a writer's blog

Textual Transparency, With Birds

collateral tales

collateral tales

The ability to make one’s text as “transparent” as possible, so readers can connect directly with the story, might not always be the ultimate goal to strive for in “literary” fiction; for genre writers, though, it’s an important part of the craft, and as a skill one of the most highly rated.

 

From the moment I began to learn the techniques of the trade and started to write and make some money, I’ve always been uncertain as to what language I should write in. Not counting extended periods in the States, German usually won by a small margin—a practical decision, mostly, because German magazine and book publishers were close-by and more easily accessible (well, sort of: a good topic for another entry).

But for more than ten years now, the Great Orthography War’s been ravaging the German writing scene, and there’s no end in sight. Since 1996, the brutally complex “old” orthography has been reformed to death by the conference of the ministries of education in various successive stages, into what constitutes now the brutally complex “new” orthography. Only, the frontline kept shifting, and there are now five standards in existence instead of one—the classical standard, the new conservative standard, the new progressive standard, the at times rather idiosyncratic “Recommendations” standard by the renowned—and for all practical purposes mandatory—Duden dictionary (whose publishers would also figure among the Great Orthography War’s biggest war-time profiteers), and a Press Agency standard. Yes: it’s a clusterfuck. And the war itself is far from over.

Now whatever orthography standard you choose to employ, or rather your publisher, there will be a considerable amount of people among your readers who will either be repulsed, or puzzled, or both. There’s nothing you can do about it except, say, persuading your publisher to print two or more editions of your work, each with a different standard (good luck with that).

All that, to get to the point, isn’t enjoyable for anyone. If you’re a literary heavyweight, you might be able to choose—a good number of famous German writers still insist on being published following the “classical” orthography standard. But if you’re a genre writer, you might not carry enough clout for that, and it wouldn’t even solve your problem. Readers are supposed to forget that they’re reading a text, and how could they do that when they bump into unusual orthographic conventions all the time.

Transparent text isn’t like transparent doors, it’s not dangerous, and no one will bump their heads. Thus, when you plaster little orthographic birds all over your text, your readers will always be aware that there is a text, but without any benefits (like, not bumping their heads).

Well, I had to make some decisions, at least for the two major projects Make-Up (mystery) and Cargo (hard sf)—articles, essays, and the occasional short story will sort themselves out according to context. I decided to follow through with my mystery trilogy in German, as the first installment Make-Up’s already been written in German and almost found its publisher, but to proceed with Cargo in English and try my luck with American publishers.

All in all, this Great Orthography War is silly. If you happen to read German, I’ve so far published two entries on the matter here and here in the brand meets world category. (Might contain traces of acrimony.)

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