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Who says modern novels can't employ descriptive writing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Jul 10, 2012.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I like heavily descriptive writing. I also like lean and mean writing. Descriptive writing is harder to do well, in my view. I had a thread about losing "voice" in modern novels a while back, and about how the modern style often seems to be more generic. I made the point in that thread that I thought things were trending back the other way, and the descriptive writing may be staging at least a little bit of a comeback. A few others noted that the pendulum is always swinging.

    I was reading an article about the lack of a Pulitzer this year, and one of the members of the Pulitzer Fiction Jury lamenting this fact (he felt there were novels that deserved it). One that he and others agreed upon was The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. This member of the "Pulitzer jury" stated that the opening paragraph alone of Wallace's book was more powerful than other entire books they'd reviewed. The two other members of the "jury" who submitted finalists for Pulitzer consideration agreed.

    Here is the first sentence to The Pale King:

    I can promise you that if you posted such an opening in a writing forum (fantasy or otherwise) you'd get the automatic "purple prose" reactions that seem to plague so many such forums. Nevertheless, you have the three people who make the final recommendations to the Pulitzer committee agreeing that this one definitely goes on the list.

    Not that the award, lack of award, nomination, or lack of nomination is in and of itself the dispositive factor in determining the worth of a book. That rests within each individual reader. But I think the opening above shows that the modern audience is at least receptive to a more artistic (or perhaps expressionistic) prose.

    What say you?
     
  2. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I would say overall it's good, save for the excess of plant varieties at the end... it shows the writer knows his stuff but how does that affect the characters?
     
  3. Bear

    Bear Minstrel

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    I am all for beautiful prose and descriptive writing. Sometimes I get a bit purple but I feel the description enriches the experience of the reader. If I am reading something I want to be able to imagine the smells, the breeze, the lighting, the emotion, ect... In the review of my first book I was touted as having 'powerful' description. One of the sentences that the critic liked was

    "An enormous white bear lumbered down the path without abandon. Her shadow flickered in the anemic moonlight."

    Well that's two sentences but the critic liked the second part about the anemic moonlight. I am definitely a writer that likes writing descriptive prose.

    The bad part is I also get a bit purply as shown here -"The sound embraced an acute silhouette, which gathered speed, akin to a large boulder affirming gravity by the actuation of movement. With the force and violence of a hammer to the head of a nail, the throbbing struck home an uncanny, crippling force."

    It's all about balance.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2012
  4. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    It's certainly interesting to hear that. I read the sent... Okay I tried to read it. Seems like a list to me.

    You're right though, it would get shredded in a critique group. I'd do it myself admittedly.

    The only thing I can say to this is we may be making a distinction between what some view as art and others view as entertainment. When I read, I want to be entertained. Someone else may read to experience art.

    I'm not suggesting that art & entertainment are mutually exclusive but I'm quite certain entertainment sells better than art. Literature as entertainment is a business. It's a commercial business that defines success by volume and dollars generated. Bearing that in mind, I believe that most of our moderns styles tend to cater more towards the streamlined because it will appeal to a broader range of people.
     
  5. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I really love descriptive writing: when it's done well.

    I recently read some advice about writing that said something to the effect of, "If you are masterful at descriptive writing, then you can do it. If you're not, then don't do it." Only certain people have the ability to write this way and get away with it. Steve Erikson is another that would get the "purple prose stamp" I'm sure. But the way he writes his scenes are very evocative. He's not describing mundane things; he's describing gathered armies, crackling magic, and forgotten tombs.

    I think that excerpt you posted from The Pale King is quite excellent. The difference between this section and stuff you may see elsewhere, is that it's descriptive in a way that you don't feel like it's just there for window dressing. Which I think a lot of descriptive writing is. The images pop in my mind.

    Here's the thing though: there are too many varying opinions on what is good and what is bad writing. Some may read that opening paragraph and say "Ugh, where's the action?" or "Ugh, where are the characters?" or any number of criticisms. Good writing stands out. Even though I don't typically like (or write) descriptively, I appreciate it when it's done well.

    I'll make this analogy. When I hear a masterful Mozart piece, I can recognize that it's awesome and appreciate its art. Do I want to listen to Mozart everyday? No. However, I listen to lots of K-Pop (Korean pop.) It's definitely not more masterful than Mozart, but it's more enjoyable to listen to for me. The analogy being if I read The Pale King, I'd probably like it, but not want to read something much like it for quite a bit. Meanwhile, I could probably sit and re-read a bunch of old Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms books all day long with a big smile on my face.

    So I think there's definitely a place for descriptive writing still. Just whoever is writing it better be really, really good.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't think it necessarily has to. It establishes an atmosphere and setting, and the characters act within that context.
     
  7. Bear

    Bear Minstrel

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    That's kind of the mantra that I went for in my first work. I went for the atmosphere and setting and the characters just played the part in the area around them. I don't know but to me the heavy description breaths life into books that would other wise be bland. That's just my opinion. I've read some bad purple prose though and I guess it's like anything. Take the good with the bad.

    Some of that heavy description can play a part in character development. I spent a paragraph or so describing blue bird slippers that my main character wore to show her femininity. Then that could offer up another question. How much time do you want to spend on characterization? With that being said in that same story I spent two paragraphs describing water running down a window and cigarette smoke cutting through sun beams. Personally, I loved the writing but some readers did comment on they got a bit bored. Many people just want to jump to the action but then things can get generic.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2012
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I like the opening sentence above, personally. I think the distinction between art and entertainment is a good one, and as you say I do think there is overlap there. I found the Gormenghast books quite entertaining, and if there is a more densely descriptive fantasy work out there, I don't know about it. I also thought Nabokov's Lolita was excellent, and there the writing itself is part of the entertainment experience.

    I also like crime novelists like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, however, and they both employ a fairly fast, lean style (Crais moreso than Connelly). So in part it depends on what I am in the mood for, I suppose. I am entertained by both styles, assuming the author has done her job well.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes. I think this is the thing. It is hard to write this sort of thing well. If you're Mervyn Peake, or Angela Carter, then great. If you can't do it well, you're better off sticking to a lean style of writing, or at least something in between.
     
  10. Bear

    Bear Minstrel

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    Actually, that first passage did seem like a list. Kind of a bit of author intrusion maybe? Personally, I could of been happy with reading just one or two examples. I felt like I was in botany class for a moment:(
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think so. A bit. I don't mind that either. Peake (to use him as an example again) is full of authorial intrusion. But he does it very well.
     
  12. Bear

    Bear Minstrel

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    I got blamed for author intrusion in my first book. Looking back I think the main reason was I just wanted to make sure people knew what a particular object was that I used as a metaphor or something. Then again, I got blasted for using to many metaphors. So perhaps, my book needed more author intrusion. That brings up an interesting question in how smart do you think your readers are and how do you present material without insulting their intelligence. A wise man once said Don't paint seagulls in someone's picture...

    Kind of makes me think that the key to description is to just nudge readers with the right words so you don't ruin the vivid picture that the words create.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2012
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I read the sentence and didn't like it at all, but it crossed my mind a moment later that I might think differently if I saw it in a book.

    Do we read things differently just because we're seeing them online? Is that maybe part of why forums tend to get testy about it?
     
  14. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I know that, I suppose in the right context it could add depth or the sensation of a place "teeming" with life, but I probably wouldn't have included all that extraneous stuff, especially considering the reader likely doesn't know what most of those plant look/smell like etc.
     
  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    When I read your intro to the piece, I thought (I'm not making this up; I really did): though I'm a fan of modern writing. I like a good descriptive passage every once and again. I'll probably like it.

    You can probably guess that I absolutely hated it. Take the first line and a half and made a sentence out of it, maybe it'd be okay.
     
  16. Bear

    Bear Minstrel

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    Now, what if he went on to describe the smells and such. That would of been crazy immersion.

    Speaking of description, I don't know if any of you have ever read Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey. His writing was so beautiful. He is an incredible influence in my writing.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2012
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, I didn't think you'd care for it. I liked it, personally. Not how I would write it, and I like someone like Peake or Carter better.

    The interesting thing to me, I suppose, is that given the wide variety of tastes and opinions on such things we still see so much absolutism in writing forums, or even in books on writing. You "have" to do X, or you "can't" do Y. I think if there's one thing a review of the literature tells you, it's that you can do anything you damn well please if you're good enough :)
     
  18. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I agree with the absolutism theory as we see it everyday. I don't try to do it how people say it should be done... I do it how I think it should be done. If someone says something or I read something that changes how I do it, it's my choice to alter my style.
     
  19. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I don't mind descriptive writing, but in this case I'd have cut most of the list of plants out of the sentence.
     
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think I'd leave it. Whether I know all of the plants or not (I don't), the recitation of them really sets the image and tone of that sentence. Take it out, and you have something completely different. I suspect Wallace spent a lot of time on it.

    Also, I don't know if this is an omniscience view or seen through the eyes of a character, but if it is the latter, that listing of plants tells you an awful lot about the character as well.
     
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