Justification Bias and the Responsibility of the Writer
It’s a strange experience to lecture students on why one of my own poems fails. It’s bizarre to spend so much energy convincing readers that they’re right and I’m wrong. But that’s how I spent my Thursday afternoon.
“I’m just dumb.”
When I run a workshop, I complete the same assignment students are given. Even though one of my motives is letting students see areas for improvement in my own work, it’s rare that a student gives me critical feedback. Sure, they’re less practiced at critical reading, they’re scared of speaking truth to power, etc. But what worries me is another assumption: Anything they don’t understand is their fault.
After reading the prose poem I handed out for the last workshop, several students indicated their confusion but avoided expressing that confusion in a critical way. One student exemplified the problem when she said, “I don’t know. Nevermind everything I just said. I’m just dumb.”
As per the rule in our workshops, I kept my mouth shut until everyone had given their initial critique. Then I gave a rant that I feel is worth recording here.
Our Myth: Inaccessibility as a Virtue
You are not dumb when you don’t understand something. Knowing when people understand my vocabulary, get the allusions I’m making, or can follow my train of thought are all important parts of bringing a piece to workshop. More importantly, when my work is hard to understand, that isn’t a virtue.
We are trained to believe that difficult work must thereby be good. With Shakespeare, Joyce, Eliot, and a variety of other writers, students are thrust toward the work with the declaration that the work is good—and any failure to recognize that goodness must be due to shortcomings of the reader.
It’s great that, as readers, we’re trained to access difficult pieces, dissect dense texts, and appreciate complex work. However, this impenetrability quickly gets confused with goodness itself. We believe, “It’s difficult to understand, and I found many ‘good’ pieces difficult, therefore this must be good.”
Even more dangerous is justification bias, which attaches goodness to inaccessibility as the other end of the spectrum. We read a difficult piece and, because we put so much effort into that reading, we think it must be good. Justification bias tells us that we only put effort into worthwhile things, therefore the piece must be worthwhile. A fellow writer once gave this (distressing) commentary on Ulysses: “I loved it. I didn’t understand a word of it, but I loved it.”
The Virtue of Accessibility
That these difficult pieces are gorgeous, stunning, evocative, or in other ways fantastic is not necessary false. My point is that it’s not necessarily true either. The quality of a piece doesn’t stem from its accessibility or inaccessibility but to the qualities of the piece that reveal themselves once a work is accessed.
But we come to worship well-reputed but challenging pieces un-critically. Why? We assume that any admission that we didn’t like something because it was hard to understand is a reflection on us, not on the text. Those who don’t understand are taught that they are dumb or insufficient for not understanding. It turns into a group silence, a sort of mass production of the emperor’s new clothes.
Let’s make this clear: Inaccessibility is not a virtue. Comprehensibility is not a vice. All else being equal, accessibility is preferable.
All else is never equal, of course, and there comes a point where a writer must choose to sacrifice something—and it’s okay if that something is the ease with which a piece can be understood. But the writer must not subscribe to the myth that this inaccessibility benefits their piece. This view creates an elitism which boils down to classism; when writing inaccessible work, our target audience is the small minority of the well-educated middle and upper class. More to the point, inaccessibility limits the power and reach of a work.
(There are rare exceptions. Sometimes confusing readers creates a vulnerability, mental dissonance, etc., that the writer can exploit. This is something like using disharmony in music so that a resolution to that disharmony can be used to sway the emotion of the listener. As an example of a piece that confuses its audience to wonderful effect, I recommend Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.)
The Responsibility of the Writer
I hear it more often than I’d like: “I’m a great writer, but people don’t understand what I’m saying. They just don’t get it.” Which is very much like a comedian saying, “I’m very funny, but people don’t laugh. They just don’t get it.” This fundamentally misunderstands what funny means—and in the same way that “funny” relies on the audience laughing, “effective writing” relies on the audience understanding.
In both cases, you must be aware of your audience. Of course a middle-aged white guy telling jokes about suburbian mishaps will have a rough crowd if they perform at an ethnic comedy night. Of course South Park’s fart jokes have a low success rate among PhDs. There’s a point at which we say, “This is the audience I’m writing for,” and we choose not to worry about other groups who won’t appreciate or understand the work. Within those boundaries, writers have an obligation—to readers and to the piece—to make their work comprehensible.
As a reader of the literary canon, it’s wise to pretend that the burden of responsibility falls on your shoulders. (I mean, most of those writers are dead, so they won’t be making changes to their manuscript.) We should absolutely become more intelligent, well-read, and hard-working readers.
But as writers, we can never pretend that the burden belongs to anyone but us. If a reader doesn’t understand a work, we have to approach that concern in a way that doesn’t simply dismiss the reader. It’s fine if your end conclusion is that the reader is a small enough minority that a change isn’t justified. It’s fine if you decide the function of the piece’s inaccessibility outweighs the cost. But it is a cost, and one that can cripple your work if you don’t approach it with care.