They say you learn something new every day.

I started reading High Fidelity again the other day.

Nick Hornby is one of my favourite writers, so I was looking forward to reading something that was just unarguably good. However, I wasn’t as bowled over as I expected to be. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it, but it’s not quite as good as I remember.

 It begins like this:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

1) Alison Ashworth

2) Penny Hardwick

3) Jackie Allen

4) Charlie Nicholson

5) Sarah Kendrew

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. 

It’s not a bad beginning, but it’s not as great as I thought it might be. Now I know this is in the character’s voice, but I keep getting the feeling that Hornby is sacrificing a little too much clarity or simplicity for voice or humour.

L mentioned something similar to me when she was reading a thing I wrote a few years ago. And I think there’s really something here: clarity comes before all else. If a joke isn’t quite good enough, or a piece of characterisation isn’t quite immediately understandable, then cut it. Clarity is the prime directive.

One of the things that really surprised me is that dialogue isn’t as sparky and wonderful as I remember it being:

(‘Want to come to the pub for lunch, Dick?’ Barry or I ask him a couple of times a week. He looks mournfully at his little stack of cassettes and sighs. ‘I’d love to, but I’ve got all these to get through.’)

‘Good morning, Richard.’

He fumbles nervously with the giant headphones, gets one side stuck around his ear, and the other side falls over one eye.

‘Oh, hi. Hi, Rob.’

‘Sorry I’m late.’

‘No, no problem.’

‘Good weekend?’

I unlock the shop as he scrabbles around for his stuff.

‘All right, yeah, OK. I found the first Liquorice Comfits album in Camden. The one on Testament of Youth. It was never released here. Japanese import only.’ 

I wonder if it’s just that I’ve got so used to the wonder that is How to Be Good. Maybe it’s just that he’s got better over time. Maybe it’s that I’ve got so used to the amazing dialogue in Your Voice in My Head. Whatever it is, this isn’t quite as good as I remember.

And also, some of the characterisation is a little clichéd:

He fumbles nervously with the giant headphones, gets one side stuck around his ear, and the other side falls over one eye.

This description of a socially awkward music geek seems a little obvious now. Maybe I’m just being picky.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love Nick Hornby and all he’s written. However, I think I need to remember the one key lesson from this: clarity comes before all else. And not just in writing. In design, in web design, in application development. Communication is about clarity, and that trumps anything else.

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