Thursday, June 14, 2012

Is It Smart to Dumb Down?

"Is Fiction Changing, For Better or Worse?" is a discussion question the New York Times posed earlier this month, the topic title alone craftily tapping into the zeitgeist of how we readers willingly enter into a marriage of the mind with our favorite books.

Some of the distinguished respondents posit that smart, well-crafted books that make one think will always find a readership. Others take a more cynical attitude toward what appears to be a readership clamoring for entertainment over substance.

" long as people use language, tell stories, and want to know about themselves, they will read fiction," opines William Deresiewicz as part of the NY Times discussion.

While I'm not disputing that fiction is here to stay, I do wonder whether we, the reading public, have emulated Corporate America: eschewing the experienced, educated brain trust in favor of something younger, hipper, hotter (and cheaper).

"Are we just heading toward the dumbing down of everything?" Atlantic Wire writer Jen Doll asks after inflicting the opening of 50 Shades of Grey on herself. It's a valid question. One that, in the light of two beta readers' comments on a manuscript of mine, I have been contemplating from a practical standpoint for the past few days.

"I loved your book," one beta said. "It's very well-written, with great descriptions and a unique story that really used a lot of imagination." (Cue happy song, confetti flinging, and Kermit arm-flailing, 'cause I'm just that pathetic when it comes to hearing people say nice stuff about my writing.)


This beta reader and one other mentioned that they had encountered words they didn't know when reading my manuscript, an adult literary novel with commercial aspirations.

"I don't like having to look things up in the dictionary while I'm reading," one said.

"It makes the book more like work," agreed the other.

I was somewhat taken aback. I had no idea what they were talking about. Had they encountered some slang with which they were unfamiliar, or gotten stuck on the few foreign words I included in my book, I wondered?

No. They just ran into words they didn't know. One of them was kind enough to write them down for me. And I -- God help me -- seriously considered changing them. Until I saw the vocabulary list. Here it is (with excerpts from the novel to put the words in context):

*  "The crate rocked back and forth, caroming off the sides of the van." 
*  "They drowsed, ignoring the diatribe in the background."
*  "The puppy gamboled over to the cage to investigate."
*  "Something in the older woman's voice concerned her. If she didn't know better, she would have said it was fear. That, of course, was impossible, for in all the years they had known each other, she had never seen Ellie quail."
*  "The afternoon sun streamed through the window, backlighting a shaft of light – a God’s eye – dancing with dust motes and dog hair." 
*  "He choked down some of the detox slurry, begrudging every swallow."
*  "If she stretched on her tiptoes, she could almost keep her chin above the morass of trash."
*  "Now people constantly commented on his physical beauty. Sycophants and toadies wanted to be near him, to claim some sort of ownership of his looks." 

Call me a snob, but I happen to think all of these words are perfectly valid components of my vocabulary. I like them. When I use them in my writing and in my speech, they help me say exactly what I mean to say.

But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it would help my chances of finding a major publisher and a massive readership if I reworded things so as not to tax my readers' vocabulary. Perhaps I expect too much of my readers, or am just a hopeless literary bee-yotch. ::sigh::

What are your thoughts? Should I rethink the vocabulary used above? Is it, in your opinion, too advanced or esoteric for today's readership? Have you ever rewritten something you thought was fine -- even "good" -- in order to pander to the masses make it more accessible to your readership?


tmycann said...

I am SO with you--I got some of the same comments on my manuscript. Then decided that using those more erudite words were a core element of the character telling the story. And since it's primarily selling as an eBook, there are dictionary tools right at readers' fingertips. I think since we are writers, it is important to use the full range of language tools we have at our fingertips. Leave those words right where they are!

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for the comment and for the vote of confidence! Good to know that I'm not alone. I'm glad you stuck to your guns and kept your original word choices. I'm leaning that way myself, but don't want to be bullheaded about it if the vocab is truly a barrier to readers' enjoyment. For now, it stays as is. :D

Angel King said...

I agree. I think the core issue is that when people "dumb down" their work, eventually it "dumbs down" the readership. I truly think that is what has happened to the country. If you look at schoolwork from a hundred years ago, you see that we expected much, much more from kids. They are capable. But when you lower your expectations and teach down to them, their horizons are lowered too. It has already happened.

All that to say: Don't contribute to the problem. Keep the words. They aren't that unusual. (I knew every single one of them.)

And anyway, would you really want your books to be lauded by featherbrained twits, a la SoG?

Ami Hendrickson said...

Angel King:
I like your analogy to lowering one's horizons when lowering expectations. I want to aim for the sky. Thanks for the pep talk!

(I also want to thank you for pointing out the obvious to me: that the acronym for Shades of Grey spells "SoG." I hereby dub trilogy fans: SoGgy Bottoms. :D)

Unknown said...

I think that if your writing has commercial intentions you don't write for yourself but for your reader.

If you think that your reader doesn't understand the words you use, then I think you obviously shouldn't use them. You work for the pleasure of the reader, most readers won't read your work to do you a pleasure.

Well I'm not a native English speaker and I didn't know two of the red words either. But the meaning of every red word can be inferred from the text. I think it's fine to use difficult words now and then, as long as they're not essential for the understanding of the story.

In my writing I do try to use only words that are well known and have few syllables. I tell myself that there should be a really good reason for an unknown word to occur. And I actually enjoy searching for ways to use simple words instead of the ones I might have in mind.

Ami Hendrickson said...

Our Penguin,

I, too, thought the meaning of the words in question could be inferred. If I use words that I *know* are outside the norm, I'll often look for ways to make their meanings clear in context.

However, I take to heart your comment about writing for an audience you know. And if I were writing for a readership that was new to the English language -- whether as non-native speakers or as children -- I would definitely go for a simpler vocabulary.

Thanks again for commenting. :D

Anonymous said...

I might be the minority on this but I LOVE when a book uses a word I don't know, as long as it isn't outlandish in context. If it flows well in a sentence and it's a word I don't know it makes me leap to the dictionary and try to make it my word of the day so that I remember it. Reading shouldn't just be a story but a learning experience. I should be better for having spent time to read something. Whether that is improving my vocabulary or learning a lesson from the character's experiences. I learned a new word today, Sycophants, I rather like the word and plan on using it. I have another word that I learned that I like to use in my stories sometimes, horripilation. I love this word because it fits sooo perfectly with it's meaning. Having goosebumps but adding the idea of horror to it just makes it more creepy. Love it!

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for commenting! I like learning new words, too. I often find that once I run across a new word when reading, and take the time to learn it, that I encounter it frequently shortly afterwards. Kind of like the universe rewarding me for putting a new wrinkle in my brain. :D

BTW: "horripilation" is an *awesome* word! Had I but known it existed, I would have used it in the manuscript in question. There is a passage where it would have fit perfectly. (Note to self: Read More!)

Amber said...

I think there's a flaw in the question to presume that if I something is easier to understand then it's "dumber". I don't think so. Was Joyce a smarter guy than Orwell? Was his work deeper, more meaningful? I don't think so, at least not by some huge gap, and yet Joyce is difficult to understand and Orwell is not nearly so. And because of this Orwell is read more widely and impacts more people.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I agree that one could readily write a sentence that was impossible to understand using only short, monosyllabic words.

But if writing is about clarity of expression, is it better to deliberately use mundane words that are the literary equivalent of vanilla -- accepted by all, with no challenge -- or should one stray off the beaten path to use words that may be less common, but more accurate?

Thanks for commenting! (I love Orwell!)

Anonymous said...

I believe in using the words that best convey the meaning you want to convey. English has more words that mean similar things than any other language. This gives us a tremendously rich palette to paint with, as writers. It allows us to convey nuances that are part of what makes books so delicious.

If I come across a word I don't know in fiction, I either guess at its meaning from context and move along, or I look it up. At one point I actually kept a diary of words I didn't know that I came across in reading. I'd look up their meanings, write them down, and then use them in a short short as a writing practice. I know everybody is not as ferociously in love with words as I am, however.

All the words you highlighted were obvious to me -- words I knew well or that I at least had a basic understanding of and which were clear in context.

One note about the opening of your post. I've seen a lot of writers (and readers) hand-wringing and bemoaning the state of popular tastes because 50 Shades of Gray is so popular. I have not read the book, but I've read a lot of the criticism. I believe that the novel is poorly written based on specific criticisms I've read. I do not, however, think that erotic fiction -- as a genre -- indicates poor taste or a dumbing down.

I'm an erotica writer, and one of many who write literary erotica. What appalls most of the erotica writers I know is that 50 Shades is being treated like something new (that erotic romance is a new genre, when of course it has been around for centuries), AND that all erotica is being painted with the same brush.

I find this sad and discouraging. There are scores of smart, nuanced, complex novels and short stories by talented erotica writers who use language well. I hate to keep seeing "bad writing" equated with "erotica."

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for your comments. I agree that one problem with something badly written garnering a lot of attention is that it tends to cast a pall on an entire genre -- often to the detriment of those within the genre who can really *write." Steampunk and sci-fi are two genres that readily come to mind as suffering from such a "one bad apple" mentality.

I especially like this sentence of yours: "[The English language] allows us to convey nuances that are part of what makes books so delicious." I heartily concur!

Onward and upward! (No pun intended, even though you *do* write erotica. :P)

Katherine Roberts said...

As a children's author (ages 9-12), I try to use simpler/more obvious words where possible. But I think it would be wrong to leave out every word a child of that age might not know, since how else will they learn the more unusual ones?

I usually rely on my editor to pick up on words that might confuse young readers, but we don't always change them! For example, my latest book has a falcon and I wanted to keep "jesses" - so we left this word in the text, but explained what these were the first time I used it.