My wife and I went to see Bob Dylan a couple nights ago for our anniversary. As he stepped on stage, a booming voice declared him to be “the great American storyteller” among many other praiseworthy monikers. While this may have been true at one time, this is simply not the case anymore as far as his live performances go. Try as we did, my wife and I couldn’t understand most of what the man was saying. His voice is completely ruined, so much so that the majority of the words that he sings are cracked and jumbled and utterly indiscernible.
My wife’s tweet from that night reads:
At a Bob Dylan concert. I can't understand a word. I think he's singing about scooby doo and eggs in bed...
Though I am happy to have seen the man perform, he should really consider hanging up the touring boots, as it’s unfair to his fans to pay a lot of money to listen to a performance as muddled as this. As a musician and a performer, your music should at least be accessible to your audience.
This got me thinking about writing. My book club just finished Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions, the second book I’ve read by the author, and for the second time, I finished the book angry and annoyed with Saramago. Yes, he’s a Nobel-laureate, so it’s hard for me, with my one measly little book to criticize, but criticize I will.
I contend that Saramago writes in a style that makes his work utterly inaccessible to his readers. Specifically, his paragraphs often go on for pages and pages, he writes single sentences that can be a page long or more, he does not use dialogue attribution, he shuns the use of the period whenever possible, and he rarely gives any of his characters names.
Literary minds greater than my own, as well as die-hard Saramago fans, will claim that these stylistic choices are used to emphasize his ideas about identity, the universal human voice, and a bunch of other nonsense. While this may or may not be true, I contend that an author’s first responsibility to the reader is to produce text that is assessable and discernable. Stories that can be read without the constant need to re-read. Ideas that do not require page-long sentences to convey. When I read a Saramago novel, I feel like I’m reading a story that was purposely written in such a way so as to exclude a majority of readers from the work. I feel like I’m being bathed in literary elitism and authorial pretension on a grand scale.
I end up thinking of Saramago as a jerk.
This isn’t to say that I have not enjoyed his books. While utterly depressing, I thought that Blindness was an excellent story, wrapped up in a nearly indiscernible collection of words. And while I didn’t enjoy Death with Interruptions nearly as much, it was a compelling premise and a thought-provoking story, once one managed to conquer the lack of dialogue attribution and the endless array of endless sentences and paragraphs.
As an author, my greatest desire is for my stories to be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible. I want my novels to be assessable and intriguing works of fiction that a reader can put down and pick back up whenever necessary. I want the reader to understand my words, follow my thoughts, connect with my mind, and recognize which character is speaking without having to re-read the gargantuan paragraph three times!
Saramago chooses to be difficult for reasons that I will never fully understand.
Dylan can’t help but be indiscernible.
Saramago by choice, and Dylan as a result of the ravages of time. Both ineffective in reaching their audiences, in this author’s humble and perhaps overstated opinion.