Rebecca Lerner: The Rarity of Readability

Sunday, March 27, 2016 - 10:09pm

A few months ago, in my other life as the film beat editor for The Michigan Daily, I was looking over a Daily Arts application. After giving the application a once-over and more thoroughly reading the writing samples, I put an enthusiastic YES in the voting Google Doc. Almost instantaneously, I got a text from a fellow editor, reading “did you see what [they] said about your lit column tho.” I went back to the application and, sure enough, I saw the phrase: “the literary columns are often pretentious and seem uninviting to those who are not extremely well versed in literature.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to say that this person is now on my beat and is a great writer and contributor to the Daily. When I bring this incident up, I’m not trying to call anyone out — but this comment made me consider the way I write, in terms of readability.

Readability, the ease with which a reader can understand a given text, hasn’t always been at the forefront of my mind in my writing. Before college, when beginning to consider myself a “writer,” I would meticulously look through the thesaurus, trying to improve my vocabulary and find big words to annoyingly throw into casual conversation. Even last year, I had a list of pretentious words next to my bed that I would put into my film reviews (at which my editor would raise his eyebrows).

But after reading that fairly innocuous comment in the Arts application, I began to consider language as a barrier. In Langston Hughes’s anthology of African short stories, “An African Treasury,” he explicitly says he chose “those pieces which I enjoyed most and which I hope others will find entertaining, moving, possibly instructive, but above all readable. For me, creative writing’s first function is readability.”

When I first read this passage in the introduction to Hughes’s anthology, I was in total agreement. It seems reasonable that authors in general would want as large a potential audience as possible, but especially for Hughes, who witnessed incredible inequality throughout his life. After seeing the effects of segregation, Hughes wanted to break down the barriers between people, including those in literature. Still, with the enormous disparities in wealth and education in this country, these obstacles to learning and reading exist even today.

But when looking at both past and present literary celebrities, there’s no question that not all authors share Hughes’s approach. Some authors want to make you work hard to understand their work, and since the start of literature there have been people like this. They’re often the same authors who want to exclude minorities and women from literature, using both their status and their words to keep others from the literary world. And yet there’s a sort of pride in getting through an unwelcoming text, one that the author clearly wants to make difficult for you.

By engaging with texts specifically designed for an elite reader, are we constructing the very economies that create this exclusivity? In reading authors like Jonathan Franzen and Laurence Stern, are we playing right into their literary gatekeeping? Should we never read again? Probably not. As both readers and writers, it’s important to be conscious of who the audience is meant to be — and what structures we’re reinforcing with that work. But even if that work is emphasizing a point that we disagree with, it’s still substantive to look at critically.

When we were discussing balancing these concepts in one of my classes, a peer aptly stated, “Some of the most important work in the world makes you feel like an inadequate slug.” I’ll admit, literature has made me feel slug-like on many occasions: when people hate my work, when someone uses a word I don’t know and even when I struggle through some of the reading in my harder literature classes that combines difficult vocabulary with convoluted concepts. In both reading and writing, there’s a necessity to be cognizant of what words can do. While it can feel easier to hide behind big words, the benefits of literature come from its big ideas.