The Perils of Lucidity

by wjw on December 1, 2009

I was interviewed for an hour at Utopiales, standing in for GoH Robert Charles Wilson, who was down with la grippe porcine. The audience was tiny at the start, but grew to a gratifying size by the end.

A surprising amount of the interview was taken up with the question of why I am not, well, really really famous. They seemed to think I ought to be.

Of course I am preoccupied by this question, but I confess to being a little uncomfortable discussing it in a public forum (aside from this one, anyway). And discussing the complexities of American publishing in front of a French audience was daunting. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense in English.

Still, one interesting theory arose. Which is that my writing is simply too lucid.

I discuss complex, sophisticated ideas (according to this theory), but I’ve made the mistake of explaining them with far too much clarity. They just zip into the reader’s head and zip out again without gaining a lot of traction.

What I need to do (according to this theory) is to roughen up my style. If I make the reader work harder to absorb my ideas, then they’ll stick in his/her head, and I’ll be appreciated more.

Or so the theory goes, anyway.

I have to say the idea is counterintuitive. I work hard to communicate with clarity. (And if you doubt that it’s work, you should read my first drafts, with their convoluted sentences and polysyllabic Latinisms and the weird little placeholder words that substitute for the mot juste that has somehow escaped me, but that I’ll try to reach later.)

But if writing less well is my ticket to fame, then I suppose I could do that. If I had to.

But I thought I’d consult with you all first. Is lucidity my bane?

David W. Goldman December 1, 2009 at 8:53 am

Is lucidity my bane?

No, I think not.

(I originally simply answered "Huh? What do you mean?" But that struck me as perhaps unhelpful.)

Dave Bishop December 1, 2009 at 10:06 am

No,no,no, Walter, it's one of your great strengths and why I keep reading your stuff!

Personally, I'm sick of 'non-lucid' fiction – fiction which seems to embody great ideas, and starts well, but which soon loses its way and collapses, usually at excessive length, into a pile of 'mush'.

I suspect that you're not as famous as you deserve to be because we live in a dysfunctional culture run by 'bean counters' and marketing men.

oblate777 December 1, 2009 at 11:46 am

This sounds very Continental–"if you just make it more complex, people will come."

Sean Craven December 1, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I strongly disagree. I suspect you were encountering a bit of cultural dissonance.

Actually, I think that one of the reasons you aren't more popular is because you've got such a strong intellectual component to your work. It's my suspicion that your stories are only fully satisfying to people who enjoy thinking and who get pleasure from being exposed to new ideas and concepts. People who are willing to do some headwork.

Your lucidity makes these pleasures available to a wider audience. I think the notion that a clearly-stated idea slips easily from the mind is simple nonsense.

Pat Mathews December 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm

It's that you don't write to a formula. Every book is unique.

Ted December 1, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Tangentially related: my work is much more popular in Japan than it is in the U.S. Why should that be the case? Also, Greg Egan is huge in Japan, while most of his work is out of print in the U.S.

We're just fortunate that we write in English, so our works gets translated into other languages. If I wrote in Japanese, or if you wrote in French, we'd probably have roughly the same readership in those languages as we do now, but our work would likely never get translated into English.

Saladin December 1, 2009 at 9:52 pm

US bookbuying public to WJW: Less thoughtful speculative dramatization of political upheaval and its aftermath, more sexy vampires, please.

Margot December 1, 2009 at 11:40 pm

I've been thinking off and on about how your books differ from Gaiman's.

Gaiman's books get me by my emotional throat. One the one hand they're dancingly clever; on the other hand they disturb and scare. Moreover, I feel as though the author is writing under emotional duress.

I am NOT saying that this is actually true of Gaiman — I'm only talking about the imaginary author I construct in my head while reading.

It also seems to me that a lot of American genre fiction — notably the vampire stuff — takes it for granted that authors write *from* their own emotions and *for* their readers' emotions, the smokier the better. In effect, authors are like the Pythia — they breathe their own emotional smoke and give utterance.

Your books don't give me that feeling. The pleasure really *is* more cerebral. For instance, I just reread the scene in Metropolitan with Alveq Park and Aiah's fish patty sandwich (on seed bun). I love the clarity as well as the cleverness. At the other end of the scale, there's Sula's guerilla campaign and its echoes in current events and in the current understanding of how humans work. "Aha," I say to myself, "so he's read that too." I also like a realized fictional world that makes sense.

So, I've set up an axis here, with books that feel like they were written from emotional conflicts at one end, and books that don't feel that way at the other. Again, I'm not talking about real authors, only about the imaginary authors I construct while reading.

Is it possible that American readers of genre fiction expect the former right now? And maybe Japanese readers have a different expectation? Is this a useful way to think about it, or am I off on a limb?

Shash December 2, 2009 at 4:45 am

No no, you must keep the clarity. When I read a story by someone who thinks that obscuring the story line or adding twists and turns for the sake of getting 75 more pages into the story (a la Clive Cussler), I drop the author.

Your characters are renaissance men and women with complex backgrounds, but never do you pull a silly "aha" moment from the character's history to the fore for the sake of a plot twist. Your characters, their situations and actions always stem from who they developed into and not because it just suits your convenience.

Plus, your cerebral characters are also action figures. What's not to love?

I think marketing is your bane. I stumbled across you first in an SF haven/comic book/baseball card selling store. I rarely see more than one or two of your books on the shelf in the big stores.

Keep hanging out your shingle. We'll keep spreading the word.

Ralf the Dog December 2, 2009 at 5:04 am

1. Most people are morons. You don't write for stupid people. I and many others are grateful for this. It does cost you money.

2. Your best books start out in a world we don't understand. As we read through the books we enjoy the exploration of your worlds. Metropolitan and Aristoi were two of your best books. The ideas were complex. You did not need to make them more so.


One off subject question I have wanted to ask for many years. Is Angel Station the sequel of Hardwired? In hardwired all the political and economic power is controlled by the orbitals. The balance of power shifts to the people of Earth.

In Angel Station, The people who live on planets have all the power, but it marks the time when the space people start getting control back.

I have debated this with many of my friends. They tell me I am crazy. Am I right, are they, or are we all correct?

dubjay December 2, 2009 at 5:26 am

Sorry, Ralf, I regret to say that you're deranged. Angel Station is a standalone. Voice of the Whirlwind is a sort-of sequel to Hardwired, and it already has aliens in it. In Angel Station, there are no aliens in the picture till Ubu and Maria find them.

I vary the amount of emotional trauma I inflict on my characters. Aristide is 2500 years old and a master of whatever he does, and he's seen and done everything, so his emotions remain fairly stable.

Characters like Sarah and Sula and Ubu are survivors of abuse, so their emotions are strong and angry and sometimes inappropriate. (Though of course this judgment presupposes that disemboweling people and/or shooting them in the head is inappropriate, which may not always be clear from context.)

john_appel December 3, 2009 at 12:46 pm

This has been percolating in the back of my brain for a few days, and this morning it occurred to me that perhaps it's something mundane: that with your surname being "Williams", your books are relegated to the low, far-away corners of the shelves in bookstores. Your compatriots at the end of the alphabet seem to get short shrift as well (except for the late Roger Zelazny, who got started in the game early – though today it's hard to find something of his on the shelves besides Amber).

However, this hypothesis doesn't explain why John Barnes, another author I consider to be criminally under-rated and appreciated, seems to be your fellow traveler in "writing great stuff known but to a relative few". I'll ponder some more.

halojones-fan December 3, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Like Saladin said: You need more sexy vampires. Sexy vampires are where it's at these days.

It helps if they're sort of gay. In fact, you should go out of your way to imply sexual relationships between any and all members of the cast, so that middle-aged white women can get their rocks off writing stories where two of your male characters have gay sex. That ensure that you'll have a fanbase of "shippers".

Actually: On a serious note, maybe that's the issue. You go to such lengths to finish the story that A: if I buy one book I've read the whole thing, and B: there's no room for me to make up my own stories in the areas you didn't bother to write.

Also: For God's sake, re-release your back catalog! Go beat someone with a bat or something. It's hard for the "Metropolitan" series to get any traction when it's been out of print for ten years!

Ralf the Dog December 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Thanks for responding. If you have no objection I will continue to view Angel Station as the "Spiritual Successor" of hardwired. Please let this dog have a few delusions.

I will also continue to view City on Fire as the continuation of Metropolitan even if you tell me otherwise. 🙂

I never thought I would say this, I agree with halojones-fan. It would be nice if you could get your back catalog republished. I understand that it would be politically very hard to do as you have hopped publishers a few times.

If they could be dumped on the Kindle it would be very cool. Remember, you don't need to buy a Kindle to use a Kindle. Just download the free PC application.

Allen December 10, 2009 at 6:14 am

Maybe given the initial distribution of matter and energy in the universe, plus the laws of physics which determine how that distribution changes over time, PLUS whatever randomness that Quantum Indeterminacy introduces, it's just not physically possible for you to become really, really famous.

Physics. That's why you're not really, really famous.

Either deterministic physics or quantum randomness is to blame for your fate.

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