It’s about stuff

“Novels need stuff in them — fabrics, dry goods — if they are to maintain a proper distance from tracts, treatises and moral essays. Let there be tweed, cashmere and corduroy, the narrative voice urges, lest we lose ourselves in an immaterial play of essences.”

Malcolm Bowie
from the Introduction to
The Book and the Brotherhood
by Iris Murdoch


I’ve often lamented here the gratuitous inclusion of physical descriptions in fiction, especially descriptions of clothing, that serve no purpose (aside from the writer’s apparent compulsion to follow the “rule” of writing that says readers must have information like this in order to envision the scene). Balderdash, I say. Readers will furnish a room or clothe a character or envision the weather however they imagine, often in spite of what the writer may say, and the intrusion of such pretty much useless detail has been disparagingly described as “Nancy Drew Moments” by some.

Still, I can appreciate the need to give the reader tangible information lest the story be one exclusively of ideas (and Iris Murdoch is certainly a writer of ideas). As I’m reading this novel, I noted that she uses the inclusion of such detail for more than merely its tangible service. Generally she goes on to add some psychological insight about the character. One may be described as nicely dressed to show that she is an orderly thinker or that he invites the ridicule of other characters. The point is that while Murdoch does sometimes give us details about the clothes of her characters, she puts it to more use than merely to give the reader something tangible to envision.

(But someone enlighten me about this: the book was published in 1987, and nothing in it suggests that it is set any significant time earlier than that. So why are women still wearing “petticoats”? Is that some British term that is still in use that doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean a hundred years ago here in the States? I fear that I’m missing some important allusion to her repeated reference to this type of clothing.)

I chatter on about this subject — clearly one important to me as a writer and reader — in this old post too.



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2 Comments on “It’s about stuff”

  1. As a reader, I’ve always liked being able to form my own images about things in stories. Like you say, even if the writer tells me what something looks like, I still see what I want.

    I think it was somewhere in my second rewrite of the last novel I wrote that I realized I never describe the main character. I then realized I tend to do that — or not give much description of a main character in a story.

    If I’m hoping a reader will like something I’ve written, a lot of a story’s success lies on the reader identifying with the main character in some way…even if it’s just giving them a face I could never provide no matter how many words I use.

  2. paullamb Says:

    I tend to describe things sketchily. My protagonist has a beard. Maybe it’s a scruffy beard at one point, but it’s never given more detail than that. The reader already has in mind what they think a scruffy beard looks like. I don’t want to contradict them.

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