficult–goal to achieve for a writer. We are, again, working in an art of smoke. To lose our readers in these writer-made clouds of thought, emotion, and character is to be indifferent to them, it is also to be cruel.