Gonzo: I’m going to Bombay, India, to become a movie star!
Fozzie Bear: You don’t go to Bombay to become a movie star. You go where we’re going: Hollywood!
Gonzo: Sure, if you want to do it the easy way!
—The Muppet Movie1
On twitter last month (I think it was last month; I find twitter-time difficult to reconcile with meatworld time), my friend Kip had an argument about art, effort, and transparency. Or that’s how I remember it, anyway; no doubt that’s all been filtered through my own biases.
Many — most — cartoonists and writers work hard to make their storytelling as transparent and effortless for the reader as they can. This is where “transparency” comes in: the prose (or cartooning) is a clear glass through which the reader observes the story. The clearer the glass, the better.
But what about people who make stained glass windows?
The folks Kip was arguing with — also friends of mine — argued that making readers work hard is pretentious bullshit. Kip agreed, I think, that clarity can be a virtue, but that a creator could reasonably decide to focus on other virtues as well.
There was an elephant in the room, which I can’t recall if anyone mentioned: Kip is the author of City of Roses, a wonderful, web-serialized urban fantasy novel. Kip’s writing emphasizes character, mood, freedom for Kip to explore his own considerable quirkiness, subjective perceptions, and setting. But transparent prose really isn’t what Kip’s about. Kip’s prose could, I think, fairly be described as stained glass. Here, for example, is Kip’s self-described “elevator pitch” for City of Roses:
Violence; violence, and power, in the context of yet somebody else walking up to the groaning boards of fantasy’s eternal wedding feast, still laden with the cold meats from Tolkien’s funeral, and cheekily joining everyone who’s trying to send the whole thing smashing to the ground just to hear the noise all that crockery will make. —But! Also: genderfuck, hearts broken cleanly and otherwise, the City of Portland, Spenser, those moments in pop songs when the bass and all of the drums except maybe a handclap suddenly drop out of the bridge leaving you hanging from a slender aching thread of melody waiting almost dreading the moment when the beat comes back, and the occasional bit of swordplay.
On the one hand, as a reader I gravitate towards clear-as-glass writers (for many years Anne Tyler was my favorite novelist; nowadays I might say Connie Willis.). If I can’t effortlessly understand the prose in a novel, there’s a good chance I’ll put it down.
But (otherhandwise), sometimes what you work for is more rewarding than what’s offered on a platter. There are cartoonists and writers you slow down for; you have to be attentive. It takes a lot more effort to read Dave McKean’s Cages than to read Y: The Last Man. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading Y — a funny adventure with cliffhanger endings like clockwork at the end of every chapter — but if you read it at all, you’re appreciating it as much as you ever will. Putting more effort than that into reading it won’t bring any reward and is probably missing the point. In contrast, Cages is a thicker, richer and more nourishing meal. More like a bunch of meals, because it’s worth going back and rereading a bunch of times. If you pay attention, it’ll be worth it, because there’s so much there.
I’ve reread episodes of City of Roses a bunch of times. I’d highly recommend it (first chapter starts here). But it’s not “relax, turn your brain off, and be entertained” urban fantasy. It’s very rewarding, but readers have to put in a bit of work and pay attention. Which means — like Gonzo becoming a movie star — it’s going to have a hard time finding the readership it deserves.
Of course, writing this has made me think of my own work, which falls very much on the “transparent” side of the divide. But, to tell you the truth, I sometimes feel guilty about that. My favorite comics often aren’t as transparent, or as easy reading, as my own comics tend to be. For now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing too much to change it; but someday I hope to experiment with making some stained glass.
- Bombay seems like an odd choice for this joke. Wasn’t there a sizable movie industry in Bombay in the 1970s? Or am I confused? [↩]