Should we always try to write – or edit our writing – with the aim of making everything understandable by everyone?
In a fusty second hand bookstore in DC last week, I came across an old copy of one of my favourite books, Fahrenheit 451. Immediately, I flicked to the back and started reading Ray Bradbury’s afterword. (I don’t know why I read books I don’t own in reverse. Maybe because reading books without paying for them feels like theft. I’m afraid I’ll be interrupted before I find out, or remind myself, what happens at the end).
It’s a furious bit of writing, as you might expect from an author who had seen his parable against censorship repeatedly censored. And I wonder whether it has something to say to we Christian writers and editors who, in the laudable desire to reach as many as possible with the gospel, edit or rewrite our books until every last drop of transcendence, wonder and personality is gone.
Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ’em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?
Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito – out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch – gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer – lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like – in the finale – Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention – shot dead.
[…] There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
[…] For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take the philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer – he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.
In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.
Assuming it were possible to use words of only one syllable to proclaim the grandeur of the gospel, would we even want to do it? We may congratulate ourselves that every reader over the age of 12 will have been able to understand it. But what, exactly, will they have understood? And what might they have lost?