booking through thursday: mental imagery pt 2

Connected to last week’s—it’s one of the ways writing has changed. Books from a century or two ago spent huge swaths of text describing locations and character traits, but modern writing does all of this in shorthand. You might know a character is short with blond hair and blue eyes, but the author leaves the rest for you to figure out on your own. The writer might tell you the story takes place at a beachside town, but leaves the details to your imagination. Why do you suppose this is? Is it that we have shorter attention spans these days? That, bombarded with video and photos as we are, we don’t NEED every detail of an unknown scene described, because we have a stock of images already in our heads?

Great prompt! If you visit me here at this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m not much of a classics reader, but I remember some of the lengthy descriptions in such books from my high school curriculum. I have read a lot of contemporary fiction lately and can think of a couple of books that exercise this “less is more” technique when it comes to details:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. Hamid uses a second-person, present-tense style in a self-help book format and leaves all people and places unnamed, which at first is jarring and stark, but ends up engaging the reader. How can you not be engaged, the protagonist is “you.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Told almost entirely through a variety of letters, memos, emails, and other correspondance, this one leaves it up to the reader to piece together the events because they aren’t unfolding in front of you.

I really enjoyed both of these books—they were fast paced, plot driven, and imaginative. I agree that television and other visual media have a lot to do with this new trend in book writing. Books used to BE the main form of escapism entertainment—now television by far dominates that pastime, and it does the imagining for you. And after I see a film adaptation of a book I’d already read, I have this sort of strange reset memory thing that happens. No matter how vivid the book was in my mind, after I see the film that’s all I can imagine when I think of it (picturing the actors’ faces and other stuff unique to the film instead of what I originally saw in my mind’s eye as I read).

I don’t think one style is better than the other. It’s all subjective—what you are in the mood for and if the story appeals to you. The talent of the author and their writing craftsmanship plays a big part, too. Perhaps there is a long descriptive passage, but unless it drives the story it’s just useless verbosity. But with the right author descriptive writing can be wonderful and fun to read.

For my personal reading experience, description-heavy books in general tend to weigh me down. For example, Ian McEwan’s Atonement—I recognize and respect it as a stellar work of fiction, but I have to admit many of its long-winded sections of internalized narrative (the characters just thinking about stuff and how they feel about it for pages and pages…) wore me out.

What do you think the reasons are for this “less is more” trend with descriptions in books?

2 thoughts on “booking through thursday: mental imagery pt 2

  1. I suspect I’m the opposite. I don’t read a lot of new releases so haven’t noticed a big trend towards “less is more” but I do know that I tend to gravitate towards the books with a lot of the internalization and lengthy descriptions (Atonement is one of my favorites!). Interesting thought on how other media might play into this!

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