Should fiction writers avoid obscure words that a few readers might have to look up?

I don’t. One of my role models in that is Anthony Burgess, who started his wonderful novel Earthly Powers with this sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

I had to go and look up the word “catamite” before I could read any further. (I had to look up a whole lot of other words when I was reading Burgess, too, although sometimes I just figured the meaning out from the context. That method also works most of the time.) I’ve never forgotten what “catamite” means, nor have I ever forgotten that first sentence.

In my writing, if the right word is an obscure word, but it’s the perfect word – in it goes. I know that at least some readers are going to know the word, and the most discerning readers are going to “get” exactly why I used it, and be pleased.  I am incapable of putting in anything but the word that feels right to me. Why should I?

Some of my readers here write steampunk novels and science fiction, and there are often words in those books that are understood only by devotees of the genre: why should general fiction be any different?

Nowadays on Kindle you can look the word up right in the middle of a sentence, and I don’t think it hurts people to learn new ones. I know my life is richer since I read Burgess.

Every word and every comma in my novels and short stories is deliberately, carefully placed. For a reason. The reason has to do with meaning sometimes, and sometimes with rhythm. There is poetry in a sentence, and I need to find it. To me, that is the best part of writing.

How about you?

(P.S. All of that said, do not fear: there are only about five or six truly dense words in The Whole Clove Diet, and all of them are explained right in the sentence either by the narrator or by someone else. I know I am not Burgess. :) )
*Paraskevidekatriaphobia: Fear of Friday the Thirteenth  (the date, not the movie)

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