Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Does "Accessibility" Really Mean?

Accessibility. A common word in the reviewer lexicon that I'm starting to hate.

When you look at the word from a dictionary point of view it seems like a good thing:

  • Handiness: the quality of being at hand when needed
  • Approachability: the attribute of being easy to meet or deal with

But somehow this seemingly benign word has turned into a little bit of an insult.

Look at this definition as an example:
  • Accessible - capable of being read with comprehension; "readily accessible to the nonprofessional reader"; "the tales seem more approachable than his more difficult novels"

I know what's going on here. If a book is "accessible," what you're really saying is that it's dumbed down.

Accessibility has become one of the most overused words in reviewing-- right next to "gritty." I've used the word in the past and meant it as a compliment. One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to write in a way that has broad appeal. There are times when being likable is not the same thing as being good (*cough*Twilight*cough*) but I admire authors that can take a lot of complex ideas and convey the essence in a succinct way. Anyone who has tried to write a 200 word book review knows exactly how hard brevity can be.

I'm someone who likes books that are given the humdrum label of accessibility. But I also think we need to reexamine what the word really means when we talk about literature.

When the word is applied to science fiction, it's pretty easy to read between the lines. If I can understand it, then it's not too complicated. But how complicated should it be? Should a scifi novel read like it was written by Stephen Hawking?

What about fantasy?

I have yet to read a fantasy book I couldn't understand. There are varying degrees of complexity, but nothing that I would say is incomprehensible. The use of maps-- or lack thereof-- has no bearing on whether or not I understand the world in which the story exists. I'm not even thrown by the dictionaries that are so often tacked on the end of a fantasy novel-- I'm good like that. And I'm pretty sure that holds true for most fans of fantasy fiction.

No. These days accessibility seems to cover a lot more territory; and in my opinion has more to do with taste, and maybe the need to dismiss a differing opinion, than anything else.

Here's my gripe. I'm kind of tired of profanity in my fiction. Call me a prude, but I feel like modern entertainment has gotten really coarse. I've read, and championed, more than a few books that drop the f-bomb like nobody's business, so you'd think I wouldn't mind. And I wouldn't if the success of one author didn't spawn a dozen copycats. It's like Hollywood and it's obsession with sequels. They assume that a monster hit in the 80's will automatically generate a huge audience 20-years later because we're too dumb to know that they're out of ideas. Well, publishing has proven that it too will churn-and-burn as many books in whatever style is currently fashionable to make a profit-- not that I blame anyone. I like to make money as much as the next guy. But, like any industry, once you start worrying more about what's popular, you forget to worry about what's good. Worse, you end up with an audience that becomes to immune to subtlety.

And I guess this is where I part ways with some of the other reviewers I cross paths with. I've noticed lately that when I say I like one author more than another who is known for their "edginess" I get the cyber equivalent of a pat on the head and the inevitable observation that it's nice that I like the more "accessible" author-- but it's time to let the grown-ups talk about their books now.

Okay. I exaggerate. But I'm a little miffed that there seems to be this notion that one has to prefer books that bludgeon the reader with words rather than caress them with language. That it's somehow dumber to forgo viciousness and sarcasm for something a little more inspiring. That "accessibility" is somehow not a desirable trait.

What can I say other than I completely disagree? I think it's much harder to be interesting when you don't fall back on the lowest common denominator. In fact, I wonder what you'd be left with if you take the profanity and violence out of some current fiction-- would there be a story left? Imagine if you did that with your average video game. Or reality show.

Maybe it's my age. But I feel like the real world is mean enough without it seeping so deeply into our entertainment. I like the dark stuff too-- just not all the time. So, if that makes me unintellectual-- so be it. All you other guys can be the smart ones-- I'll be the happy one.


Sci-Fi Gene said...

SQT you are like a compass for reviewers.

"Accessibility" has so many positive and negative meanings in this context it's rapidly losing it's value as a word. Can mean:
- writing to the lowest common denominator
- elements that will appeal to any reader
- elements that are relevant to every reader
- easy and enjoyable writing style
- avoiding offensive or controversial topics
- avoiding use of swear words that may offend some readers
- printed in nice big type

Sometimes a novel is full of complex, incredible ideas and it's worth persevering with a difficult but rewarding read. The same goes for controversial or unpleasant language. The issue is that some authors (deliberately?) make their books difficult to read or "inaccessible" hoping the readers will mistake this for quality writing.

Jim Haley said...

It's funny, because I've used "accessible" recently in my last two Star Wars book reviews - because in both of those cases I felt it might be important for the readers of the review to know that these books don't require you to have read any of the other myriad Star Wars novels out there to follow these books - they only require little more than a familiarity with the movies. That makes them no more or less deep than any other book might be, only that the expectations the book might have from the reader (before the reader has even read a single word) is low - you don't have to know everything that's come before to enjoy this book. For much the same reason I wouldn't pick up the next Wheel of Time book or the last Malazan book - I doubt they're "accessible" to me - I haven't read any of the other books in those series. I may want to one day, but no matter how good or bad the writing is in this latest/newest book in the series, it's still not going to be accessible to me.

Ri said...

My interpretation of "accessibility" is a little different. Part of the art of being an author is to entice and encourage readers to actually continue reading. If the book you're writing is so complex and daunting that it's actually difficult for a reader to enjoy, then I think the author has ultimately failed - despite the complex ideas.

Further, the assumption that a reader needs to wade through 750,000 words in order to *start* getting a glimpse of whats behind the curtain is just frustrating. It's what ultimately discouraged me from reading Malazan - I thought the writing style was on the "gruffer" side of writing (being a massive fan of Guy Gavriel Kay, where the writing is very lyrical, this is like death for me anyway) and I could sense, halfway through the first book, that understanding the way the universe functioned was going to take forever. I'm also forcing myself to wade through The Song of Ice and Fire series - not because I enjoy them (I feel like I have to wade through 15 chapters before a major plot piece happens) but because everyone in the genre seems to praise their complexity. Wheel of Time is sometimes even worse - how many main characters can a series have before its bloated?

I've got a job. I go to school. I also read a fair bit of fantasy. Ultimately, I read fiction to be entertained. I like when they're thought-provoking or complex, but I still expect a storyteller to delight me. That's the best way to communicate your themes and ideas. New and fresh doesn't mean Joycean complexity/difficult.

Charles Gramlich said...

I probably should say nothing about violence in entertainment given what I write, but I do believe there has to be a reason why such things happen. I don't use profanity hardly at all. A few damns and hells is about it. I use the F word extremely rarely.

SQT said...

I was afraid I wouldn't explain my point well.

I'm saying accessibility is a good thing. I just don't like the way the word is used when someone is trying to downplay the skill it takes to write a book with broad appeal.

I'm not even saying that violence or profanity shouldn't be used in writing. I just think that it gets overused as people try to copy what's "hot" and any given time. And when people like me object to the constant in-your-face nature of it, we're kind of told we don't "get it." But I think we do. We're just looking for variety and subtlety too.

Jim Haley said...

Oh, I think you explained your point pretty well actually - I think the comments here are more about what we each interpret "accessibility" to mean, but it sounds to me that for the most part (at least among those responding here) you've got like-minds in the people reading (and writing for) this blog in that an "accessible" book isn't necessarily a bad thing.

SQT said...

I feel better now. :)

Rawle said...

Just chiming in to say I agree with you regarding accessibility. There's this idea that being nihilistic, misanthropic, and vulgar is somehow "more intelligent," and that the less an ordinary person can understand in a work, the better the book/movie/video game. I think such a view is poison.