One thing that often irritates me about writing at university is how there’s a demand from your lecturers and tutors to write in an accepted style, one which is inaccessible. Those who aren’t academics or in higher education struggle to follow the academic language used in journals. It feels inconsiderate at the best of times and downright infuriating at the worst of times. Yet literary elitists say that this style is necessary and that “simpler language is a symptom of the dumbing down of society”. I disagree. In fact, I think this simple, accessible style is key to saving the craft of writing.
What I mean by my use of ‘craft’ (instead of ‘art’ or ‘skill’) is my belief that writing isn’t God-given. It’s not a magic trick, or a mysterious veil. It’s a craft, just like weaving, and it takes regular practice to become good at it. Great writers aren’t born great, they simply learn by writing more than everyone else.
I recently learned that the average reading age in the UK is 9 years old on the Flesch Reading Ease test. The Sun is written so it can be read by 8-year-olds. The Guardian, considered highbrow and middle-class, has a reading age of 14. That doesn’t mean the people who read The Sun are as clever as 8-year-olds, rather you could expect someone of that age to be able to read that paper. It’s not a coincidence that The Sun is the paper with the most readers in Britain.
Yet while The Sun has the highest readership, its circulation is still falling. The same is true of other papers. The news organisations with the highest readership are no longer even in print. Look online. Look at Buzzfeed. Look at why they are successful. Listicles? Partly. Fast content? Partly. But I believe the biggest factor in their success is the use of simple words. Their content is built on simple language, and the same is true of The Huffington Post. It’s clear that simpler language leads to more readers, and that’s why tabloids have more readers than broadsheets.
Of course, there has been a lot of sneering at sites like these in highbrow circles. Buzzfeed has become a dirty word for some writers. The worst snobbery is in the book industry. Writers like Graham Swift have gone into a state of “deep pseud” in which they write for the critics, in full knowledge the masses won’t even bother reading such needlessly complex writing.
Mark Twain once said “I didn’t have the time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. The best writing isn’t the most impenetrable, it is universal while still being informative and exciting. The job of a writer is to understand, inform, and entertain; if you can’t do any one of those things because you write like Thomas Hardy in the 21st century then that is your problem. There’s no point in being clever if nobody understands you.
So why does this awful writing style still dominate the literary world? Donna Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2013 novel The Goldfinch. It was an instant smash hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for seven months and selling over a million copies. But the book was savaged by critics on release. James Wood of The New Yorker said its “tone, language and character belong in children’s literature”. Critics accused the book of being packed with simple language and clichés – in short, too easy to understand.
In the case of The Goldfinch, the elitism of the literary world is completely naked to the rest of the world. This elitism is behind falling book sales. It’s behind the average writer needing to work multiple jobs. It’s behind a dying industry. Readers aren’t reading modern books because they are often too long and too pretentious. Books that have caused a sensation in the last few years are all written to be understood by a general audience – Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones, The Fault in Our Stars, even Call Me by Your Name. The writing industry – or what remains of it – needs to take lessons from the copywriting industry. Write to be understood, and write to entertain.
This isn’t just a personal pet peeve. It is vital that we keep ordinary people engaged with reading. The reason the publishing industry struggles while film succeeds is obvious: films are aimed at a mass market, while books are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the wider audience. This vicious circle means that writers write for the elite, and the elite praise the writers who write more for the elite, and so on. It means literary culture is becoming exclusive to the privileged. It means fewer working-class or minority writers. It means less diversity, less choice, less education. So please, if you’re writing anything right now – keep it simple. You might just save the craft of writing.
[Gabriel Rutherford – he/him – @GabeRuth_]
[Photo credit: Litonali/flickr.com]