Posted tagged ‘BOMB’

Writing too much

February 11, 2010

I came across this interesting quote from Paul Auster in a twenty-year-old interview in the magazine BOMB.

“There’s a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. Think of a typical passage in a novel. A character walks into a room. As a writer, how much of that room do you want to talk about? The possibilities are infinite. You can give the color of the curtains, the wallpaper pattern, the objects on the coffee table, the reflection of the light in the mirror. But how much of this is really necessary? Is the novelist’s job simply to reproduce physical sensations for their own sake? When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All the elegant passages, all the curious details, all the so-called beautiful writing—if they are not truly relevant to what I am trying to say, then they have to go.”

I don’t mind throwing in all that comes to mind when I’m doing my first drafts; it’s not always clear what may be useful later. But much of it will not be, and that’s what rewriting and editing are for. I know many writers espouse this same thing, but, really, what do they mean by it? And how often do they practice it?

I can still recall with mirth (and a little bit of distaste) a novel by a famous and successful mystery writer (one who, by the way, believes S.S. Van Dine’s mystery writing rules are hidebound absolutes) who was repeatedly guilty of what Maud Newton called “Nancy Drew Moments.” Every time a character was introduced — even the same character appearing in a later scene — the narrative would stop while a thorough inventory of the character’s clothing was given.

There is a school of fiction writing that says readers are not very imaginative and need to be given vast amounts of detail so they can “picture” the scene. More than mere character description. The setting. The weather. The room. The aching tooth. The tight shoes. Many people are taught to write this way.

I hold a contrary opinion (not surprising, eh?). I think a reader is going to dress a character, furnish a room, and know the color of the sky in whatever way they want, often despite what the writer tells them is the case. The story pretty much becomes the property of the reader, or if not the property, then partly the artifice of the reader. And why not collaborate with the reader? Unless some such detail is absolutely essential to understanding the story or character, why waste the words on it?

Robert Boswell makes a similar assertion in his essay collection The Half-Known World, in which he says that there has to be space in a story for the reader to make discoveries. To allow this, the writer has to hold back some of what he knows so that the reader can provide it instead.

For the whole Auster interview, go here.