If one is going to start bandying around words like ‘unreadable’ – and one is – the very least one can do is to presage the bandying with the observation that a little unreadability isn’t automatically a bad thing. The modernist exhortation to difficulty survives in various forms today. The late David Foster Wallace, with his anguished syntax, absent-minded punctuation and overt hostility to the convention of the paragraph, must have put a few people off. Then there’s our own dear Martin Amis, hysterically anxious to neologise – for all his ex cathedra pronouncements about the ‘literary ear’, his work is more or less impossible to read aloud; it feels as if you’re gargling gravel. It is entirely laudable not to want one’s work to slip through its readership like Kenneth Horne’s ‘finely chased goblet of fruit salts’; and it is only to be expected that the occasional idea or innovation placed in the reader’s path may trip him or her up. But the reader has got to want to get up and press on again.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who has sometimes been pilloried for being too readable, claimed to know the exact metrical weight of every English word except ‘scissors’. But one wonders what he would have made of the