A Grumble on Suspenders & Belts

Subtitle: a mini-rant on redundancy. 

 Lately I’ve seen a lot of writing-related posts consigning repetitive description to the Bad Writing Dung Heap. Here’s my contrarian take on the topic: redundancy isn’t A Bad Thing.

Picture someone wearing tights, a peasant skirt, a kicky overskirt plus a belt and scarves. (Assume underwear.) This might look awful or spectacular depending on the viewer’s personal tastes, but no one would call it “redundant dressing.” Any one or two items on the list would cover all necessary parts,  but the selections together make a larger fashion statement.

The same principle applies to writing. No, really. It does. If someone’s story seems sluggish and cluttered, the writer might be doing a lousy job of saying what they mean. It might also be a bad match between my taste and the creator’s aims. Descriptive repetition and exuberant adjective use are not always villains.

Critiquing, workshopping, and developmental editing can all buff the rough spots off writing. The processes are all based on the same premise: making a story better equals increasing its appeal to more readers by applying proven presentation standards. That’s the justification for polishing out everything that does not “serve the story.”

Here’s the challenge: smooth isn’t always better, and better isn’t always right. Some writing is downright grotesque. Some stories are so full of wordy bumps that I can’t see a glint of the precious core within. Bad writing is ugly. Polishing off extraneous bits can reveal inner beauty.

Problem is, great writing can be ugly too, or seem so on first read. Think of all the brilliant writers (and musicians, artists, etc.)  who have the same backstory. They fought tooth and nail for the integrity of their work. Endured rejection after rejection. Pushed back against criticism after criticism delivered with all the best intentions. All the True Originals had to hold firm against a world that insisted their things needed changing, smoothing, and polishing until the originality was gone.

Here’s my reading litmus test for “is it me, or is it bad?”  If find myself thinking, “That was a rough read, but it improved as I went along,” I must conclude there was nothing wrong with the writing in the first place.  NOTHING.  The way it was written was a new experience. My brain had to work to learn a different story process. Once I got used to it, I stopped noticing.

I’m a critical reviewer who often reads clumsy, awkward, painfully hard-to-read writing.  I express my opinions.  If I’m critiquing a work before publication, I feel I have an obligation to point out lumps that don’t appeal to me. But the emphasis must always be on that qualifier. To me. I do not have the right to say, “The author needs to change the way they do this too much or that not enough.”  

(disclaimer: “this & that” refer to matters of structure, phrasing, dialogue, and so forth. Flaws like multiple spelling errors per chapter, basic grammar and punctuation mistakes,  factual inaccuracies…that’s a whole different ball of worms.)

The never-ending declarations of “This is bad, and I know what I’m talking about” get under my skin because we writers should know better. We know the creator alone decides if their work is broken or the product of a broken mold because we are creators.  No one had to express their ideas the way someone else likes to read them. It’s a simple principle.  In practice, as some people gain experience they become invested in their way being the best way. And so I read remarks like, “Well, sure, you can do it that way, I suppose, if you want,” All of them carry the powerful implication that only a fool would want to do the thing.

A lot of immensely popular, critically acclaimed writing leaves me cold. It sounds choppy and harsh in my head, and the predictable variations on the same old archetypes bore me. I like my prose to stand center stage with frills on, where it belts out an aria or two and does little dances. I like to build stories like Neuschwanstein Castle, all kitschy and mashed up. So that’s what I do.

Reading my books is like visiting The House On The Rock on a rainy Saturday in August. They’re crowded with weird distractions and full of unpleasant strangers who interact without introduction, and the signs never take you where you expect. The stories can be exhilarating or baffling, but they are never easy reads nor conventional ones. NO, I don’t think I’m brilliant. I don’t have the ego to believe myself A True Original. But I reserve the right to say, This weird prose? It is beautiful to me.

And that is why I am  careful about assigning value judgments to the creative choices of others. And why I rant about the phenomenon every so often. Like this.

Thanks for reading.