Verbiage by Sandra Horn

          I feel a rant coming on. Fans of Margaret Drabble, A S Byatt and the like, should stop reading now. I have just plodded my way grumpily through The Gates of Ivory, muttering/shrieking 'less is more!' 'do we need to know that?' 'what was all the stuff about toxic shock syndrome, when it didn't actually happen? Was it perhaps a public health warning: Do not use old tampax and then leave them in too long? Fair enough, but what was it doing in this story?'
          Why this need to add things that don't advance the plot or shed light on the characters? Is it 'Oh well, I've done all this research and I must put it in somewhere'? I suspect it might be. I'm all for getting the facts right, but NOT for including them in great indigestible lumps, for facts' sake! It feels patronising, somehow.
          In Angels and Insects (ASB), the family is an obvious beehive metaphor. OK, got that - but then there is a superfluous academic discourse about bees, just in case one hadn't got it, I suppose. Grrr!!
          Somewhere between a short, bald list of facts and an overblown expatiation, there's the right and pleasing amount of them. It's hard to define 'right amount' but it's to do with what they add to the pictures in one's head - colour, spice, music...I might have been feeling grumpier than usual at The Gates of Ivory because it was such a contrast to the book I'd read just before, Frances Thomas's A Daughter of Helen.
          Here is Hermione describing her father's splendid hall:

Imagine what seems like a forest of columns, deep red, so that going through them makes you feel as though you're entering a magic wood. Inside, the light is glowing and shivering, and then you make out the coffered ceiling of cedarwood... 
          I was there! I could hear the young girl's voice tinged with pride and a little awe. I didn't need to be told where the cedarwood came from or how it was transported or how the columns had been dyed red, and I wasn't; it was an elegant sufficiency.
It made me think of the theatre and films; there is power in the words and the scenery and the pace and rhythm and how they all fit, but the whole illusion can be destroyed if the balance is wrong. Take the films of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - terrific stories but no matter how clever cgi is/are, there are only so many times a bridge can break and people plummet downwards, or thousands of Orcs come surging over the screen, before it all becomes utterly tedious. Less is often more, and enough is quite enough, thank you.
I'm going now. I'm going to have a drink before supper. We're having fish with mediterranean vegetables and couscous. The drink will be fruit juice as I'm resting my liver after 10 days of excesses on holiday. We went to York, Halifax and Stainton in the Lake District. You didn't need to know any of that, though, did you?
Rant over.


Nick Green said…
I'm with you on this, I think. Over-writing is a bugbear of mine... the ultimate Zen novel would I think contain no words at all.

But seriously, it was about the only thing that annoyed me about Donna Tartt's book The Goldfinch. She describes E V E R Y T H I N G. For instance, the exact dishes of a Chinese takeaway that is not even of passing significance. It's like a nervous tick.

Still a great book, though. :-)
Bill Kirton said…
Yep, I'm with you too, Sandra. I think it's different when the details are there to underline (or undermine) a particular mood or to make a narrative point but when they actually intrude into the narrative and distract you from it, that's counter-productive.
Lee said…
Better not even attempt Proust or Knausgaard, then.

Overwriting is a matter of definition - and taste, I suppose. I'd rather have all manner of moreness if it's well done. If all I want is a decent story, I'll read the synopsis -- or watch TV.

That said, it is awfully difficult to get it just right. I've been reading some Frances Hardinge lately, for example, and groaning. Her metaphors are excellent - but does she really need to load up just about every paragraph with several of them? They lose their effect.
Lee said…
BTW, I find the Thomas passage you cite to be far from ideal. First of all, if you've got to use trees/magic wood, then do something unusual with it. And 'going through them makes you feel' is just plain awkward wording. Light glowing and shivering? Gah!

'coffered ceiling of cedarwood' is at least less commonplace, but I'm not happy about the rhythm nor the three c's - we see as we read -(nor the two s sounds of ceiling/cedarwood), something which needs to handled with care - quite deliberately or not at all.
Sandra Horn said…
Read the rest of it, Lee - it's a great story, told with skill and charm
Lydia Bennet said…
it's about padding, Sandra, padding to make the book longer with little effort, something rookie writers are told not to do, but famous ones get away with as they are beyond being edited with any firmness. Dragon Tattoo books are another classic example. However, it doesn't seem to put off readers in any numbers, if the book is hyped enough.
CallyPhillips said…
Although I've not read the writers you speak of, I'm a bit with Lee on this one. I was fascinated (no lie) about the final paragraph... yes I DO want to know these things, what you ate, why you aren't drinking, where you holidayed.
And the older I get the less I think I know what 'overwritten' actually means. I think a lot of it is a matter of taste. Some of us like some thing, some others. Today, I'm not sure that I just want to read something which only 'advances the plot' or 'reveals character'... but tomorrow that might mean something to me, who can say. Today it seems like someone suggesting that we should be eating fast food when what I want is slow cooking. this is not a well thought out response as I've been up since 3.30am and am beginning to flag, but I wanted to thank you for giving me something to think about (like I didn't have enough) -and to offer a tentative suggestion that perhaps a lot of what we rant about in literature/fiction and 'quality' is in fact no more than matters of taste (and if I wanted to get political I would add that it could be the 'privileging' of one style over another - but I'm too tired for political debate I'll just say thanks for provoking my thoughts and leave it at that). So if I'm baling out of the 'discussion' at this point it's just 'real' life getting in the way - but did you need to know that? I'm sure you can all draw your own conclusions if I go silent from here on - but who will know 'the truth.? LOL or smiley face or whatever it is one does to show one is being lighthearted!!!!
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm afraid info dumps in stories or novels leave me cold. By all means include the research, but only if it doesn't intrude and get in the way of the story. I'm a story lover rather than beautiful writing for writing's sake and no story.
Kathleen Jones said…
With you there Chris! I love detail, but it has to be relevant and add something.
Dennis Hamley said…
Val is absolutely right about established writers habitually doing what rookie writers are warned against. Rowling is, I fear, a prime example. I've not read much AS Byatt since Possession, which I still regard as the most worthy Booker winner until The Luminaries - which seems to have a whole lot of 'dumping' until you get to the end and then go back to see how artfully you have been lead - something which applies to both of them. Yes,let's have detail, lots of it but sparely told, as long as it's essential to the story and not just a space-filling indulgence. I agree completely with Sandra's main point. But you don't have to strip story to the bone to make it count. I was interested in Lee's critique of Sandra's Daughter of Helen extract. I think that in its context, 'coffined ceiling of cedarwood' is properly alliterative and is a sudden grasp of solidity which makes the evanescent vagueness of 'going through' the columns exactly the right representation of motion: the ideal approach to the sudden alliterative linguistic certainty. I've not been able to get 'coffined ceiling of cedarwood' out of my mind since reading he blog - and that's a GOOD thing.
I have to disagree with you somewhat on this one - if only because one woman's 'elegant sufficiency' may well be not nearly enough for somebody else. Our appetites for such things are all different, and a good thing too. I had found myself wondering what was bugging me about so much contemporary fiction, what it was I found unsatisfying and then I discovered China Mieville, whose work I love so much that I'm afraid I do keep banging on about it. I asked myself why I was enjoying it all so much, and why it seemed so much more satisfying than so many other novels. And a few books in, I realised it was because no editor had persuaded him that less was more, or told him that everything had to illuminate character or advance plot, or made him prune his descriptions or compromise the richness of the worlds he creates, the blissful, crazy, enchanting - and occasionally ragged - products of his imagination. It taught me something, because I tend to overwrite to begin with - many more words than I will need - and then prune and edit and prune and edit half to death. But I started to wonder if I was over-editing. Now I've realised I rather like a bit of verbiage. I love Victorian novels. I love Dickens when he is at his most verbose. I love Tolkien - and I thought the movies were equally wonderful, to a large extent because of the density and consummate artistry of those special effects. I never found them tedious at all. But I'd agree with you about some books. I couldn't read the Dragon Tattoo books mostly because of the long descriptions of stuff I didn't care tuppence about and I can think of a few other examples where the writing seems to be padded out just to overcome deficiencies in the story and character. But I'm currently reading Trollope's Barchester Chronicles. Clearly nobody told him that he needed to prune anything but I'm finding this a virtue rather than a vice!
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Catherine, you're right about Dickens and Trollope. And it's the same with Thackeray, especially in Vanity Fair. Marvellous digressions and lofty comments on life, the characters and the action. Perhaps we slip easily into the assumptions of the time the authors are making real for us and we instinctively accept their conventions.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Catherine, you're right about Dickens and Trollope. And it's the same with Thackeray, especially in Vanity Fair. Marvellous digressions and lofty comments on life, the characters and the action. Perhaps we slip easily into the assumptions of the time the authors are making real for us and we instinctively accept their conventions.
Sandra Horn said…
Wow, this is good! Perhaps I should rant more often! It* reminds me of my one-time book group, characterised by hugely enjoyable and sometimes quite shouty discourses (* some of it, anyway). One of the group hated Dickens, It wasn't me. I take the point about taste, although I also think it is about how one's 'receive' buttons are operating at the time. I thought 'Possession' was very very clever, so could forgive/skim over/ignore the verbiage - and I love The Children's Book with its huge cast of extraordinary characters. It reminds me of Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles, although she does avoid information overload...And I didn't notice the bits we didn't need to know in the Dragon trilogy, so caught up was I in the stories. Does it depend on the strength of the story? Can a compelling narrative carry digressions? Food for thought.
CallyPhillips said…
It was an interesting 'rant' Pauline -very relevant to me because of my current research/writing on fashion in ficiton (and I don't mean clothing type fashion I know nowt of that)
My motto for the day is: fiction is fashion so lets not be fashion (or fiction) fascists (apologies for the alliteration over-writing but as you know comedy is all in the...)
CallyPhillips said…
Sorry Sandra I realise you are not Pauline. And that there is not just ONE person out there in cyberspace, we are all little individuals with our unique takes on the world. I'm off to write SANDRA, SANDRA, SANDRA in punishment 100 times!
Sandra Horn said…
I knew you meant me - got it from the CONTEXT(Ha!).
And actually, an appropriate amount of alliteration always adds an air of archness, ain't it?

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