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In Defense of Complexity


Hi, my name is Chris, and I like complex stories (this is the point where a chorus of “Hi, Chris!” wouldn’t go amiss ;)).

For the last century, we’ve been trained by television and cinema – much more constrained narrative mediums than prose – to laud the straightforward. And while there are good reasons for simplicity’s commercial popularity, I think it’s a shame that it has become our default mode of storytelling.

I think it is odd that in our culture, I find myself defensive of my appreciation for complicated storytelling. I like intricate plots, multiple perspective characters, rich language, and complex narrative structures. When I read, such complexities mark the difference between breakfast and dinner. Both are important meals, and both can and should be enjoyed. But one begs to be fast and the other lingered over.

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon (via deviantArt)

Simple stories can be incredibly satisfying, but they are constructed to be swiftly captivating and directly processed. They are my literary breakfast. But more complicated stories are structurally incapable of such swift ingestion. They take more time to prepare, to enjoy, and to digest. Neither is inherently better than the other, just as pancakes and bacon aren’t inherently better than spaghetti carbonara. But each can achieve certain artistic effects that the other cannot.

Why Simplicity is King: Accessibility

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

First, I want to make it clear that I love simple stories. They are elegant, efficient, and enjoyable. Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury – all wrote simple, straightforward stories. Yet those simple stories remain incredibly powerful works of art.

Simple doesn’t mean bad, nor does it mean easy. It means uncomplicated, straightforward. A story is simple if it follows one perspective, if it features a single core plot with one or more sub-plots tracked alongside the core story. Simple stories use language that is utilitarian (serving to forward plot, setting, and characterization), as opposed to artistic (where the language and rhetorical structure serve to forward theme independently or in opposition to the plot, characters, or setting).

By this definition, most commercial stories are simple. Pick up just about any commercial thriller, or any best-selling SF/F novel, and you’ll find a simple story within its covers. Most popular mainstream literary novels are likewise simple, however beautiful their prose or highlighted their characters. There is (however much I might grumble about it) a correlation between a story’s simplicity and its sales potential. And I think a story’s accessibility lies at the heart of that relationship.

Simple stories are a narrative train: the author’s job is to put our wheels on the tracks, and then to let us go. They have their one primary line, and the story sticks to it. Their settings, language, characters, and sub-plots are only useful inasmuch as they push the train forward or slow it down. As a result, the reader doesn’t need to expend a large amount of work to get into a story or to follow it through to its conclusion. This speed of captivation is the primary strength of simple stories: their directness heightens their narrative momentum.

Contemporary YA and romance are probably the genres which have sharpened this method to a razor’s edge. Accessibility, and in particular the speed with which the reader is locked onto the narrative track, are paramount for both genres. I’ve heard proponents of this type of storytelling (the Professor in particular) argue that such simple stories work because they get out of their own way.

There’s a lot to be said for such an approach, as it has given us such enjoyable (and meaningful) rides as The Hunger Games (the first novel in the trilogy – the latter two got more complicated), the Harry Potter series, any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of John Scalzi’s novels, Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, etc.

To understand them – at least at the superficial level – requires literacy and little consideration outside of the text itself. While some simple stories can be very deep and powerful (think The Great Gatsby or Dandelion Wine), they don’t require us to hold a great many characters, settings, or relationships in our heads when we read them. In other words, they ask less (often much less) effort of us than a book by Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Tim Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, or John Crowley.

Their accessibility grants them a significant commercial advantage, of course, because a great many readers don’t want to work that hard at the reading experience (if I had to read Proust every day, I’d go mad). From an artistic standpoint, their straightforward structures allow them to apply a finely-tuned focus to the themes and issues they wish to explore. By focusing on a simple, core story, its themes are brought into sharper relief. Sometimes, that’s what we want.

But there’s a trade-off inherent to this simplicity. Some artistic endeavors demand more work of the audience. Their accessibility (and so their sales) may suffer as a result, but artistically they can manage certain tricks that simpler fare cannot.

Being Content to Seem What You Are: Complexity and Theme

Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Be content to seem what you really are,” and I think that’s damn fine advice for the written word. It is incredibly difficult to communicate true complexity or philosophical ambiguity in a simple story. Simple stories can communicate depth, emotions, philosophical meaning, morality – almost the entire spectrum of thought and emotion. But complexity is not depth, and uncertainty is not ambiguity. Effectively exploring either complexity or ambiguity as themes in a work perforce complicates its structure.

To roll with the train metaphor from earlier, content (plot, characters, setting, etc.) is one of the story’s two rails. Of the two, it is the easiest to notice because it’s what we consume when we read the story. But the second rail – theme – runs alongside the content, and so long as they run parallel the story can roll ahead. Should their relationship diverge, should the theme veer off at a tangent, the story comes off the rails and we end up with a big mess.

If complexity and its kissing cousin ambiguity are some of the themes we wish to explore, then the content must in some fashion convey that complexity or ambiguity. If it fails in this, then the theme’s exploration becomes stillborn and our artistic endeavor falls along with it.

Consider Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I discuss at greater length here). Judged solely by the length of the series, or by the page count of each volume, one might judge it similar to Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time epic. But it is absolutely different, and it is its exploration of historical, individual, and cultural complexity which set it apart.

The series is an artistic success because its content is so aligned with its themes. Where most door-stopper fantasies stick to a limited number of perspective characters with complex histories and relationships, Erikson’s number in the tens (if not hundreds ultimately – I lost count after the first several books). As each of these perspective characters has their own individual motivations, their own personal histories, their own personality traits, the resulting epic balloons into a messy, complicated, glorious work of imagination.

This is both its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Because its content (its characters, its plot, its settings, etc.) personify its theme of complexity, the story itself becomes incredibly complex. For its exploration of theme? Mission accomplished. But this raises the fence of accessibility quite high: it takes a significant effort to follow the complex weave of characters, plots, motivations, and betrayals, and many readers just won’t be willing to make that investment.

A similar marriage of content and theme can be found in Gene Wolfe’s writing. If we look at his works that focus on ambiguity, in particular his novels Peace, There Are Doors, and Latro in the Mist, we find that the thematic ambiguity Wolfe explores is likewise expressed in the content, and in particular in the perspective character’s own relationship to truth and reality.

In the case of Peace (which – perhaps appropriately – on some days is my favorite Wolfe novel, and others days is not), the complexity of the content and ambiguity of the entire novel is further developed through the non-linear presentation of events as recounted by the story’s narrator. In this, Wolfe plainly took a page out of Dostoyevsky’s playbook (and perhaps unsurprisingly, Notes From Underground is my favorite Dostoyevsky novel), but the consequence of Wolfe’s artistic choice is to make the story even more difficult to follow.

I think that both Erikson and Wolfe made the right choices in their respective (and extremely different) works. By unifying the content of their stories with the themes they were exploring, they were able to construct more cohesive, and more satisfying stories. It would have been impossible, I believe, to explore their themes of complexity and ambiguity without the corresponding complexity in content.

Structure and Language as Sources of Complexity

Of course, not all stories – and not all complex stories – explore themes of complexity or ambiguity. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Both are complex stories: Tolkien features an extensive cast of characters, and expects the reader to follow multiple parallel storylines through the series. Burgess, on the other hand, writes a simple story in terms of plot and characters, but plays with language in a very interesting way. Could the same have been done without such complexity? Absolutely not.

In Tolkien’s case, the foundation of his epic’s artistic success lies in its narrative structure. Diana Wynne Jones puts it far better than I ever could in her essay “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), but the balancing of disparate movements within LOTR is one of the reasons why the entire story resonates with readers so strongly. Had Tolkien only followed Frodo’s journey, or had he chosen to present Frodo’s story and Aragorn’s story sequentially rather than interspersed, the result would have been far simpler and far less effective.

Burgess’ story is much simpler, in terms of its narrative perspective, its plot structure, and its characters. But it is far more complicated in terms of how language is used, and in particular in the ways that Burgess employs neology. Burgess’ nadsat – an amalgamated argot of Russian and English – introduces complexity into the otherwise simple novel. Doing so in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War – explicitly focused contemporary readers’ attention on the cultural implications of this choice. Similarly, this use of language enables Burgess to surreptitiously slip the slang and its values into the reader’s mind – particularly when the reader is intended (per the author’s own declarations) to reject the violence and pornographic content of the book. Such a dichotomy would have been impossible to create without such complex linguistic play.

The Risks in Complex, Challenging Fiction

As I said, I love complicated stories. But sometimes I feel like they are a dying breed. Commercial considerations being what they are, I understand why. There are few complicated stories on the bestseller lists (although thankfully they still show up on award rosters often enough). Editors are pressured to acquire commercial titles, and that usually translates into easily-accessible titles.

The failure mode for complex works is far worse than the failure mode for simple fare. Even mediocre simple fare is likely to at least satisfy some of its less discerning readers. Complicated fiction, however, becomes indecipherable or (worse) uninteresting when it fails to live up to its ambition.

Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who still strive for complexity and the creative opportunities it affords them. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Terry Bisson, Madeline Ashby, Ian McDonald (in his non-YA fiction), and Samuel Delany are all creating ambitious, complex, multi-layered novels. And even where I might not care for a particular story, I applaud their ambition in their writing and their editors’ courage in acquiring their complex stories.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve only just started Erikson’s series. Now I’m scared ;)

    January 29, 2013
    • Haha. No, there’s no reason to be afraid of them. They’re awesome, and epic in the extreme. But they do have a lot of moving parts. :)

      January 29, 2013
  2. I enthusiastically agree with pretty much everything you’ve written in this post.
    I think part of the reason why people shy away from complex literature is that it is an acquired taste – you actually need some guidance and some practice to learn to appreciate how motif and imagery structure a work, the point of which often is precisely to not be in your face but to be subtle and sometimes even to run counter to what a work’s surface structure states. It makes me sound like a cultural conservative, but even so I can’t help but to feel rather sad that reading seems to have become a dying art. And one thing I will probably never understand is why people throw themselves with such relish into the most straining and exhaustive physical exertions when exercising or doing sports, but then get all panicky and shout “elitist” the moment even a tiny intellectual effort is required of them…

    January 30, 2013
    • Thanks! I’m glad there are others who feel the same way. And I love the point you make about fear of intellectual effort. I’m personally inclined to blame much of that on Western education, which too often teaches people that reading isn’t supposed to be fun, while simultaneously lionizing physical prowess as enjoyable, healthy, and honorable (which, to be fair, it is…but reading is, too!).

      January 30, 2013

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