Last week, I wrote about showing vs. telling, and the comments kept coming back to the necessity for finding a good balance between writing descriptive prose and just saying too darned much. Probably none of us escaped high school English without hearing a student gripe that a given author should have just said what he meant rather than going on for so long. Maybe some among us were even the kids doing the griping.
Of course, what those giants of literature we griped about were often doing was favoring style over substance (or putting it at least on an even footing with substance). It’s no coincidence that English teachers made us read this stuff — even though heavily stylized prose isn’t for everybody, it surely is for some, and educating our kids involves, in part, exposing them to various disciplines so that they can see what they might like to pursue.
In my first post here, I wrote a little bit about what defines style, and I won’t rehash that now, but I do wonder, in light of some of the comments on my last week’s post, where dailypost readers draw the line. How much tangential prose are you willing to put up with reading if the prose is beautiful but the substance not apparently wholly relevant?
I happen to be very tolerant of digressive prose, if I admire the writing and can justify the discursiveness. One of my favorite books, Moby-Dick, contains pages and pages of information about whales, and the basic story could go on well enough without all the encyclopedia fodder. Plenty of smart, well-read people have complained that the information Melville gave us about whales wasn’t all necessary. And for somebody who’s after an adventure story, the point is surely valid. But to me, the whaling bits expand the scope of Melville’s book, adding to it humor and grandiosity and ambition and audacity, so I’m willing to read the extra prose. In a case like this, although you could say that the whaling bits don’t add to the substance of the main plot and thus are superfluous, I think you can also argue that they simply add a layer of meaning and contribute to that layer’s substance. Still, I can see why lots of people aren’t as enamored of Moby-Dick as I am.
So, how tolerant are you of what many might reasonably consider superfluous prose? How do you decide what’s superfluous and what’s not? Do you buy my statement above that sometimes digression can be justified for aesthetic or other purposes, or is the sort of maximalism I enjoy reading pure self-indulgence? If you tend to write more stark prose, would you consider an exercise in writing something more ornate? If you tend to be wordy, would you consider an exercise in writing something pared down?