September 24th, 2007

book and glasses

Language - gift or burden?

Dave Langford talks of Stephen Donaldson's new Thomas Covenant epic here, the entry dated September 24th. He says, and I quote:

"24 September 2007 Argence. Assoiled. Barranca. Bayamo. Brume. Brunt (as verb). Cataphract. Cerements. Chancres. Chrysoprase. Clench. Condign (also, uncondign). Cymar. Cynosure. Deflagration. Delirancy. Delitescent. Eldritch. Epitonic. Flamberge. Frangible. Fug. Fuligin. Geas. Inexculpate. Innominate. Jerrid. Knaggy. Lacustrine. Leal. Lenitive. Limned. Lucent. Mien. Orogenic. Paresthesia. Phosphenes. Puissance. Puissant. Roborant. Salvific (as in e.g. "salvific unction"). Sequacious. Stridulation. Sopor. Surquedry. Theriac. Theurgy. Vlei. Were-menhir. Yes, I've been reading Stephen R. Donaldson's latest Covenant epic, Fatal Revenant. "Eldritch" seemed to be the front-running favourite for a long time, but was I think overtaken by "theurgy"; also very popular are "cymar" (because a character who wears one keeps reappearing), "flamberge" (because a character who wields one ...), "innominate", "lucent" and "puissance". As for the similes, they are annealed like granite, as ultimate as ebony, as sharp and pointed as augury, as profound as orogeny, as fervid as a bonfire, as gravid as an aftershock, and indeed full of long shadows like striations of augury. For some reason I'm feeling slightly delirious -- that is, afflicted with delirancy."

Those who know me know that my English vocabulary isn't paltry - but what in the numinous name of language does "jerrid" mean? Why would anyone use a word like "salvific" in any work not meant for the eyes and ears of high academe? What the heck is "surquedry"? Or a "flamberge"? Or a "cymar" (other than it's apparently something that somebody might wear)?

Having an enviable command of language is a wonderful thing - but when you begin to use it against your readers like a weapon, you're going too far. There are some beautiful and seldom-used words in the English language, and when they are used sparingly and in the correct context and with finesse they are jewels in the setting of any story. China Mieville uses language like a scalpel, and flenses his story with it until there is nothing left but light - but it seems to me that Donaldson's prose is rather more like wading through an ocean of molasses, with the author showing off the hours he spent poring over ancient dictionaries and encyclopedias, the "I did my research and you WILL know about it" syndrome which is usually the sign of a writer who is on a much earlier stage in his career path than DOnaldson can claim to be.

Personally, I threw the original Covenant books against the wall many years ago because the protagonist drove me bananas, and I haven't actually read anything by Donaldson since - looks like I managed to avoid death by language while doing so, being bludgeoned to death by vocabulary gone feral.

This is particularly pertinent since one of my panels at the recent WOrldcon was one on how to make writing memorable and the quality of language was mentioned as one of the factors - and I, as somebody brought up on poetry and the language of poetry, held out of the beauty of language as being a large part of what made something memorable for me (as opposed to "transparency", where language is effaced to make room for the story and is - or should not be - even noticed while reading that story). In fact, jaylake has just mentioned something of the sort in his own blog, today - about how he wanted to stay away from "pretty language" in his new story in order to have the story itself take centre stage.

I do not believe that the language of storytelling is, can, or must be wholly stark and unremarkable in order for a story to be told. There IS room for the vivid, the lush, the poetic, the descriptive; when writing of emotions or a particularly wrenching decision-making point at a dramatic moment in a protagonist's life, it is enhancing, for me, to be privy to all kinds of protag thoughts and feelings that are not simple and clear enough to warrant totally transparent language. Likewise, if the protag is seeing something that is of surpassing beauty or of poetic ugliness, there is nothing wrong with making sure that the reader experiences this together with the protagonist in a manner that makes the distance between the two as small as possible - and language that is lush and vivid and memorable goes a long way to diminish such distance.

But there is a time, and a place, and most importantly a limit. Beauty of language, especially when couched in terms that might be difficult or unfamiliar to the reader, becomes a burden when it places itself as a barrier to basic understanding of what the storyline is trying to convey.

There is a difference between describing a wood in moonlight in such a way that you make the reader think (s)he is there, and describing the moonlight in words which have dropped out of common usage a century ago and which the reader might not even find in a dictionary if they ever screw their courage to its sticking place and go seeking them. (I just looked up "flamberge" in my online dictionary, which happens to be Merriam Webster, and they said, "What, now?")

So then, readers and writers who are reading this particular rant. What do you feel about rich language? Is it effervescent and effulgent or is it just something that metagrobolizes you and precipitates you out of the story that you thought you were reading...?