Jan. 18th, 2013

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I am not sure why some fiction is so popular when it is neither descriptive nor nuanced. Still, the Umberto Ecos and Dan Browns of the world are quite successful writing very little more than references to cultural touchstones and keeping their characters relatable. Even more astounding are authors like Cormac McCarthy, who toss out even these tools of orienting the reader in order to perfect a narrative voice. I read the above authors to answer this question, and concluded that sales must have nothing to do with how well these authors enrich their prose. But, as I cannot say what the appeal their books have, I must fall back to what I enjoy, and make the appropriate recommendation.

Lately I’ve read or listened to a number of books that did not entice my imagination. The plots were solid, characters believable, and style specific to a point of view, but the words were not interesting as they were arranged. Whether the author was a classic master like Jack London or something more current and obscure, like E L James (Fifty Shades of Grey), my boredom had a common cause. The prose was devoid of compelling description, so my imagination was left to wander, so it wandered quickly away from the narrative I was reading.

For a specific example, see Jack London’s People of the Abyss. London often drops a list of statistics or clippings from the Times Police Blotter to illustrate the conditions of the poor he documents. He seems to fall back on these later in the book because initially, he puts himself in their shoes (literally, crappy shoes out of the charity bin) and lives as they live. His initial experience of waiting in line for food, walking all night so as to stay out of jail when he had nowhere to sleep, and sharing tips with other vagabonds on how to scavenge food from the garbage is very detailed. It had all the grossness to accompany it, so held my interest, and conveys the details of the experience. The later chapters about suicide statistics and descriptions in the paper about those who died of lead poisoning pale in comparison to London’s direct description of a man recovering from Smallpox popping one of his lesions to impress a friend in line at the labor house. That is why the first part of the book is much better than the second, even though they are about the same subject.

I cannot apply this rule of description universally, however, because there are authors who make a study of the minimal style. The best of these, however, put together seemingly simple phrases that are filled with more potent diction so as to entice the imagination of the reader. These nuances make a story by Orwell, Steinbeck, or Faulkner much more interesting than one by Hemingway or Conrad, even though they all seem to use language in terse, quick phrases. Each of these modern authors was improving on the opulent (and overly descriptive) prose well established in the 19th century by the likes of Dickens, Hawthorne, and Melville. They were out to prove that you didn’t have to go on forever to make rich literature, and I’d say they succeeded with the better ones.

To demonstrate, I’ll put to you the writings of three authors – one of the better in the high description of the 19th century, another describing things tersely but with no nuance, and a third with nuance used to great effect. Ideally, this demonstrates my point, but you may judge for yourselves.

First, the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I think is descriptive in a good way, but also goes on too long:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes. The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the Vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-hush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

Next, a cut-down description that doesn’t, in my opinion, provide a distinct picture, courtesy of Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad:

HE WAS an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler's water-clerk he was very popular.

 And lastly, what I consider the best of both, a nuanced paragraph from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In conclusion, I guess popular literature needn’t bother with these distinctions. But, they are distinctions, and I can’t seem to latch onto those that are too lack-luster in this department. In fact, I would prefer more to less, and it is nice that a lot of classics have much more than is necessary. Mind you, none of this applies to writing for stage and screen, where description and nuance are replaced by other words: direction and acting.

-F. F. White

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F.F. White

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