Recently I was reading an account of a roundtable discussion by some writers and critics on the nature of certain genres, among other things. It was a fairly interesting discussion in itself, but that’s not what got my attention. It was this offhand remark made by one participant, with no special argument or justification, as if it were a done deal: “Good books are complex.” If I’m being vague on the source, that’s because it doesn’t matter. I’ve seen this same attitude in enough other places to know it’s a common one, and likewise applied to a lot of fiction of less than novel length. Of which, I….well…
RANT MODE ON.
Excuse me, but that deal’s a looong way from done. I’m not going to be dogmatic and say what a good book has to be, but I know one thing it doesn’t have to be, and that’s “complex.” Is A Wizard of Earthsea complex? Firelord? Our Lady of Darkness? Ulysses? (Ok, I’ll grant that the last named is a confusing and often difficult book, but complicated? Not especially). Deep? Yes. Nuanced? Certainly. Ambitious? Most definitely. Complicated? No. Which is perfectly fine with me, because I do not accept the premise–complexity is an attribute of a particular work, not a virtue. If the best expression of a work requires complexity, then by all means it should have it, but let’s face facts here–if complexity was the prime virtue, or even a virtue, then a book of scripts from your average soap opera would have swept the Nobel Prize in Literature long before now.
I ran into the same sort of thing when I was listening to a band of Taiko drummers not that long ago. Rhythms in sync with the human heartbeat, drum music in the key of life. I later mentioned to a friend how much I’d enjoyed the concert, and got this response– “I can’t get into Taiko. Latin rhythms are much more complex and interesting.” Now, arguing in matters of taste (de gustibus, anyone?) is a waste of pretty much everything, but to priviledge one form over another primarily on their relative complexity, and again to my way of thinking, is missing the point in grand and glorious fashion. I also think it reveals a persistent strain of unconscious intellectual Calvinism–nothing can be worthwhile unless it takes a long time and is very hard to do. You know, as if your corn’s no good unless you first had to roll the boulders off your field, and then plant with a pointed stick (oh, in my day we used to dream of pointed sticks!).
Good books and stories like good music can be complex, but that’s either a consciously chosen technique or just an attribute of the way a particular writer works. Good fiction, imo, tends to have some common traits such as depth, and emotional and intellectual honesty, and are almost always about more than they appear to be about on the surface, all of which means they generally stand up to re-reading better than lesser work. But complex? A book isn’t good unless you need a flowchart to follow the plot? Your themes have to have themes? Complexity a virtue? Clarity the enemy?
Codswallop. With a side of liver and onions (because it’s good for you, dammit!).
RANT MODE OFF.