Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Writing craft philosophical provocation of the day

by Daniel Abraham

“Inaccessibility in a work of art is either a failure of craft or a statement of contempt.”


23 Responses »

  1. Statement of contempt from the reader/listener/viewer or consumer, for brevity, of art? That would imply the consumer doesn’t bring an open mind to the work of art. Perhaps a third option – “statement of ignorance?”

    • I was thinking of it as contempt by the artist for the portion of the audience they were excluding, but your read’s interesting. I’m hearing you say that inaccessibility in art as a failure of effort on the part of the audience? Am I getting that right?

      • Yes. I see art, especially art in the form of the written word, as a communication between the creator and audience. I know I’ve done something wrong, or not brought the right thing to the table in certain “discussions” (books) with the artist (writer), whether it be mindset, knowledge, etc.

        I hadn’t thought your point was fully from the artist’s standpoint, but reading it that way, sure, I can see how the contempt can be on the artist’s side of things. Almost a “screw you if you don’t get it, it isn’t for you anyway” thinking.

  2. Uh… No? Sometimes it can just be the result of a private inside joke. Even if said joke is told from the author to the author. And I feel that’s okay.

    • I can respect that. I do wonder about making private, inside jokes around people who you know aren’t going to get them, though. That’s actually a bad habit of mine that I’ve gotten called on a few times. I know in my experience I’ve made that kind of exclusionary joke and been read (sometimes accurately) as contemptuous.

      • Well, I think the actual question could be paraphrased as: Is the author (let’s assume we’re talking about writing here) making the work of art mainly for themselves or for “the audience”?

        (I think there is no such thing as “the audience” – everybody is their own audience first and foremost. I mean sure, you should keep possible (mis)readings of your work (in progress) in mind, but only to a degree. It is impossible to think of/anticipate all of them.)

        Similarly, the writer can not and should not second guess/worry that some of the things they’ll write will make it inaccessible to somebody. And besides, you can’t “get” great work of art 100% anyway.

        Basically this provocation of yours becomes a question of “all readers are morons” versus “all readers are geniuses”. There is no “all readers” of course, so therefore, it’s just a matter of personal disposition. Or taste. A variation on Pascal’s Wager, if you will.

        For me personally, it’s this: every single detail that can elevate a story to greatness (for me/somebody), every one of those details can make it inaccessible to someone else.

        Also, just asking: why SHOULD works art be 100% accessible? I’m only half-joking. I mean, sure, it can be fun when they are, but surely it’s not a requirement for Great Art? (I don’t think it has those…)

      • That’s a fair point (and I can relate to that experience). But I also think there’s a lot of territory between a completely public joke and a completely private joke. Consider John Scalzi’s Redshirts. The very nature of what it is excludes the majority of the reading public, yet it’s anything but contemptuous.

  3. I think that inaccessibility could be a mark of failure or of contempt, but I think purposely making a work challenging can also be a result of a deep trust that the audience will be smart enough or diligent enough to work it out.

    I always think of the difference between Vladimir Nabokov and Gene Wolfe. Both men wrote books that were difficult to get at, with unreliable narrators and strange worlds and not a lot in the way of explanation. Often both men will drop only a single subtle clue that’s easy to miss, but which, if you catch it, will make you reinterpret everything that’s come before that point.

    With Nabokov, though, the books always feel like an intellectual exercise to me, kind of cold and removed, and while “contempt” isn’t quite the right word for it, I do come away with the feeling that he’s doing it all just to show how smart he is. Wolfe’s books, on the other hand, usually seem deeply passionate to me, and I feel like he’s always hoping that I will get it, but that he can’t make it easy for me because the only way to get at what he’s trying to do is to go through the exercise of reading deeply.

    I think that any type of art–whether narrative fiction, poetry, visual art, film, or what have you–can work in many ways, and while there’s value in art that viscerally hits you immediately, there’s also value in art that makes you work to figure out what’s going on. I think the key thing is whether or not it’s possible to get at that meaning from the information presented. If the artist makes it difficult but ultimately possible to understand, that may be a good thing. If it’s simply impossible to get without, for example, being in on a private joke, well, that may be exclusionary and, perhaps, contemptuous.

    • The one I come back to is Hoban’s Riddley Walker, which is a profoundly difficult read that I really enjoyed. I’m pretty sure I got about a third of what was going on in that book on the first read through. Or Eco’s Name of the Rose, which I bumped of four times before I got into it (and then got the separate book that translated and put in context all the quotes from book). I can see some real advantages in doing work that makes the viewer/reader/audience put effort into the experience, but I can also see that saying “If you want to understand my work, you must jump through my hoops” is relying on a power relationship that is . . . well, precarious. As an artist or composer or writer, you have total control over the work, and the audience’s only real power is in whether or not to ignore it.

      There is a sizable audience that doesn’t have the experience to make Wolfe or Hoban or Eco (or Pynchon or Fowler or Jackson Pollock or Miles Davis) comprehensible. Some of them because it’s not an effort they care to make, some because the project is just beyond them. Is “Yeah, I’m going to do this thing, and the folks that get it will get it” a statement of *contempt* toward the folks who won’t get it? And if not, what’s a better word for that causal and necessary exclusion?

      Just thinking out loud here…

      • I don’t think that it’s necessarily contemptuous toward those would can’t or won’t get it, though it could be, and I don’t think that that kind of exclusion is necessarily casual. And I also don’t think that the power dynamic you’re describing is inherent in making that kind of work.

        Art is, at root, about the experience that comes out of the work. (I believe, actually, that the experience for the artist, himself, is at least as valid and important as the experience for the audience, but that’s another discussion.) What we get out of a work of art is the experience of having seen/read/consumed it. What does that feel like? What do we take away from it? How are we changed by having had that experience?

        There are some kinds of experiences that are simply not possible to get from an easily accessible artwork. It’s wrong to say that only difficult art produces valuable experiences (though many people do say that), but it’s also wrong to say that only accessible art does so (though many people say that, too–not that I think you’re saying it). I think that there’s room in the world for both. Some kinds of experiences will be opaque to some fraction of the audience, perhaps a small fraction, perhaps a large one. But that doesn’t make it condescending or contemptuous to aim for that experience.

        And I think that the relationship between artist and audience is much more complicated than what you’re describing. Almost every artist I’ve talked to cares deeply about his or her work being accepted and understood by the audience, though some won’t admit it. (Being in the field I’m in, I mostly talk to photographers, but I think this is common among artists working in all forms.) Whether or not we ought to care about the audience, or to what degree, may be a larger discussion, but I’ve met very few people making art who don’t care at all about the audience and what they think. You make art because there’s something you want to express. In the actual execution you may succeed or fall short, and which of those ends up being true is highly subjective. And, of course, the motive force for the act of creation is highly personal, and most of the time isn’t driven by a consideration of what the audience wants, but rather of what you want to say. At the end of the day, though, for most artists–at least, in my experience–that act of expression is intended to be communicative, so you do want the audience to get it.

        My question for you is: isn’t it also potentially contemptuous to make something accessible just for the sake of accessibility? Why not start from the assumption that people are smart enough to get it without making it easy for them?

        • I think you may be optimistic in thinking that I’m actually saying anything, or at least anything solid. I’m more sitting with some ideas about art and audience and talking about them as a way of thinking ’em through.

          I don’t think that accessibility for the sake of accessibility fits in my view of things. That’s probably a failing on my part, but the way I would phrase that concept to make sense to me is “Is it contempt to simplify a project — ‘dumb it down’ — to the point that it loses what makes it interesting in the service of saying something to the widest posible audience.” For me — and like I said I’m thinking this through — that’s more a failure of craft. The min-max that artists should be shooting for (IMHO) is as accessible and simple as it can be without being something else. It’s possible that Gene Wolfe’s work couldn’t be any simpler or more open than it is and still be doing what it’s doing. I don’t think Riddley Walker would be improved by making an easy read.

          The other thing that I’m circling around here goes back to Rob’s idea a little bit too. Is there no audience — or slice of audience — so vapid and lazy that they *deserve* contempt? Is contempt (by which I mean here an intentional exclusion of some part of the audience by the artist because who cares what *they* think?) *always* inappropriate? That’s a little more Nietzschean than I usually roll, but it’s where I’m winding up on this one.

      • On the contrary, maybe the assumption that the readers will “get it” could actually be viewed as a compliment to them?

        Imagine: an “highbrow” author who believes that he/she doesn’t have to dumb it down for anybody. The (perhaps wrong or naive) assumption here is that his/her readers will get it. That you can treat your audience as equals.

        Now imagine: (and I can, very easily) a cynical, well educated, very frustrated author angrily staring at their manuscript, muttering: “Oh, people won’t get this, this is too complicated for the average person, my readers are all basically morons anyway…! I’ll cut this/make it simpler so it’ll be more accessible and sell better.”

        Which one has more contempt for their audience?

        • I think artists and their audiences can also come to a place where they’re mutually congratulatory about their own sophistication. I don’t think that’s always a good thing.

          Also, I think dumbing something down falls into the realm of failures of craft for me. Simplifying a project to the point that it turns into something else is a failure, and no question about it. I don’t think making something as accessible means making it stupid, or even introductory. See my min/max comment to Mike.

          And actually, I can make an argument that the hacks, by *trying* to reach people (even if they’re cranky about it) are less contemptuous than the artists for whom anyone that doesn’t engage with their project is simply invisible. The contempt — if there is any — wouldn’t be for an artist’s audience, but for the people discluded from the audience because the effort of including them wasn’t worth it. Does that make sense?

          • It does, but I’m not sure if I agree yet. So are you saying that an artist should always strive to reach the maximum amount of people? The most people they possibly can?

          • I think where you’re losing me here, Daniel, is that contempt is active, not passive–at least as far as I understand the feeling. If I’m not aware of something or am just not thinking about it, that’s not contempt, it’s something else. Perhaps ignorance or a lack of engagement. But in order for me to hold something in contempt, I have to have considered it and decided on some level to reject it. And I think that often when a work of art is inaccessible to some of the audience, it’s not because the artist is thinking about who he or she wants to exclude, but rather about what he or she wants to express, and that’s very different from contempt.

            I think that I agree with J, more or less (if I’m reading him/her correctly, that is). I don’t think that accessibility is important for an artist to consider. I think that what an artist ought to be shooting for is making something good. Accessibility may or may not come along with that, but I think that placing too much emphasis on making something either broadly or narrowly accessible doesn’t really serve the work, and is ultimately going to end up with a shallow end result.

            This isn’t to say that the audience is unimportant, because art is a communicative medium, and communication requires more than one person. But communication also requires common context, and in that respect I don’t think that writing for people who share your context is inherently any more contemptuous than writing for people who speak the same language as you.

          • Mike, except that I know creative people who do hold active contempt for for some segment of the potential audience, and are deliberately exclusionary. I think this may be more common than you suspect.

            I’m sure we both know people who believe that if something has a large audience it is automatically without merit. That accessibility in itself is a sign of inferior work. I swear that half my lit teachers held this view. But you see it in music and movies and all the other art forms as well.

          • Ty, I don’t think I ever said that nobody holds contempt for part of their audience. In fact, I think I said the opposite more than once. I do know both artists and audience members who feel that accessibility makes a piece less valuable, though in my experience it’s much more common for consumers to feel that way than producers. I’ll grant, of course, that my experience is limited to, well, my experience, but it does fit with my general sense that hipsterdom is more common among posers who never make anything than it is among people who are actually putting themselves out there and doing stuff. It’s funny how when you listen to interviews with these non-mainstream bands that hipsters love, a lot of them say things like they love Burt Bacharach or that George Michael actually wrote some really good songs. (I’ve actually heard both of those in interviews with so-called “indie” musicians.)

            My main point was just that I don’t think that making work that’s opaque is necessarily contemptuous or poorly executed, which is what the quote in Daniel’s original post asserted. Sometimes inaccessible work is just fine. And generally I don’t think that accessibility is enough to make something good or bad, nor is opacity. I don’t see either of them as being a particular virtue that a creator should strive for, even though some people do strive for one or the other, for one reason or another. I think that creatives should just try to make the best work they can, work that best expresses what they want to express and that best creates the type of experience they want to create. Sometimes that means that the work will be accessible to most people, sometimes it means that it will be opaque to most people, but neither inherently implies contempt or poor execution, or lack of value or skill.

  4. So much depends here, it seems to me, upon the nature of the work, the author’s goals, and the implied audience. Readers unfamiliar with the genres, for example, may well find much of SF or F inaccessible. This does not mean the works themselves are guilty of contempt, merely that they are presuming a certain familiarity with the tropes of the field in their intended readership. Conversely, some works are, without question, deliberately challenging. Dhalgren, Gravity’s Rainbow and To the Lighthouse are difficult works, but they reward the efforts they demand. This is not to denigrate in any way, of course, the skill and talent required by the more readerly, accessible text. Different goals will demand different approaches, and if failure at one end results in flat, unengaging clichés, the pitfall at the other is self-indulgent wankery.

  5. People read for different reasons, at different times. Some people read to be challenged, at least some of the time. Writing for them is not showing contempt for people who do not read to be challenged.

  6. As with so many other questions in life, it seems to me the answer is: it depends.

    No writer (that I can see) writes for everyone. I think every writer must make choices about what they expect of their audience: their level of familiarity with genre tropes, their general reading comprehension level, their familiarity with cultural / historical touchstones, their subconscious expectations of narrative — the list goes on. Every one of those choices must involve excluding some people from the potential pool of readers, potentially rendering the work inaccessible to them. If this is done poorly, or accidentally, it may indeed be a failure of craft. On the other hand, if it’s done consciously in service of the story being told, it may be the opposite.

    Contempt, too, may sometimes be involved and sometimes not. A writer may have no interest in writing YA fiction, preferring to write adult (in the mature sense, not the porn sense) material that is inaccessible to (most) YA readers. Does that make the writer contemptuous of YA readers / writers / books? I’m not sure it does, necessarily. No doubt in some cases, such a writer really is making a statement of contempt, but I don’t think the decision to exclude is necessarily or always borne from contempt.

    I agree that wide accessibility is something that’s worth striving for as a writer. But I think accessibility will always be incomplete, and can only ever be one goal among many. (Which sounds similar to the point you’re making with your min-max comment.)

  7. I think the statement is clearly false – thought-provoking but false. It presents a false dichotomy. I assume that “inaccessible” as used in the statement means challenging or difficult, as opposed to strictly “not accessible.”

    Accordingly, my life experience is that both easy and difficult things can be enjoyable. The enjoyment is somewhat different but still enjoyment. I can and do enjoy both easy and difficult books. If I as a reader can do so without contempt for the other, then there is no reason I can see for the author to have such contempt.

    Similarly, an artist can create a dramatic work without contempt for comedy. The intended response in the audience is simply different.

    • Yeah, I think i am reading it differently. I don’t read inaccessible as difficult. I read it more like the ‘in joke’ that’s been mentioned several times. A deliberate attempt to craft something that only people in a certain ‘in’ group will get. But that’s just me. My favorite fantasy novel of all time is The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, which has to be one of the most difficult fantasy books ever. The writer doesn’t hold your hand at all. I also really like Gene Wolf, and he also doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. But i never feel like either of them is mocking me for ‘not getting it.’ I’ve read stuff where I feel like that’s exactly what the writer is doing.

      • Even with the different definition, I still think a false dichotomy is presented. One can make a joke and know that only a portion of the potential audience will get it without necessarily having contempt for those that don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong – people (myself included) make exclusionary jokes with contempt. I just don’t see that contempt is required. Otherwise all art that requires context (and so perhaps all art) would have contempt.