Complexity Is Not a Simple Thing, It Seems

So I was led over to this story about crap books by a Guardian columnist by way of the Christopher Priest kerfluffle (Damien Walter’s view was that Priest was all bitter about the Clarke’s slate because he has never quite been admitted to the ranks of “literary” sci-fi greats.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but the article in which Walters put forth that theory led me to another of his pieces, the aforementioned one where he talks about crap books.

Far be it from me to insist that there aren’t lots of crap books.  That would be crazy, and I even enjoy mocking one now and again.  But Walter’s theory, in a nutshell, seems to be that a) a lot of people are stupid, b) bestselling books are simple, and c) stupid people like simple stuff.  But here’s the thing: it isn’t so simple, figuring out what is simple.  I studied complexity theory for a while, unlike Walters, I daresay, so I bring my own perspective to this.

To a simple man, it may seem obvious how to tell if writing is complex – it must be the stuff that is harder to read, books where the plot performs all sorts of clever tricks and uses non-standard narrative techniques.  Heck, to some of the commentators to the post, it is even simpler – good books are the ones that are no fun to read.

But complex is not the same as complicated, which is where I think Walters runs into trouble.  Sure, something can be both, and complicated is the most obvious form of complex (the simplest version of complexity, as it were), but there are a lot of incredibly complex things that hide their complexity unless you know how to see it.  Walters, I imagine, refers to books being “complex” rather than “complicated” because the latter is rarely thought of as a good thing, while the former is more positive.  But these subtle shades of meaning are important, and those engaged in the writing game ought to pay attention to them.

Just because a book is enjoyable to read, just because the pace cracks along, just because it has only one narrative viewpoint, etc., doesn’t mean it was easy to write, and it doesn’t mean that it is simple, at heart.  It can be damn hard, damn complicated, to write something that seems so simple that a reader forgets they are even reading a book.  And there’s nothing wrong with it, either.  There’s nothing wrong with constantly reminding a reader how clever everyone in the room is to be keeping up with a complicated book either, but the idea that it is inherently superior is just weird.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of horrible books that are simple, but figuring out why they’re horrible isn’t quite so simple.  And blanket pronouncements about which broad classes of books are good and which are bad is just simple-minded.

But then, perhaps I’m being too simplistic in my assessment.

~ by smwilliams on April 12, 2012.

2 Responses to “Complexity Is Not a Simple Thing, It Seems”

  1. a) a lot of people are stupid, b) bestselling books are simple, and c) stupid people like simple stuff.

    Yes. that’s pretty much it.

  2. I don’t think you are being simplistic in your assessment at all. Not only is good writing seemingly simple, but the whole thing is SUBJECTIVE. Folks forget that part. What one person likes, another will/won’t and they often can’t pin-point why. Or, if they can, it has nothing to do with the writing (i.e. I can’t stand Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind because I think the MC is conceited).

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