Is Calling a Book “Complex” a Valid Criticism?

Is Calling a Book Complex a Valid Criticism

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.

23 thoughts on “Is Calling a Book “Complex” a Valid Criticism?

  1. Tales from Absurdia says:

    Great article, as ever.

    It’s an interesting talking point. I’ll sometimes criticise writing if I feel that it’s prevaricating or avoidably complex for the sake of it.

    That being said, an author is under no obligation to produce a one-size-fits-all style of writing. There has to be an element of flexibility and effort on behalf of the reader (again, to a point).


    • Krysta says:

      Ah, true. Sometimes I think a book THINKS it is interesting and complex, and I think, “No, you’re just trying too hard and it doesn’t make a lot of sense.” The fact that a reader can’t understand what is happening can, indeed, sometimes be the fault of the book! But maybe some people like those kinds of books, even if I don’t. There’s room for all kinds of books. Fortunately, we can pick and choose the ones we enjoy most!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tanja says:

    I think authors should never simplify the story they want to tell just because someone might not get it… but I’m not an author so I don’t need to worry about finding a publisher for a more complex story. I think stories that are easier to read sell much better and readers are used to them. But people should understand that a challenging book is quite often a good thing, and sometimes you need to put some effort into reading. If you don’t feel like it, that’s fine – I sometimes prefer lighter reading, sometimes not, but none of that is the fault of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think different books are good for different readers, and for different times! Sometimes I like a complex work. Sometimes, I just want to relax and not think too hard. Both of those things are okay! And I think there’s room for all kinds of books to match all kinds of readers and their moods.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Janette says:

    Definitely agree with this. I wouldn’t ever think of a book being complex as a criticism. Sometimes I don’t feel in the mood for a complicated story line but at other times, I love a richly detailed story with a huge cast of characters. Having said that, lots of long complicated names can put me off at times. 😃d

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer says:

      When there are complicated names, I find that I tend to remember them visually instead of aurally, if that makes sense. I know the way the word looks, but I never “hear” it in my head because I might have no idea what it would actually sound like. Does that ever happen for you?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Janette says:

        Oh definitely. It’s the odd book where there are a lot of complicated names and then that becomes harder to do. My ex-husband always refused to read books where he couldn’t pronounce the names though 😲

        Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I have to admit that when I see long, complicated names I can’t pronounce, I hear them as kind of like, “blahlahalhddd” in my head and move on. I need some vowels, people! I don’t know what to do without some vowels!

      Or maybe the author could put a list of name pronunciations in the back to help a reader out.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Jennifer says:

    This was almost jarring to read because I’ve never even considered that people might see “complex”and think that’s bad or negative! It all depends on what you’re ready for, right? Sometimes I don’t want to think too much, and sometimes I’m all about diving in to a lush and detailed world! Give me those character relationship maps at the beginning of the book! 🤣 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. mphtheatregirl says:

    I love complex stories and characters- not necessarily a bad thing; after all, some of the best stories just happen to be complex and hard to read

    That is why during the year I mix up both easy and hard reads

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    Interesting post! I actually enjoy challenging and complex plot but I wouldn’t tag something I don’t get as complex. I tag it weird or odd and i won’t blame author just because I couldn’t understand the book, it simply isn’t for me and such books make it difficult to rate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, if I find a book confusing complex I feel bad about rating it lower, but in the end I appreciate having the chance to explain in the review that i just didn’t understand it! Maybe other readers do understand it. (And can explain it to me, haha!)

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Angie F. says:

    I think sometimes we mix up complex with confusing. A book can be one, the other, or both. I agree that complex isn’t bad at all. It shows that a lot of thought and work went into the characters, plot, setting, etc. However, if a book is confusing, that IS a problem. That confusion might arise from the complexity, or it could be because the author didn’t do a good job setting up or explaining. It might be hard to realize which one it is.

    Angie @ Pinkadot Pages

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      So true! I definitely think a book could be confusing because it was poorly written/explained! Or maybe it’s confusing because I, the reader, just didn’t follow along for some reason. Sometimes I have to ask myself, “Wait, is it me or does this not make any sense?” XD

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Charvi says:

    I totally agree that complexity is a kind of neutral tag. If someone says a book is complex I always try and ask them for specifics. In what way? Was the worldbuilding intricate and heavy? Were there too many characters? Was the prose overwhelming?
    And even after that, I mean some of the books that I found complex and difficult to get through were Eragon and The Hobbit but so many people love them. And I’ve seen their movies and liked them, mainly because I found the prose too complex to go through.
    So yeah, leaving your review at the book being complex is really not enough. Reviewers need to elaborate on that so that each reader can judge that for themselves.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      So true! Complexity could encompass a variety of things, from worldbuilding to prose! It can be helpful to have more information so readers can decide if that’s the kind of complexity they feel like reading right now.

      And, yeah, I know book lovers aren’t supposed to say it, but sometimes movies do streamline things in a way that’s actually quite effective. And sometimes arguably better than the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    I think it depends on what somebody means by complex- it could be that they didn’t enjoy it because lots of subplots and it not being an easy read isn’t to their taste. But on the other hand, the author could have a simple story that felt long-winded and unnecessarily overcomplicated. There might just be too much going on for the sake of it… Sometimes though, even those complaints might not be warranted (because challenging books shouldn’t be dismissed for their complexity- that just seems daft). I guess it depends on how it’s done and what the reader is complaining about.

    Liked by 1 person

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