September 5, 2017

Non-Violet Prose

        I’ve just been reading some advice on editing one’s own work, and as editing my own work is something I do a lot of, I’m always happy to see tips from anyone who has some wisdom to share on the topic.  This particular article, however, hit one of my buttons so hard that I simply can’t help myself from gnashing my teeth and making this post a rant.
        Editing tip number one is “trim the fat,” which is certainly good advice, because it’s pretty much a truism: you should trim that which should be trimmed.  The question, obviously, is not whether one should trim fat, but how to know the fat from the meat.  In answer, the article’s author uses an example attributed to George Saunders.  Imagine I’ve written the line “Jack came into the room in a huff and sat heavily upon the old green recliner.” What are we trying to say with this line? The only information relevant to the plot is that Jack is now in the room, and possibly that he is sitting (unless of course the recliner is somehow important). So we can’t trim the entire sentence, because Jack’s arrival might be important. But do we care how he came into the room? Or how he sat on the chair? Or the details surrounding the chair?  How much better is this sentence: “Jack entered the room.”
        That’s a question: How much better is this sentence?  And the answer the author provides is: Clean and simple. Saunders refers to his hypothetical as “Hemingwayesque” in its brevity and simplicity.  But my answer is emphatically the opposite.  “Jack entered the room” is a stupid, useless sentence.  If that’s all the author’s going to give me, the entire novel may as well read “Jack entered the room.  Jack shot Jill.  Jack felt bad.  Jack developed an alcohol dependency.  The End”  Clean and simple!  Such brevity!  Such complete lack of interest or engagement.  Of course I care if Jack was in a huff!  Of course I want to know about the old green recliner.  That old green recliner tells us an enormous amount about where Jack is and what world he lives in, and if we happen to know that the recliner is Jack’s own chair, it begins to tell us quite a bit about Jack himself, too.
        It’s true that in our hypothetical single sentence example, we don’t know what else the author has already told us.  If I can learn about Jack’s mood through his actions or what he says, then perhaps the huff is trimmable fat.  If I’ve already heard the description of the room and its furniture so that I can picture Jack there in my imagination, then perhaps the old green recliner is trimmable fat.  But in the absence of the rest of the hypothetical story, this advice, like so much other writing advice, assures us that all description is fat, that readers don’t want to picture a world or know a character, and that of all the elements of story (character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme) plot is the only one that isn’t fat.
        Again and again we’re told that to write descriptively is heinous sin.  (For more on this you can revisit my previous rant In Defense of Purple Prose.)  I presume that description is supposed to be bad because readers are supposed not to like it, but that is certainly not true in my experience as a reader of books I love, nor as someone who has spoken with many people, especially children, about the books they love.  It is, indeed, so far from being true that it makes me wonder whether this writing advice is even intended to make books for actual readers.  I begin to suspect that the idea is simply for all the Hemingwayesque writers to be able to sit around congratulating themselves on their Hemingwayesquity, while sneering down upon all the poor, stupid readers who simply wanted to be able to immerse themselves in a story with well-rounded characters in a deep, vivid world.
[Picture: Self Portrait in a Chair, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1920 (Image from MCEscher.com);
Man in a Chair, woodcut by Ted Faiers, 1976 (Image from TedFaiers.com).]

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