You have probably seen the warnings. You thought about reading a book and then you read the reviews. “This book is too complicated,” the reviewer advises, “I could not understand half of it. The prose. The politics. The large cast of characters.” Complexity becomes a condemnation. Because a reader encountered some difficulty while reading, the book must be abandoned as ill-written. The author is at fault. But is this true? Is a book necessarily bad because it requires effort to read it? I would argue that complexity is one aspect of a book–but one that is neutral, its significance decided by readers.
The idea of complexity as “bad” implies that the writer of a certain text ought to have known that readers would not be able to understand it. This could be a valid criticism, depending on the intended audience of the text. For example, an author writing for emerging readers would be at fault if they wrote sentences that were too long or that introduced too many new words for those readers. An author writing a popular science book could be justly criticized for writing a book with jargon more suitable for professional scientists. But what about fiction, especially adult fiction? Is a fantasy inherently bad because it has a complicated magic system? Is an author wrong if they include “too many” characters? Should authors stick to simple sentences and commonly used words only?
Complexity as condemnation occurs perhaps most frequently in critiques of classics. Older books are found wanting because some of the language is unfamiliar to contemporary readers. Epic works like Dante’s Divine Comedy are deemed confusing because of the large number of learned allusions. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarrillion are frequently dismissed by readers who find them difficult to read. Should these books be abandoned as unreadable? Are they just too complicated for anyone to enjoy? Should the authors have known better, and written a different type of book?
Often we depict the experience of encountering difficulty as something negative, but encountering difficulty is also how we learn and grow. Finding a book challenging need not be a reason to give up or to never even try, but instead viewed as an opportunity to develop our reading skills. This may be particularly tough for avid readers to accept–they are so used to zooming through books, that any book that asks them to pause might be automatically viewed as a problem book. However, slowing down and finding aids to help approach a text could be incredibly rewarding. One will not know unless they try.
Calling a book “complex,” should not be used as an automatic indictment. The feeling that a book is difficult is, first of all, somewhat subjective–others may find the text more or less difficult to access. But, secondly, complexity will not be viewed negatively by all readers. Complexity could actually create a richness in the book, or provide a reading experience that a simpler prose style or plot would not have. Complexity could also be viewed as an exciting challenge, rather than an inherent flaw in the book.
Ultimately, complexity is just one aspect of a book and the reading experience, one that should be weighed by readers along with all the other parts of the book–the pacing, the writing style, the characterization, and more. If a story is really good, if a book seems worth reading, its complexity should not deter enthusiastic readers. Finding ways to access a book becomes part of the fun, and finishing a complicated book gives a rare sense of accomplishment. Complexity is arguably only bad if you look at it that way.