The College of Obscurity

I am not stupid, as far as I can tell, but if I am, maybe I can’t tell. Either way, I appreciate all kinds of writing. My interests are as diverse as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, from translations of Homer to French classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, to more modern fare like The Hunger Games and comics like Batgirl: Year One (currently reading). Recently, I cracked open a publication of short-story contest winners and, while the winning entry was well written, the finalists made me feel . . . how shall I put this, like a 2nd grader. I mean, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this writing. Each sentence was so cleverly crafted, so cryptically meaningful, that to me it came across like gobbledygook (the language of goblins). Names and places were tossed at random. Metaphors met like atoms in the Large Hadron Collider. Paragraphs were so densely packed, they were like the super dense neutron stars I’d read about in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole. Here’s a sample:

But then she took a step backward, and saw me on the threshold, and in that motion was another inward turning because when she spoke again her voice was sweetened with courteousness, through what she said to my face all smiling is now not memorable. That seems to be the mechanism of memory, to gather in its thresher the heaviness, which is to say, not the smoothness of false sincerity but what has sunk to spread seed or to foul and rot in audacious stench. Something hateful inside. 


After a few minutes of intense focus, this is my best translation, keeping as many metaphors as I could:

When she saw me, something turned inside of her, and when she spoke it was sweet and she was smiling, but I don’t remember what was said. Memory doesn’t keep false sincerity. I recall only the heaviness of her hatred for me, which had spread like a rotting stench. 

Better, don’t you think?

Now don’t get me wrong . . . not all short fiction is this way. I adore Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. And Flash Fiction, which I’d read in college, was composed of some brilliant, inspiring and hair-raising stuff. I also appreciated the works of my classmates, some of whom were brilliant. But with the book of contest winners in my hands . . . I am forced to wonder, is this good writing? In my view, fiction should be fiction, not poetry. I have advocated for a resurgence of poetic writing in many of my posts, but if a story forces you to read the same sentence two or three times, it’s too clever for me. In desperation, I sought counsel from fellow author Michael Sullivan, who wisely reminded me that there are a wide range of tastes; don’t fall into the trap that what you don’t like others won’t. Fine, I can understand that. But the question remains, outside of the classroom, who likes this stuff? Let’s face it, fiction has stiff competition in this ADHD generation, from movies, video games, and the Internet. There isn’t a huge demographic for short fiction to begin with. I remember studying something similar, American Masterpiece Fiction, which nobody in my class really enjoyed. Now here was a group of students uniquely dedicated to the written word, a minor demographic indeed, and yet our consensus was almost always huh?. But there must be people in the world who appreciate this kind of writing, like the Mexican tribes featured in National Geographic who speak nearly-dead languages, otherwise nobody would be awarding them winners of contests.

When I published The Dark Age of Enya in 2004, many criticized that the writing was esoteric and difficult to read. I’d tried too hard to be clever, I realized, and like Yoda said to Luke, I had to unlearn what I had learned. So much for college.

The danger in trying to be the next Shakespeare is that poetry can be confused with being obscure. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is poetry makes the rock rocky. If done correctly, a well written piece clarifies, makes details pop from the page, brings the fictional world to life. Beautiful writing is the special effects of fiction. It should never make things obscure.

Or maybe I’m just stupid.

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