If you are a writer (or any other cultural producer) and you’ve ever discussed your work with an editor or with a publishing house, chances are that you’ve heard them tell you: “This is great stuff, but… could you not make it more accessible? People won't get what you’re saying, unless you make it simple enough – without all those quotes, difficult words and abstract thinking. Don’t you think?”
Now, this is an interesting point. And I mean it: it is interesting, and worth thinking about. Of course, they are right: what is the point of publishing anything, unless it can be understood by, and it actually benefits, as many people as possible? Already in antiquity, a Hermetic writer like Zosimus of Panopolis reprimanded his colleague the alchemist Theosebia, who took pride in making her wisdom inaccessible to the masses, by saying that “if our mysteries are useful and necessary, then it is all the more important that everybody should access them” (1)
In general, it is a good habit for writers to engage with their projects from the point of view of the reader: we should write with the eyes of the reader, not only when we’re writing fiction, but also when we’re explaining theory or philosophy. If what you’re writing sounds unreadable, or worse plain boring, it might be best not to write it.
That said, the problem of the accessibility of a text is a little more complicated. The question is, indeed, one of accessibility: it concerns a problem with two actors. On the one hand, you have the difficulty of a text and of its vocabulary. On the other, you have the intellectual abilities of its potential readership. A text becomes accessible, when its intellectual level matches the interpretative (or intellectual) abilities of its reader.
So, the problem of accessibility can be resolved in two ways. The first solution is to decrease the difficulty of the text by lowering the tone and by simplifying complex concepts. This is the typical solution which is recommended today to writers. But there is also a second solution: to increase the interpretative abilities of the readers, by investing in their education and in the development of their critical and hermeneutical skills.
Revealingly, whenever someone talks to you about accessibility these days, the burden of this double movement is placed entirely on the writer. Write it easier, make it simple, remove anything challenging, lower it enough so that it can be accessible to everyone.
Very well, as I said, this is not entirely an unfair point. But why not look also at the other end of the problem? Why not recognise that decades of cuts to education, privatisation of higher education, conversion of education into professional training, have lowered the general intellectual level to such an extent that, to today’s standard, rendering something accessible amounts to losing most of its intellectual value, and thus of its overall value?
It is hardly a coincidence that, in these capitalist times, the burden of any social cost is borne by the worker. It is the writer, they say today, that should lower their tone. It’s not society that should invest more in proper education. Obviously.
It’s easy to see in which direction we are heading. Education is increasingly privatised and subject to cuts, teaching staff are treated worse and worse, culture is reduced to a mix of professional training and commercial entertainment, the average intellectual level inevitably continues to sink… Ultimately, cultural producers will have to create utter banalities to make themselves understood.
So, next time they’ll ask you to make your work more accessible, first take on the advice. Check if you have really made things unnecessarily complex, or if your writing was just not good enough. Try to read it as if you were the reader. But once you’ve done that, and you’re satisfied with the results (that is, once your inner reader was gripped by what you said), then don’t make it any more accessible. If they will continue to ask you all the same to make it more accessible, you will decide how to proceed as you wish (which often means, depending on how much you need that gig). But even if you accept their request, make sure to clarify to your interlocutor that you are lowering your work, not making it more accessible.
It might not change anything, but it will help you to remember what is right.
(1) Adapted from Zosimos of Panopolis, The Final Quittance, fr. syr. 239, quoted in F. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 125-126.