Talking About Accessibility
Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016
There was a moment midweek when, while working on a scene for After The Hero, I paused, and asked myself, "Don't you think that's a little too accessible?" It was an interesting question, and it's the basis for this week's Curious Tale Saturdays.
When I talk about "accessibility" in this context, I'm talking about how easy it is for the reader to understand everything that I'm doing with the work. I like to imagine this on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 representing completely accessible work that even a young teenager could read and fully comprehend, and 9 representing the most difficult, abstruse stuff that's out there, almost completely inscrutable and opaque. (10 represents something indiscernible from pure gibberish—something that makes no apparent sense.)
On that scale, a work like the Harry Potter series would be a 2. The most inaccessible things about it are that it's very long, and that there are frequently small details that become important many books later. Everything is up-front.
The Silmarillion would be a 7. It's easy to follow the storyline wherever one arises, but there are so many details and relationships to keep track of, plus the constructed languages, plus the disjointed cornucopia of plots, plus the elegant but difficult vocabulary and increasingly out-of-our-era diction, that it asks a lot from the reader who wishes to truly access it.
Finnegan's Wake rounds out the top at 10. You can try to make sense of it, and there's a general consensus on certain story elements, and the author insisted it was a deliberate work, but really it's gibberish.
Most work falls between 2 and 5 on the scale, and a lot of the work that ranks higher does so only because of bad writing. There are any number of ways to make a work less accessible, including many that denote lack of talent.
The Prelude: Rating of 5
The Prelude to After The Hero, in my estimate, is a 5—halfway in between the extremes. It's not a placid 5, either—the kind of story where pretty much everything is halfway up the scale. It's a much more tense 5, with some aspects of the Prelude being quite accessible and others quite inaccessible.
On the simple side of things, you're never in doubt as to what's happening with the action. The characters' driving motives are mostly straightforward and clear. There a few prominent themes that make sense in context. And my tendency to over-describe certain things also makes the work more accessible (if, in this case, less interesting).
Other aspects, meanwhile, are quite difficult. The way I eschew simple action for dwelling on the descriptions of milieu is not accessible. The rich saturation of cloaked significance is obvious as a whole but difficult to scrutinize up close. My eschewal of character archetypes makes characterization much more difficult for the reader. My insistence on worldbuilding asks a lot of the reader. So does my use of invented vocabulary. All of these things raise the inaccessibility rating.
Ideally, my work wants to be around a 7—a high 7. The fact that it isn't up that high reflects on inexperience and various weaknesses in my skills as a writer. At around 7, I can achieve all of my artistic goals.
The way I'd get to 7 would mainly be to change aspects of my writing that are only unintentionally accessible—or in other words to raise make some of the simpler stuff more complex.
I'm capable of being a much less accessible writer than you probably know me for. Just as I undershot my ideal rating of 7 with the Prelude, I could easily overshoot and write Lv. 9 or even Lv. 10 work, and in the past I have experimented with doing so. But I don't need to be that inaccessible, and I have no desire for unnecessarily narrowing my already modest potential audience. I don't strive to be inaccessible. The reason my personal artistic ideal is a 7 is because my artistic goals are highly ambitious and idiosyncratic—not because I want to cultivate an aura of inscrutability.
Indeed, that's why I tend to undershoot rather than overshoot.
Should I Be Any Less (or More) Accessible?
With Book I of ATH now under development, I'm finding that it's time to revisit this matter and determine whether writing my work to a 5 or even a 6 is acceptable to me. Book I is much more significant than the Prelude, and will definitely establish a strong accessibility precedent for how I'm "supposed" to write the Curious Tale books that follow it. The Curious Tale as a story gets less accessible as it goes along. The parts that you've seen—The Great Galavar and The Prelude—are much easier to access than some of the work that's coming. Mate of Song, for instance, is set around Book II of ATH, and is correspondingly more difficult. And farther down the road, things like Book III and Silence's Interlude are going to be significantly more inaccessible.
So it has always made sense to me to start out relatively gentle on the reader. But now that I'm putting pen to paper and actually seeing what that looks like, I'm having second thoughts. Specifically I'm thinking that I can write a more challenging Book I, and start ATH off that much closer to where it'll eventually end up in terms of comprehension difficulty.
I figured I would ask your opinion. I appreciate feedback but I usually only solicit it in general. Here's a specific question: Would you prefer that Book I be as accessible as the Prelude, or more challenging? (Or perhaps you would prefer that it actually be more accessible?) Let me know your answer—and let me know why, and be as specific as you can about the particular elements in my work that you think have room to be more challenging, and which elements are already hard enough to access as it is.
Tune in Next Week
Next weekend I'll be continuing my plot development miniseries, where I'll talk about "plot-driven" stories.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!