As is, I think, pretty widely known now, I write for a couple of baseball sites. Recently, I had an article up on one of them that some people took issue with. I got into a bit of a pissing contest in the comments when I probably should have let it lie. But the discussion raised an interesting issue. The discussion, went basically like this:
Commenter: I don’t know what the point of this is.
Me: I think it’s pretty clear. You should read the article.
Other Commenter: If someone misunderstands, it is always the writer’s fault. You should try to improve.
Fortunately, I more or less stopped responding after that last sentiment was expressed as I was just about to lose my cool entirely. Still, that last idea is, I think, completely absurd. Let me tell you why.
The assumption that the writer is always responsible for any misunderstanding (and this is a sentiment I have heard expressed many times) is flawed for a number of reasons.
1. It presumes that all (adults/near adults) have more or less the same level of literacy. This is simply not true. I saw recently that only 12 percent of the population actually ends up fully literate. That is, only 12 percent of America is capable of fully understanding the depth and nuance of sophisticated literature. If you doubt this, go to Amazon and look at the one star reviews of any classic. Here, let’s try. How about Anna Karenina?
Hmmm…what to say indeed. Well, this could be an OK story if, you know, it was a short story. Basically not much happens and a lot of the story describes the land and how Levin is so wonderful and devoted to his wife. Some whould say that this is superb literary thechnique, I say that if you are publishing a novel, let it have a story line. Anna’s hardly even in the story anyway. Most would argue that Levin (the goodie two shoes) is the protagonist because he represents Tolstoy’s view of Russia.
Now, I suppose it is possible for a well read and educated person to dislike this novel. There are, I am sure, some negative critical takes. This person, however, clearly doesn’t understand the point of the book at all. And I don’t think we can put that on Tolstoy.
I am not, of course, saying that baseball articles should be written only for the 12 percent of people who can read and fully understand a complex novel like Anna Karenina. Nor am I comparing a baseball article to Anna Karenina. Rather, I am pointing out that the reader has an obligation to fully engage with the text, and that often, failure to understand is a failure of the consumer of the text rather than the producer. Reading is not a passive activity and if someone is trying to make it into one, they misunderstand the process.
Often books and articles are poorly written. But unless you, as a reader, are willing to fully engage with the text, you are not qualified to make that judgment. Writers have an obligation to present the text in the best way they can with a level of complexity that is appropriate to the intended audience. They do not have an obligation to over-simplify so that the least engaged reader can fully understand. That would make for a lot of boring writing.