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Too Much of a (Good?) Thing?

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?

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  1. In this age of instant information, my attention span seems to wane after 200 words (shame on me) although I consider myself somewhat of a literati. So help to write meaningfully spare prose is always welcome. I am now struggling with whether writing daily posts is turning people off and unsubscribing. Do you have any feedback about frequency as well?

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    1. Regarding frequency, I think it must vary widely for different people. I know that I have trouble reading lots of long posts, and I loosely follow many blogs that post daily(ish) that I’m simply not able actually to read. I suspect that family-oriented blogs do better with high frequency, but it really probably depends on your audience and the type of content you write. If you’re nervous about attrition thanks to post frequency, maybe you could post a poll and just ask your readers directly (and anonymously). Check the left-hand links in your admin area for a Poll item you can use for this purpose if you’d like.

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    2. Daryl and Norma,

      Hello. I seem to be doomed to less than 400 words. On one hand… … [but that’s the problem. I only have one usable hand. Stroke, don’t you know. Don’t you go feeling sorry for me. DON’T!
      The point is that I am able to write at all. Took me several years. Physically unable to manipulate the instrument.]

      Writing short pieces feels like experiencing explosions of joy. “Gotcha’ moments. Rodney Dangerfield one-liners that leave you breathless with laughter.

      I wish I could write like Melville. The long, long descriptions are like life at sea. Long, boring, routine, punctuated with danger and chaos.

      Anyway, Thanks for listening

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  2. I find, in so many cases, the prose much more evocative for me than the story. A beautiful phrase will win me every time; I hunger for it. But there’s a big difference between good prose and simple wordiness.

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  3. There needs to be a balance. A good writer knows when to stop. As much as I hate to say it, some of our classics are written by people who are actually bad writers whose stories suffer for poor prose.

    Too much flowery language and the author comes across as pretentious; too little and the text lacks heart.

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  4. I am probably excessively tolerant if the information is something that interests me. My favorite books are the very rich books full of descriptions and asides that might be unnecessary for the plot.

    However, they are so rich that every time I reimmerse myself in them I find new gems I missed in an early reading.

    Such writers and Melville and many present-day writers I could name offer us a banquet of gourmet reading but they take some time and effort on the part of the reader. They are not a drive-through fare stripped down to exciting action scenes and minimalistic sequels.

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  5. If an author makes me feel like I’m sinking in quicksand rather than gaining ground, I set the book aside. By way of example, White Oleander had far too much verbiage for me.

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  6. I agree with Pamela Goode and procrastin8or. Beautiful prose or poetic language appeals to most readers on a different plane. However, wordiness is annoying. So are too many digressions and side stories. I can tell when it’s not working for me. I have a hard time moving forward with the book and my desire to find out how the story unfolds begins to wane.

    I am one of these people who hates to leave a book unfinished but I must confess, I’ve done it a few times. One writer I can remember is Umberto Eco. He was so highly recommended by a friend. And so, I read one of his books. I found it so tiring. I gave it three chances. I left the book to read another book. Then, I’d try to read it again. Eventually, I gave up.

    I’m sure other people probably enjoyed his prose and he’s probably a good writer. But his style is just not my type.

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  7. It depends entirely on how good the digressive prose is. I generally hate it, but some writers, Updike, in certain novels, comes to mind, as he can successfully make the digressions more interesting than the head-on narrative plotting of many other writers.

    Generally I’ve grown tired with the neo-digressives, all the people who want to write like David Foster Wallace or David Eggers, and prefer to be clever rather than bold. If you spend that much time dancing around the story it becomes more a sign of lack of good storytelling ability than anything else.

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  8. Hmm. I’ve been wondering about this as I start a second blog about finding spiritual balance in the midst of busy life. In my first blog…I wrote what I wanted and it was never very long. Now tho., I’m not sure how much is too much to write, and how much is too little. I was thinking about looking up what the limit is for the This I Believe essays…500 words I think?

    For me, I guess reading online is different from a novel…it really depends on my mood and the topic. I’m just learning to read online and find that I just can’t handle page after page on the screen.

    http://attendanceplease.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/grace-anticipated-my-desire/

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  9. Recently I read a book by John LeCarre, Smiley’s People I think it was, that had a rural waterfront scene. It was like looking at a Monet painting. The level of detail was exactly right.
    The object of the game is to tell a story. A few carefully chosen details can serve to draw the reader in, to make him or her ‘see’ it happen.
    John LeCarre did that in that scene. I felt like I was watching instead of reading. And for any writer that’s a home run.

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  10. I appreciate the digressive prose if it’s well-written and adds something – either background value to the story, or fleshing out the narrative. If it’s just fluff, I tend to skip over it. However, nothing superfluous about what you wrote Daryl, as usual.

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  11. I think digressive prose is okay when it adds to some part of the story, even if that part isn’t really the plot itself. If it makes a character more realistic, or more intriguing, or if it helps the reader make some sort of “connection” (to put it like an English teacher), then it is relevant. Of course, it would be difficult to find something like this that wasn’t meant to be relevant, because usually, the author included it for a reason. Unless sometimes that isn’t the case, and he or she just forgot to revise….

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