Never mistake simplicity for stupidity when it comes to books

There was a time in secondary school when only the longest, most obscure word would do.

In Year 9, I remember waiting eagerly for the teacher to return an essay in which I had outdone myself in florid adjectives and convoluted sentences.

As my teacher laid the essay on my desk, she whispered, “I think you meant castigated”. Circled on the page was a sentence in which my unwitting protagonist was “castrated”.

Thus ended my fascination with obscure words.

However, for some reason, when I began reading The Husband’s Secret, I found myself falling back on old misconceptions, and was a little put off by the simplicity and accessibility of the writing. It was so easy to read; I didn’t feel challenged at all … just entertained.

In recent years I had come to expect more from books than just entertainment, under the impression that complicated was clever. I had persevered with tortuously complex or outdated language, and got lost in long, descriptive sentences. At the same time, I had sought out books of high adventure and great significance, set in far-off places and with ‘big’ themes – racism, societal or racial inequality and violence, to the exclusion of ‘domestic’ literature.

There has been The Sellout, set in LA, which is an eye-wateringly clever satire. But, to be honest, I found it exhausting. Paul Beatty’s book is witty and frenetic, and I felt like I needed a good lie down every few pages.

The Underground Railroad was next, and it was enlightening and devastating in its exploration of the experience of African American slaves. I had to put the book down a few times to recover from a brutality recounted in its pages. Its themes were confronting, significant.

And, recently, I have been reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, set in India and exploring themes of gender, sexuality, poverty and class. However, to my distress, I left my copy on the train, and in the meantime, I started reading Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I reasoned that it wouldn’t distract me with any complex themes or complicated storylines while I searched for another copy of Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel.

How wrong I was. Moriarty’s book sucked me in completely, and made me realise that I had fallen back into some bad habits, dismissing simple language and domestic themes as being less worthwhile.

The Husband’s Secret overtly speaks of the everyday. Parents take their children to the playground, or mull over whether to attend a child’s party. They reacquaint themselves with childhood sweethearts and attend Tupperware parties.

But, amid the everyday, there is also the profound, with themes of love, betrayal, guilt and redemption running through the book. There are astute observations about human nature, about the relationships between parents and their children or grandchildren, the complicated realities of aging and the social structures that shape our lives. Moriarty has a keen eye for the intricacies of interpersonal relationships – she explores the disappointment a grandmother feels about her daughter-in-law taking her grandson to live in New York, and a wife’s discovery of the ease with which her ‘happy’ marriage could fail. These are domestic concerns, but in the Moriarty’s hands, are utterly compelling.

In the case of Moriarty, the domestic has certainly struck a chord, with her name sitting comfortably at or near the top of bestseller lists, and more than six million of her books, including Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty having been sold worldwide. Obviously, many others have recognised that in literature, the domestic is no less worthy than the political or the international, the events of great worldwide significance no more important than those of the suburban home.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading is in the flicker of familiarity that we experience while reading about another, like looking through a window into our own lives and souls. This does not need to come from reading about someone like us, in a place not far from our own, but neither does it have to be sourced from afar.

The familiar, domestic themes of love and loss that Moriarty explores are also prominent in the ‘highest’ literature. They are there in Jane Eyre and The Way We Live Now, the works of Phillip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. Australian suburbia might not seem at first glance to be as impressive as the stately manors of England’s countryside or Trollope’s London of the 1800s, yet the human experience is just as finely textured and full of heart-wrenching private drama.

I should have known long ago how engaging domestic themes written using simple, accessible language could be, after being introduced to Raymond Carver’s short stories in my final years of high school. While Carver wrote of the everyday, in language that was sparse, his stories were unforgettable.

Carver wrote of the power of simplicity in his essay for the New Yorker:

“It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earrings – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.”

Similarly, I have recently finished reading Transit, by Rachel Cusk, which was a novel of spare, almost detached language. Structured a bit like a book of short stories, Transit tells the stories of ‘little’ lives of others, finding their way around London, as explored in conversations with the narrator. In a way, little ‘happens’ but the book is revealing and honest, almost abrasive in its deceptive simplicity.

No lesser writer than Ernest Hemingway pointed to the beauty in simplicity when he, after being criticised by William Faulkner for his word choice, according to a friend, said,

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

All of this is not to say that it’s not well worth reading dense, descriptive books, or those that might expose us to situations and ideas that are far removed from our own. It’s valuable, enlightening and enjoyable to learn about what other people are experiencing, wherever or however they might live. A challenging book can have a value of its own, pushing the boundaries of our understanding and experience, and introducing us to new ideas and ways of using language.

And so, I will continue to read of significant events, of war and revolution, alongside the lives of the ‘ordinary’; to learn of far-off places and of the schoolyard around the corner. While I enjoy reading descriptive, evocative sentences, I will also embrace simple phrases which capture a familiar reality. I will no longer castigate myself for savouring an easy read.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Maybe I’ve misread your blog post, but you seem to be conflating two things here – simplicity of plots/subject matter, and simplicity of writing. They are, of course, two very different things. A book can be about international political intrigue, and yet written in a very straightforward, “Hemingway-esque” manner. Another book could be about a couple’s love life, and yet be full of unnecessarily long sentences and read as though the author consulted a thesaurus for every single paragraph.

    1. Hi James,
      To be honest, I agree. Halfway through writing this blog, I realised that I was trying to explain two different ideas – simple language and simple (or domestic) themes. However, seeing the book I had just been reading, The Husband’s Secret, had combined simple language with a domestic, but surprisingly complex ideas and issues, I thought I’d tackle the two together. I think there’s a lot more to say about each, though! And I agree that complex ideas can be presented simply (in the best science or academic communications, for example) and basic ideas can be written in a confusing, convoluted way. Thanks for getting in touch.

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