In his piece “Against Subtlety,”, Slate writer Forrest Wickman argues that critical emphasis on subtlety is wrong and art should, in fact, be more heavy-handed and direct. To put my reaction into terms Wickman would appreciate, he’s more wrong than dirt is old.
Wickman argues that our perception of “subtlety” as a positive quality is a recent one. “The reign of Queen Alexandrina Victoria was the last time we didn’t think it so crucial — or even good — to be subtle.” he says. “Before the 19th and 20th centuries, subtle was more akin to obscure, a word that … has a negative connotation.”
He’s right that the definition of the word has changed. But if we look at what we consider “great art” from that era — Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brontes, Bram Stoker — all as nuanced as a butterfly’s wing. If Doyle’s version of Sherlock Holmes was an ass-kicking action hero a la Guy Ritchie’s imagining, he would’ve been forgotten before Doyle’s third book. We remember Holmes because he slyly values critical thinking and cold reason over fisticuffs. And if Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t layer its chills and character portrayals in a subtle manner, it wouldn’t be legions better than any of its heavy-handed film adaptations.
But moving on to more modern works, Wickham also uses The Great Gatsby as an example of an excellent, unsubtle work. He writes:
“The whole book is about the appeal of a man who favors loud colors and bold gestures, bright, monogrammed shirts and great fireworks displays of exuberance and wealth. Jay Gatsby comes out and says what he means, even when it means spelling out the themes of the book. (‘Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!’) When we demand subtlety, privileging masks and minimalism over on-the-sleeve feeling and on-the-nose meaning, we turn ourselves into a bunch of Tom Buchanans.”
First of all, if Wickham thinks you’re being a “Tom Buchanan” if you value subtlety, I’m not sure what book he read. Check out our introduction to this subtle man:
a sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward … you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body.
But secondly, Wickman is missing a vital point of the novel. The Great Gatsby is not about the appeal of a man who favors bright colors and bold gestures. It’s a Russian nesting doll of a narrative about one man’s impression of another man who has made it his life’s work to craft a flashy impression. But to be fair to Wickman, The Great Gatsby is the sort of novel where you can ask 10 people “what’s it about?” and get 11 different answers. You know what makes that possible? Its subtleties!
Further, the example he cites is one of the only passages in which a character outright says what they mean. Most exchanges are more along these lines:
“‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘you look so cool.’ Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table. ‘You always look so cool,’ she repeated. She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.”
If characters were unsubtly spelling out what they mean, Daisy would have said “I love you,” outright; Nick wouldn’t need to be inferring it from the negative space. It’s one of the reasons film adaptations of The Great Gatsby are rarely successful, because there are too many subtleties for the medium. If an audience was just watching an exchange where one character said inane things about being “cool” to another character, we’d be scratching our heads about what the hell they mean.
But lest you take that to mean that subtlety doesn’t work in film and TV, it does — it just takes a different balance than the page. Look at Game of Thrones as an example. Season 5’s big battle episode, “Hardhome” features a showdown between our erstwhile only-mostly-dead hero Jon Snow and an army of ice zombies. Nothing about “ice zombie battle” screams “subtle” and yet, what makes the episode so compelling — elevating it above your typical “bam! pow!” meaningless shoot-‘em-up battle sequence — is its understated precision. Like the way the dread subtly builds for a full minute as we see the wind change; as we see Jon’s expression quietly convey that he’s got a bad feeling that something is amiss.
Without the subtlety, this scene would have been just another battle sequence, but with it, its given meaning and pathos and the “emotional directness” that Wickman trumpets in more heavy-handed work. “People’s emotions,” he writes, “are not always subtle. They are not hidden under a blanket inside their souls.” He’s clearly never seen one of the best — and most subtle — performances in the past generation: Heath Ledger’s devastating, restrained turn in Brokeback Mountain. A performance that Daniel Day-Lewis called “perfect,” and that guy’s perfectly at ease with ditching all pretense of subtlety when he likes.
Wickman, ironically, is missing all the subtleties in the concept of subtleties. Great art doesn’t need to employ Hemingway’s evasive techniques to be classified as subtle. With a bit of restraint, even ice-zombie battles can have emotional resonance.