Toward Less Complex Language

Reading & Writing

Recently I gave my mother a copy of the JB Priestley novel ‘The Good Companions’. I’d found it in a secondhand book shop and knew it was one of her favourites, about an troupe of seaside entertainers. The next time I saw her she told me she was puzzled.

‘I read this when I was young and loved it, but now I’m finding it a struggle,’ she explained. The language is such hard work and parts are written in dialect – a book I once loved as a light read now seems exhausting.’

Meanwhile, I’m plodding on with ‘The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom’ and having the same problem – sometimes it seems impossible to understand what TE Lawrence is trying to say.

My agent says the current fashion in books is for lean, stripped-back writing that’s simple and clear. Obviously the influence of TV and film has meant that we no longer enjoy descriptive or florid writing as much, and we writers have to move with the times.

But I love the grace and complexity of language. One US reader wrote on his blog ‘I’m trying to read Christopher Fowler but he’s too ‘Deep English’ – is anyone else having that problem?’

So I’m wondering – maybe it’s time to simplify my language. As we age, we often fall from fashion. I’m not exactly decrepit but maybe that’s what it will take to engage new readers.

NB The photo shows the actual ‘seven pillars’ in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

18 comments on “Toward Less Complex Language”

  1. Joyce says:

    A friend of mine ‘can’t’ read anything by Charles Dickens – she says it’s too difficult.

  2. Alan G says:

    I sat down the other day with “El Tunel” – a book by Argentinian author Ernesto Sabato. I read it for my “A” Levels and enjoyed it so much that I read it several times.

    25 years on and it’s almost incomprehensible without a dictionary.

    OK – losing facility in a foreign language is one thing, but I would be seriously concerned if it were to happen with my native tongue!

  3. Martha says:

    Don’t do it! Do you really want to be part of the dumbing down trend? I’m re-reading Dorothy Sayers and loving it. You get used to the language.

    Can’t read anything by Charles Dickens? That’s horrifying!

  4. Gretta says:

    I think we’ve had this ‘deep English’ conversation before, haven’t we? And the general consensus was ‘Pish tosh!’

    I recently read some correspondence between HG Wells and GK Chesterton, who seemed to get on like a house on fire, despite disagreeing on pretty much everything. The letters were beautiful. Descriptive without being flowery, polite without being snobbish, and intelligent without being condescending. An absolute joy to read, in other words. I felt similarly about the letters between Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. Does anybody write proper letters anymore?

    I’m still shaking my head at the Dickens comment, btw…

  5. FabienneT says:

    No, your language is not too complicated!

    As Martha said, it is not because most people can’t read and spell anymore that writers need to dumb down.

    But there IS a worrying trend. I read an article a few months ago in which a University lecturer said that her English students (note: young people who had voluntarily enrolled on a English Literature university course, so they did know what a book was) couldn’t cope with MORE THAN ONE PARAGRAPH at a time.
    I despair.
    It’s the 21st century and in so many aspects, we are going backwards. Levels of literacy have plummeted.

  6. Vickie Farrar says:

    I read your books because they ARE intelligent and thought-provoking. I love all the city/underground systems, etc. etc. data your novels and stories include…please carry on in the same fashion.

  7. Kevin says:

    I lament the death of letter writing. Getting a well written letter used to be one of life’s great pleasures, as was writing a reply. Emails and texts are not the same.

    There isn’t enough ‘Deep English’ writing around – by all means try writing stories in different styles, but please carry on writing some stories for my generation – the people who were taught to read and write more than one paragraph at a time without need a rest.

  8. Kevin says:

    Or even needing a rest.

    I think I need a rest…..

  9. Helen Martin says:

    *The* book for 10+ aged girls in Canada was always Anne of Green Gables, written about 1910. Today they need a simplified version. I bought it for our library, partly so I could have an Anne to read to the grade 3’s for Prince Edward Island. However, those were mostly ESL students. Encouragement is the answer. At the same time there was an ESL girl in grade 7 who was reading Pride & Prejudice and other *classics* with comprehension and pleasure.
    No, Chris, don’t simplify the B&M and keep some work like that- it’s not really Deep English, just intelligent. Write some Basic English if you want but remember that it is Basic English. Surely we should be stretching our brains not letting them laze away the time.

  10. Wayne says:

    NO NO No Absolutely not do not trim your language. I think it would spoil my enjoyment completely. As i have written before its those descriptions than give your writing such depth and far better than any ‘Soap Opera’ book….

  11. Sparro says:

    For dumbed-down read Dan Brown. His chapters are little longer than paragraphs in the one I read. Whichever one it was, there was nothing too taxing and he even tells you which Hollywood star his hero resembled, to save the reader’s imagination. and should another movie beckon. I assume his novels are all much about the same.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    And I have several letters to write so I’ll have to decide whether broad or fine nib pen and which colour of ink: south sea blue, plum, black cherry or shoreline gold.

  13. Gretta says:

    Respect to you and your fountain pen, Helen. I heard bits of a conversation on the World Service a week or two back about how penmanship, along with spelling and grammar, had gone *PHUT!* in the face of emails and texting. One of the guests said he had an English teacher friend whose class were working on Paradise Lost(I can only wonder at how the ‘can’t read Dickens’ person would cope with Milton), and through an entire essay one of the students used ‘Stan’ instead of ‘Satan’. What can you do?

  14. Joyce says:

    so glad everyone is in agreement! It was because of the way CF writes that I love the books. I might get DEEP ENGLISH on a T-shirt.

  15. DMDunn says:

    Well let’s be honest, even if you dumbed down the language, the new audience isn’t going to read about two old men solving crimes. Next, you’d have to continue the series with Bryant and May’s cousin’s sons or some such nonsense, and then those characters would have to be terribly good looking. Tan and whatnot. Rippling abs etc.

    Please, admin, don’t let it come to that. Please.

  16. Tim says:

    Just discovered, and quickly finished, “Full Dark House.” I certainly had no difficulties with the lanquage. Maybe it is a generational thing – I am 65. I am now ending this post and picking up “the Water Room”. Cheers!

  17. Angelia says:

    I can only echo the pleas that you not adopt a style that’s “less complex”; I would weep. I love your prose style, how seamlessly you blend playfulness and humor with thoughtfulness and erudition. Those are the very qualities that keep me coming back to your work. I think it was Coleridge who said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “do not blame authors for writing books you cannot understand; blame yourself and your own inadequacies.” I suppose that sounds a bit snobblish, but there’s a point at which one has to stand up and say “if you don’t understand this, then your grasp of English is sorely lacking.” It’s all the more sad if the the person complaining is a native speaker. Please don’t cater to the underachievers, the poor readers, the willfully ignorant, and the lazy. They’ve enough drivel out there to last them the whole of their reading lives. The rest of us enjoy and appreciate your work exactly as it is. The pity is that TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) generation have no idea how much they’re missing.

  18. Drew says:

    Simple language does not necessarily make a book easy; Cormac McCarthy has a pared down style and it is far from dumbed-down.

    As for trying to make your books more accessible, or more fashionable, you can try, but you’re likely to end up just losing existing readers.

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