Invisible vs. Conspicuous Prose with Octavia Butler and Ahmed Bouanani
What does it mean to write invisible prose? Why might we want to write “visible” prose instead? Here, I’m taking a look at two excerpts that hopefully exemplify each method.
Might as well come out right away and say that I’ve always felt skeptical about the advice that good prose is invisible prose.
At its most shallow, that skepticism stems from my love of prose that leaps and surprises, that sings, that draws attention to itself. Some books, I only read because I love the strange way the sentences progress.
But on a deeper level, my skeptical mind wonders “invisible for who?” and “to what end?” How can prose be invisible when the reader is still just reading words on a page? Is this drive toward invisibility giving up some powerful experiences that can only be gained through reading, experiences that set reading a book apart from watching a film? Maybe invisible prose is impossible, or highly contextual, or maybe it’s just short-hand for prose that meets every expectation of the reader, never surprising, the reading equivalent of the traditional three-camera shot through the fourth wall in a sitcom. Even then, the invisibility of the prose will rely on the readers just as much as the writers.
I want to look at two examples, just to see.
What really got me going on the topic of invisible vs. visible prose was reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, with it’s wonderful, challenging, endlessly complex prose. I started thinking about the common idiom in writing circles that “good prose is invisible prose” which I’ve never really agreed with, but I also began to wonder what exactly “invisible” meant when it came to prose, as I suggested above.
So I returned to a page in Vandermeer’s WONDERBOOK that I’ve often referred to, a diagram on “Approaches to Style” on pages 62 and 63. He separates prose into 4 vague styles listed in order from simplest to most complex, with example authors and examples of authors who wedge in between these styles. The first is Minimal / Stark (think Raymond Carver or Brian Evenson). The second is Invisible, paired with the even more cringey word “Normal” (at least the book puts it in quotes, but at that point why not have the good sense to instead use the word “lean”) which lists Daphne Du Maurier, Joe Haldeman, Mary Doria Russel, Karin Tidbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut. I own books by three of those writers, but I did not find Tidbeck’s prose at all invisible, and I had no interest in looking at Vonnegut. But Butler, I thought, was an interesting option, so I’m going to take a look at my copy of PARABLE OF THE SOWER. The third style is called Muscular / Conspicuous with examples of Kelly Link and Ursula Le’guin, and I think that Bouanani likely fits well in this category, although THE HOSPITAL probably does jump into the fourth category in places. The fourth is called Lush / Ornate and includes Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, with China Mieville as a clear transition writer from Muscular to Lush.
Both THE HOSPITAL and PARABLE OF THE SOWER are excellent, and you should read them.
That said, we don’t need to know much about the stories themselves to jump into looking at their prose, so let’s just move along.
Here are two short excerpts, first Bulter and then Bouanani.
Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them. They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds. They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores. They don’t get enough to eat so they’re malnourished–or they eat bad food and poison themselves. As I rode, I tried not to look around at them, but I couldn’t help seeing–collecting–some of their general misery.
I can take a lot of pain without falling apart. I’ve had to learn to do that. But it was hard, today, to keep pedaling and keep up with the others when just about everyone I saw made me feel worse and worse.
My father glanced back at me every now and then. He tells me, “You can beat this thing. You don’t have to give in to it.” He has always pretended, or perhaps believed, that my hyperempathy syndrome was something I could shake off and forget about. The sharing isn’t real, after all. It isn’t some magic or ESP that allows me to share the pain or the pleasure of other people. It’s delusional. Even I admit that. My brother Keith used to pretend to be hurt just to trick me into sharing his supposed pain. Once he used red ink as fake blood to make me bleed. I was eleven then, and I still bled through the skin when I saw someone else bleeding. I couldn’t help doing it, and I always worried that it would give me away to people outside the family.
First, because I’m still not totally sure what either of these things mean, let’s start with a definition of invisible prose and visible (conspicuous) prose. These are the definitions given in WONDERBOOK.
Let’s go through the first definition little by little with Butler’s prose in mind. Invisible prose is called the “baseline” approach in “commercial modes,” but it’s hard to know what is meant by commercial modes. Certainly, Butler is trying to write in a more-or-less commercial genre, Science Fiction, and the book does have some structural similarities to other popular works of the day. When it comes to “balance in scene/summary,” I’m not sure we’re seeing that here, and I would say that PARABLE, at least, has just as much summary (if not more) as THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, even though Le’Guin is categorized as a Conspicuous stylist. There is, in the Butler excerpt, certainly a judicious use of sensory detail–the details or specific and spread throughout very well. The sentences are also of a fairly average length. So maybe we’ll say 3 out of 4?
The last bit gets me: “Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ ”
Maybe I have trouble thinking of Butler’s prose as “invisible” because she’s clearly a talented stylist. Maybe my biases are making me think that “good” writing can’t be “invisible” writing.
I want to say more about this excerpt, but let’s take a look at the definition of Conspicuous prose, first.
Is this an impartial definition or a personal attack? Historically, I have often received the “lost the thread” feedback, as a writer who waffles between Stark, Evenson-like prose and Conspicuous, Le’Guin like prose. Even at its worst, I don’t think Bouanani’s prose ever loses the thread.
Also, all throughout the book, he uses summary and half-scene to speed through or slow down time, and he just lathers on the juicy sensory details and extended metaphors like no one I’ve ever read before. THE HOSPITAL never changes POV, but the characters all have quite different voices in dialogue (although clearly you can’t see that in this moment).
So much for definitions.
There’s one obvious feature of what we might call “invisible” prose that seems to be missing from the WONDERBOOK definition, and that’s a general use of short words and common vocabulary. Butler certainly has that over Bouanani, especially if we compare the Butler’s line, “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you” with the functionally similar line by Bouanani, “The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination.” Both of these lines serve to explain the state of the contemporary world of the novel, and they do so in a relatively pithy way. But there is a much grander diction in the Bouanani line, whereas Butler’s line feels almost colloquial with its use of “Crazy.”
Even beyond the grander diction, Bouanani is clearly intentional in his use of conspicuous prose. His prose is very complex, using compound phrases, participial phrases, even a few gerunds. But what makes Bouanani’s intentions so clear is the interruption smacked into the middle of the second sentence. It’s long and windy (and wonderful) but definitely makes the sentence harder to follow. It seems to be trying to stretch your mind thin and mush you up, evoking the feeling of the character. The sentence structures in THE HOSPITAL, even in this one excerpt, are not just more complex than Butler’s, they’re doing a lot of weird stuff trying to evoke the story physically.
But that brings me to another point: Butler’s prose seems to go out of its way to achieve a certain level of predictability. The paragraphing intentionally groups sentences that are directly and obviously related to each other, almost to the point of having an introductory and concluding sentence in each one. Interruptions are short and the first interruption seems to setup and emphasize the final words of the sentence “are dangerous.” This prose, it seems, is intended to read easily. And it does read far easier than Bouanani’s massive pillar of a paragraph.
So one of two things must be true so far:
Either 1) It’s much harder to identify Invisible prose than it is to identify Conspicuous prose.
Or 2) Butler is not an excellent example of Invisible prose.
Or, well, 3) Maybe “invisible” really is in the eyes of the beholder and doesn’t actually exist at all, in any generalize-able sense.
At this point, I have to resist running to my bookshelf for more examples. My blog post will balloon, will strangle itself in a web of whiplash sentences that tangle. I will never find the thread.
Maybe one more example of invisible prose. NO.
Maybe an example of Stark or of Lush prose, just to round out the categories.
But where do we go from here? I think I’ve gone as far as I can into what “invisible” means and what “visible” prose looks like. While I’m still a little unclear on “invisible,” I can admit that Butler’s prose is simpler, easier to read, certainly calls less attention to itself than Bouanani’s. But is it really invisibility she’s after?
Maybe it is.
That’s a good segue into why. WHY.
Why even attempt to write “invisible” prose? I want to find something Butler’s own words as explanation, but my searching has turned up little–except that she believed in good stories, compellingly told. Perhaps that lines up with part of the definition of “invisible” prose in WONDERBOOK, particularly that “Immersive reading is usually the goal.” She wanted readers to be immersed in her world, and to be able to easily understand her works.
That’s a laudable goal, I’d say, whether or not I think prose can actually be invisible in any sense.
There’s not much more I can say than that.
But let me ask you. What is invisible prose? Do you have any of your own favorite examples you turn to? Or any favorite examples of what you’d consider Conspicuous prose? Why do you write either of the two?