Writing What Will Not Be Read

On Roland Barthes’s tmesis, and on density, depth, and the reading speed of a text.

Reader by František Dvořák (1906)


In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.

Every word is intended for effect.

No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words. 

(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English. In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwards is still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)

But who judges what’s necessary in a text?

A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis.

Tmesis, source or figure of pleasure, here confronts two prosaic edges with one another; it sets what is useful to a knowledge of the secret against what is useless to such knowledge; tmesis is a seam or flaw resulting from a simple principle of functionality; it does not occur at the level of the structure of languages but only at the moment of their consumption; the author cannot predict tmesis: he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages).

—Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller.

Last time, I discussed an immediately preceding quote from the same book, which likens the speeding up of reading to the speeding up of a striptease act, with the aim of reaching the warmer parts (of body or anecdote) sooner. Tmesis is the active modulation of reading rhythm determined by the meeting ground of the reader’s needs and the text’s offering. And that meeting ground can be unstable—once a warmer part, not necessarily always a warmer part—as Barthes’s parenthetical quip about Proust points out: tmesis can change from one reading to the next, even for the same person. Implicit in the phrase good fortune is the opinion that expansive writing should aim to engender such variable experiences.

In more standard usage, tmesis is a rhetorical figure that refers to an interjection which cuts a phrase or word in two (it comes from the Greek word meaning a cutting). For example, note how Henry Bolingbroke makes heinous slice however:

Intended or committed was this fault?
If on the first, how heinous e’er it be,
To win thy after-love I pardon thee.

—Shakespeare, Richard II 5.3.34-35

(Discovered on the ever-helpful silva rhetoricae website.)

Barthes co-opts the term to serve as a metaphor (as he did with asyndeton). His tmesis denotes the reader skimming over any needless authorial interjections, essentially cutting them out. As such, tmesis is related to other bookish terms:

Density. If the density of a text is the rate at which it surprises the reader, word for word and idea for idea, then tmesis assess the density and tweaks the reading process accordingly. (Slower when denser; quicker when looser.)

Depth. Poetry and philosophy are typically considered deeper than chick-lit and techno-thrillers, for example, though the explanation why easily degenerates to politically incorrect terms. One neutral definition would be: depth is the variability of tmesis. That is, a text in which most people consistently skim the same “boring” passages while consistently focusing on the same “interesting” ones would be considered less deep than a text with a Proustian, unpredictable perusal rate.

Reading speed. As a text progresses and a reader’s cutting pattern becomes clearer, tmesis determines the overall reading speed.

(Whilst a book might be classifiable according to density, depth, or speed, the book and its readers ought not be judged by that classification. That said, the classification may be telling of mood, circumstances, and other complex factors.)

Listening to Barthes talk about the Readers’ World is like listening to a naturalist and poet describe a garden you’ve walked through a thousand times yourself without ever noticing the features he is describing. Like that large phoenix with feathers made of words. Like those flowers that smell of exotic interpretations. Like that pond in which everyone sees reflected their fictive identity. It’s bewildering, listening to him, time and again, but it’s also exciting. 

Also, once you’ve seen it, you can’t ignore the phoenix. You can never-ever ignore the phoenix.

The Angel of the Birds by František Dvořák (1910)

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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