In Denotation and Connotation: enjoy!, I was exploring the connotations of a word in Eleanor Catton's story "Two Tides", where what it denoted was straightforward. But clearly, if you get stuck on the basic meaning of a word, you're less likely to also pick up the connotations of it. That whole first sentence goes like this:
The harbour at Mana was a converted mudflat, tightly elbowed and unlovely at any tide but high.
But some readers stuck on what, in physical terms, was denoted by the word "elbowed", used as an adjective: they couldn't picture the scene. Whereas for me, although I couldn't either, it was the first word, being a slightly odd word, that rang the little silver bell half-way down my spine which says, "She can write". "Elbowed" isn't normally an adjective, and it's confused or possibly enriched by the connotation of "being elbowed" in the ribs by someone. So as I read on, I realised, my brain set that phrase on the clipboard, as it were, waiting to see if it would be explained or enlarged on. And it was. The first paragraph continues with close up description, for example, "Low water showed the scabbed height of the yellow mooring posts...". The second paragraph opens thus:
The marina was tucked into the crook of the elbow, facing back towards the shore.
So "elbowed" is resolved, it's off my mental clipboard, I can see the scene and we're off. But some readers' engines had already stalled. Readers vary hugely, its seems to me, first in whether they can deal with a word which is being used in a way which isn't usual. And second whether, if that unusualness means what it denotes is not immediately clear, whether they're happy to keep reading, trusting that they will find out. Some of that trust may be bred of knowing the author, as I was exploring in Why Should I Bother?, or the publication: Granta says this story is good, so I'll keep reading for a while in the expectation that clipboarded stuff will all find homes in my understanding. (As a teacher, I often find excellent scraps of writing in very weak work: it's consistency as much as raw talent for words that marks a "real" writer, and one reason why it's as powerful to point out good writing in students' work as bad.)
But I also wonder if it's the mark of a more "literary" reader to be willing to hold onto something that's not yet clear. It's certainly a mark of a more literary text, too: "elbowed... the crook of the elbow" is an economical as well as a subtle way of denoting of the landscape, but in order to compress more denotation and connotation into a smaller space, and to work with prosody, ("converted mudflat, tightly elbowed") Catton is, if you like, sacrificing some of her less experienced and/or more literal-minded readers, in a mild way.
That's a decision each writer has to make: who are you writing for? It's probably centred on how you yourself read the dance of denotation, connotation and prosody in a text, so it's worth thinking about that: how experienced are you as a reader? How many connotations are normally triggered per word? How open are your ears to the music of prose? How big is your clipboard, how willing are you to not-understand, to stay with the not-knowing in which all texts are born? As writers we should be humble enough not to assume that people will read as we do, but arrogant enough to have faith that what we want to say is worth saying. That needn't mean dumbing-down, necessarily: it may even mean a speaking-up, if you haven't yet got the confidence to allow your voice and mind onto the paper in full flower. There is help available: one crucial function of your trusted readers is as a mirror, to tell you if your dance is a dance or just a muddle. Then you break the dance down into steps and gestures, where your weight is and how the music goes, and try again. And again. And again. As one great musician said, the more you practice, the luckier you get. "Hang on in there," we say to someone starting Ulysses for the first time. But it applies to writers too.