Friday, December 15, 2006

At What Price, Vocab?

A Lesson in Lexical Conviction
from Madeleine L'Engle

Walking on Water, Madeleine L'EngleComing off a knock-down, drag-out battle with my final exams, I picked up Walking On Water, Reflections on Faith & Art by Madeleine L'Engle. It's a kind of therapy. This is from page 36:
We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually. Yet another reason why [A Wrinkle in Time] was so often rejected is that there are many words in it which would never be found on a controlled vocabulary list for the age-group of the ten-to-fourteen-year-old. Tesseract, for instance. It's a real word, and one essential for the story.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'EngleOf course, the saga turned out well for L'Engle, who saw Wrinkle not only get published, but go on to become a Newbery Medal winner and win an enduring place in American children's (and adult) literature. But going in, she couldn't have known that success waited on the far side of a non-compromise. This is what you call strength of lexical conviction.

Would any of you adopt this strategy if you had multiple publishing houses pleading with you to make your writing "communicate better to a wider audience?" The latter half of that sentence doesn't apply to me at this point in my career, but this is something I'm turning over. The question should also be viewed with the help of G.K. Chesterton's counter-perspective:
Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable… The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.

So then, put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring author. Then ask, Is "tesseract" worth it? I await your opinions.

Cross-posted on BitterSweetLife.

9 Comments:

Blogger Cyn said...

I certainly think that tesseract was worth the wait, and I think time has shown that L'Engle was right. Chesterton's rule works for Chesteron's style, which isn't L'Engle's style.

I respect both, but I can still pick up a volume of prose or poetry by Madeleine L'Engle and be enchanted within a few minutes. I've never experienced such while reading Chesterton. I don't doubt that there are others whose tastes run contrary to mine, though.

8:45 AM  
Blogger martin said...

Perhaps it is clearer if you remember that publishers are usually making commercial, not aesthetic, judgements. If J K Rowling and Dan Brown are the most popular authors in the world, then it is hardly surprising that publishers are wary of complexity of language. They might have phrased it better as "Include these weird words if you want, but it'll cost you half your sales", which would then leave the author with the dilemma; usually the author would say "I must write as I do, and if that doesn't sell well, then tough". In principle I would be on the side of complexity, or at least of a style that reflects an interest in how the story is told rather than just getting the plot done. I do note, however, that the wikipedia article of 'tesseract' implies that L'Engle misleads her readers about what it is and how it works, which is unfortunate when she knows that hers will be the first occasion they encounter it. So I am with Chesterton: any fool with a thesaurus can write 'challenging' text with rolling polysyllables; to write simply and clearly requires infinite care.

12:43 AM  
Blogger alienvoord said...

I'm not sure that the claim "The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually" has much scientific basis. It seems true that English has a larger vocabulary than other languages, but that's not proof that speakers of those other languages cannot think conceptually.

Also, the concept of "word" is difficult to define. I think it makes more sense to say that if speakers need to communicate a concept, they will find a way to do it in their language, whether by a single word, a noun phrase, or a base with agglutinative affixes.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Steve Hayes said...

I agree with both.

Chesterton (and Fowler) rightly decry love of the long word, but that is because so many bad writers choose long words where a shorter one would do better, and use long wrods and convoluted sentences to baffle readers with their learning.

I've read prose that would have been perfectly clear if only I had known the meaning of the words. That I didn't was because the words pertained to a subject I knew very little about.

On the other hand, I've had to edit prose where the writing was obscure, even though I understood every word. A writer who prefers to use the term "Temporal Andragogics" rather than "History of Adult Education" because it sounds more "scientific" is a charlatan and a bulshitter.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Sprittibee said...

I have so missed this blog! You got lost in my never-ending list of links. How sad. I'll have to read back through the archives!

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