Sunday, July 13, 2014

Details, Details

I find it interesting that two different authors can have radically different styles of writing but are equally popular with readers and equally effective at telling a story or conveying an idea, particularly in how they handle the details.  James Michener wrote tomes of 1,ooo pages or more with meticulous attention to historical and cultural detail. Louis L'Amour wrote hundreds of trim, fast-paced westerns - most of which you could enjoy in an afternoon of reading. Both sold 100's of millions of copies of their books. 

It's a matter of two things, I think: the writer's ability to tell a story, because everyone loves a good story, no matter what the quality of writing (just look at any best sellers list for evidence of that), and the reader's taste. As a reader, do you prefer a book rich with descriptive settings and character development, or one with a plot that accelerates at break-neck speed from word-one? In other words, would you rather spend an evening with Charles Dickens or Donald Westlake? 

Me, I prefer brevity, writing that uses just the right words and gets to the point. It's the writer that says in a single sentence what another would take a page to explain. Like the lyric from the Bob Seger song Hollywood Nights: "She was born with a face that would let her get her way." Or a Tom Robbins descriptive like:  "The sky was the color of Edgar Allan Poe's pajamas." Each creates a vivid image, fueled by the reader's own imagination. 

More is not always better. I'm currently plodding my way through Moby Dick. For the most part, the passionate, moving prose is riveting. But are the dry, encyclopedic sections about all the types of whales or the detailed account of how to decapitate a leviathan really necessary? In the hands of a lesser writer, such digressions would have quickly prompted me to re-shelve the book and move on to something else.

In Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, the protagonist, author Grady Tripp, is stagnated by not only the over-wrought state of his current novel but also by all the minutia of melodrama weighing down his life. He desperately needs to "eschew surplusage," as Mark Twain put it. Tripp's life simply has too many details.

Are the new versions of the original Star Wars films any better because George Lucas just had to add some CGI crap to certain scenes? Nope. They're still the same ol' hokey movies with cheesy dialogue that we'll forever love to watch over-and-over.

Of course, it is possible to have too little detail. My literary taste buds are left a little wanting after reading Raymond Chandler. And I remember the time I read Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, a book of so little substance that I forgot what I had read the moment I finished reading it. Like eating a soup of nothing but watery broth.

Finally, there's the shortest science-fiction story ever written, which goes something like:

The last man on earth sat quietly in his room. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.  

(Which still has more substantial detail than Rich Man, Poor Man.)