Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Trying Too Hard or Not Trying Hard Enough

In a comment to Domey's post yesterday, McKenzie McCann talked about how much she dislikes it when seemingly every story element is symbolic. A coffee pot, as McKenzie said, is never just a coffee pot. I answered something like, "I'd rather an author tried too hard than didn't try hard enough." That was yesterday.

Today I am not so sure. Since writing my reply to McKenzie, I have read the first chapter of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife and the first couple of chapters of Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings. I'm going to read the Bernieres book and I might read the McLain book, but both of these novels begin with a lot lot lot of the author displaying their research. The Paris Wife is a fictional first-person account of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage as told by the wife, Hadley Richardson. The first chapter is essentially an essay about Hemingway. His eyes, his hair, his dancing, his every nickname, etc etc etc and I just wanted to shake Ms McLain by the collar and tell her "I get it; this is about Ernest Hemingway." The trouble is, the scene was allegedly about Hadley Richardson dancing for the first time with Hemingway at a party, and there was almost no Hadley Richardson in there. It was all McLain's researched details about Hemingway. Ms McLain is trying too hard.

Birds Without Wings is a tragic love story set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, as it is becoming Turkey. Nationalism, racism, the Gallipoli campaign during WW I and love all intertwine in the novel, all with tragic consequences. Sounds nifty. Except, the first few thousand words are all set dressing. It's nice to know that an imam is one who leads prayers and that a hodji is someone who's been on the haj and that people in Turkey spoke Turkish but wrote using Greek script and that Christian and Muslim traditions were mashed up in rural areas, but after a while I just wanted to meet some characters and see some action. I'm in a history lesson right now. Mr de Bernieres is trying too hard.

This reminds me of when Mighty Reader read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Every time Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya ("Kitty") comes into the story, Tolstoy must describe the beauty of Kitty's clothing and person. Mighty Reader was more than once heard to exclaim, "Okay, Leo, we get it. Kitty's pretty and dresses well. Is that all you've got to say about her?" I said to Mighty Reader, "Well, the book is like 6,000 pages long. Don't you need to be reminded about the characters?" Mighty Reader looked at me like I'd grown soft in the head.

This is something I wonder about in my own books, which so far have tended to be set in the historical past. How much do I tell my reader about the setting? Where do you draw the line between giving enough explanation so that the story makes sense and the story just being a textbook? I'm not one of those people who read historical fiction in order to learn about the past. I just like a good story told well. I also don't think that writers owe any fidelity to the past and I've read enough interviews with writers of historical fiction to be aware that they'll serve the story at the expense of the facts and I'm fine with that. So I don't need to hear how the horsemen of Mongolia were more fierce than were the horsemen of Kurdistan or whatever, especially when that's just filler in the middle of a paragraph. At some point, the story gets lost for me and I'm just wading through the writer's notes.

This is not an argument against detail, though. Proust goes into minutia for half a million words but that's just the way his mind works in the pursuit of his themes. He's not trying to show you how well he's observed his hotel suite or the shoes worn at the artistocratic parties he attends. His work is about the details and it's pretty fine stuff.

Anyway, I realize that this is all very much down to personal taste and individual reading history, but I don't think that's any reason not to discuss it. How much do you want/need to be told about setting/history (real or made up by the author) before you're willing to lose yourself in a story? What are your minimum requirements? How close to the beginning of the story do you want this stuff to appear? (Last night I was talking about backstory with Mighty Reader, re my current novel. She asked if I was going to give my MC's Big Personal Question in the first chapter or so. "What?" I said. "And leave nothing for Act Two?")


  1. Personal taste: yes it does just come down to that. Kinda like I believe in something and I have my reasons but in the end, I believe only because I believe.

    I am not much into the minutia of setting and history. Some details, especially ones that strike the right note, are wonderful, but too much and I start skimming, unless, of course, the language is gorgeous, then I'll go along.

    How do you like them qualifiers?

  2. I missed Domey's post from yesterday, so I went back and read that and the comments. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I think "trying too hard" self-consciously literary fiction is the product of the whole MFA mindset. I recently read an article by a professor who teaches in an MFA program. She called the whole concept "predatory" because it teaches students to write stuff most people don't read.

    Most classics were not written to be "literary." They were written to entertain. Certainly Homer didn't make up those stories about the Trojan War to impress his professors. He composed in poetry because poetry is easier to remember than prose (and it may very well have been sung.) He was more akin to country ballad writers than Virginia Woolf.

    Of course self-conscious writerlyness has always been around. Tristram Shandy was certainly written to impress people with Sterne's cleverness, not to tell a story.

    But Sterne is a footnote. Tom Jones, by his contemporary, Henry Fielding, is the real classic. Tom Jones used no self-conscious coffee pots.

  3. The poor coffee pot.

    Anne, "predatory" is an interesting term. My first thought is that it's accurate. But, I'll think about it more.

    Scott, I've always loved the minimalist Japanese writers like Kawabata and Yoshimoto (in translation) and for me fewer details that are very evocative is like a cool magic trick that I just can't get enough of. Only recently have I been able to tolerate and actually like more detail in other people's writing. I think in my own, I tend not to use as many details, but I can also feel that increasing. Maybe I should trim back down again.

    For me, the key is to make the details dynamic. I once read a description of a hoarder's bedroom, and it included, not simply a mattress on its side, but a mattress that was on its side but was now falling. That movement got me so much more interested in it. Whenever I insert details now that aren't directly telling us more about the characters, I try to make sure they move or do some other fancy thing.

  4. One criticisms I always get from my critique group is "not enough detail", "more details, please". So does that make me a minimalist or just plain too lazy to flesh out my prose?

  5. I find it off-putting when an author decides to overly describe something in the middle of action scenes. World building is okay in little chunks when they are necessary to plot line, but otherwise I don't like being told irrelevant factoids (no matter how long it took the author to think them up).

  6. I prefer to be told the setting etc as I go along rather than one big information dump at the start.

    If there's too much information and not enough story I put the book to one side and use to help me get to sleep later. :)

  7. I think in the past readers would "tolerate" a lot of such description. I don't think this is true today. In historical fiction, I like enough to see the scene and the characters. What's enough? Well, that's what we're discussing here. For me, less is more. So I guess I'm said I don't want to be overwhelmed especially with description that details dress, eyes, shoes, etc etc. These are details I won't remember. But I will remember the story, and the human relationships.

  8. And, because I just can't hold my tongue, in the case of Anna Karenina, I think the reason Tolstoy included so many details about Kitty is because he was describing Kitty through her own point of view. She cared about all of those details herself.

  9. Hi everyone,
    Just a heads up from Scott. He's not able to comment today because of a glitch in blogger, apparently. Some people were having a similar problem yesterday.

  10. I read a lot of nonfiction, especially history, and the best writers there make it all come alive through character and story. So, too, do my favorite fiction writers make their historical research come alive through character and story. When they start showing off their resesarch too much, my mind goes into Skim Mode.

    I'm currently reading a novel set in the early 1950s (in Britain). The author never says a single word about the history of that period nor does he ever hit me with a chunk of his resesarch. Yet I know it is the 1950s because of the various modes of transport and communication the characters routinely use, the clothes they wear, the slower pace of everyday life, etc., which are not specifically remarked upon but are simply there, woven seamlessly into the character's lives.

    Also, I don't give a hoot how beautiful a piece of writing is if it doesn't leave me wondering the one key thing that keeps me reading: "What happens next?"

    -Alexandra MacKenzie

  11. I get bored with too much detail, like when a character walks into a room and then there are three pages that read like a catalog describing every piece of furniture and artwork, including when they were purchased and by whom (of course the purchasers not being central characters to the story).

    I try to provide enough detail to a) provide a suitable framework for the reader's imagination to fill in the minor brushstrokes as they visualize the story, and b) give legitimacy to the plot (or verisimilitude, to gratuitously use a really big word).

    One of my novels is an origins-of-Santa tale that begins with a team of scientists discovering a book embedded in an ice core taken from the North Pole. I did a lot of research on ice cores, and in early drafts, put in waaaay too much detail about them. In revising the book I stripped it back to make it readable, leaving in a bare minimum to lend credibility and a sense of realism to a fantastic story.

    Later in that story I describe the exterior of a house, and include the detail of a trellis laced with ivy running up the backside. This detail is included because later one character gets stuck on the trellis trying to climb onto the roof.

  12. This is from Scott:

    Before I started writing novels, I wouldn't have minded any of the things I'm complaining about today. Each book would have been approached by me as a reader on the book's own terms. Now I approach books on my terms as a writer. Which is, I begin to think, a sort of crippled way of reading. I am constantly rejecting and ruling out and thinking that I Know Better. When, in fact, I don't. None of us know better. We just think we know what we'd do had we been writing that book. And the real truth is, we don't actually know what we'd do had we been writing that book. We can claim we do, but increasingly I doubt all of our claims. I make up my writing style as I go along writing. How much detail do I use? As much as suits me during the moment I'm writing or revising. And since I don't feel comfortable writing detailed and loving descriptions, I don't write them so I might tend to reject them in the writings of other people. In her great and highly-recommended novel "Possession," AS Byatt starts a chapter with a long and full description of an older English woman's bathroom. If you asked me today what the bathroom was like, I'd hesitate a moment and say, "...pink?" I also don't really have a good head for historical details and so when a writer fills a book with details, it often fails to form a full picture in my head, so I tell myself that such details aren't important and I tend to leave them out because it doesn't occur to me to include them. What I like is character and action and theme, and startling or weird details. Because none of the other stuff really sticks in my mind so it's not important to me and It Must Therefore Be Unimportant To Everyone Else.


  13. if you think its too much info or backstory then chances are that your reader will to. if i can't write 1 chapter for the story, then i'm not gonna try to write it, cause then the characters seem forced and i'm not enjoying the process of writing the story. sometimes less is more, but people need some info about what everything looks like.
    i tend to avoid stories, whose first 2 pages or 1st chapter is nothing but info. i didn't once i fell asleep while reading the book.

  14. Some explanation of the surrounds lends incredible depth to the imaginative experience of reading. I read a lot of Fantasy, and thus far, my favourite author in that genre has to be Steven Erikson for the simple reason that a few detailed descriptions here and there make his world real to me. It gives it a sense of time and scale.

    However, too much description drives me batty. I, too, love a ripping good tale and getting bogged down in too many details can be frustrating.

    I think that is a personal taste thing, though.

  15. My first novel starts, in prologue, with a supporting character finding a body in a patch of kudzu. In the first draft, I did a lot of scene setting. Now, as I'm revising, I'm questioning how much of that detail needs to remain. This post and the comments have been helpful; I've distilled from them a couple of things:

    1. It's important to give enough detail to make the reader see the scene.
    2. It's important not to give so much detail that the reader gets annoyed and either gives up or skims past something that matters.

    Thanks, everyone!

  16. TraciB, I think it would be pretty powerful just to say, "I found the body in a patch of kudzu"!

  17. What about the coffee pot in the kudzu?

  18. Yat-Yee, the coffee pot is a definite clue. Make sure you use gloves before you pick it up.

  19. "I found the body in a coffee pot. It looked like Mr Kudzu's coffee pot. I thought that might be significant so I tried to write it down but my pen was out of ink."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.