William Faulkner is supposed to have remarked once that Earnest Hemingway had the distinction of never having used a word that sent a reader to the dictionary. Hem’s reply, upon hearing of this, is alleged to have been, “Poor Faulkner. He thinks you need big words to make big emotions.”
A few of my own readers have taken me to task for my own use of big words (and big sentences, too, for that matter) in The Great American Desert. It’s a book for intellectuals, one has said. Readers don’t want to work that hard.
Well, during recess today, little Celina, whose first language happens to be Spanish, and who at ten years old is certainly one of my youngest readers, came bouncing up to me to let me know that she is on the last page of the novel, and that she has enjoyed it tremendously, thank you very much. It reminds her of a fairy tale. It talks about a lot of things that she thinks about. She thinks it’s funny.
Are there words in the book that she does not know? Certainly there are. What does she do, I ask her, when she runs across one of them? Well, you know, she lectures me, there are these things called dictionaries . . .
Celina is much more disciplined than I am. I’m usually content to use context to get a general sense, even when I’m reading something in a foreign language.
Now, my novel was certainly not intended for ten-year-olds, but it was intended to be dictionary-optional for the average adult. Although Antony Munchner does use some specialized vocabulary, I made an effort to make sure he did so with enough context around that most folks could keep reading without running for the reference shelf. A hagiography, I hope it would have been clear, is the biography of a saint. ‘Anhydrous’ might have been a bit of a poser, as it is short for ‘anhydrous ammonia,’ but still it should not take an ag degree to be able to figure out that it’s something added to cropland as fertilizer.
I’m helping a friend through Ulysses just now, and frankly, Ulysses is a novel that most people, unless they happen to be well-versed in western thought and literature from Homer to Aristotle to Aquinas to Yeats, and also have a good grasp of Irish history and mythology, could use some help with. It’s a tough novel to get through, the first time around, although I hasten to add that it’s well worth the effort. But I didn’t want to make my readers work that hard. When Antony goes off on his historical tangents, a vice he is particularly prone to, I make sure that he fills you in. Is there stuff that most people won’t notice the first time around? Absolutely. That’s something that can be said about any novel that the author has taken pains with. Literature may indeed be writing intended to be read twice, but it doesn’t need to be so off-putting that people put it down before they’ve read through it the first time. There’s no reason that literature can’t be funny. Thanks, Celina.