Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Candy-Red Licorice Ladder Up To The Azure Blue Sky

If you're like me, you like to read from different genres and a multitude of authors. Like movies, music and almost any other form of consumed art, we tend to like variety. But, in the end we probably lean in one direction more than another. I'm curious about what direction people lean and the kinds of stories people tend to prefer so I offer this comparison.

What reads better to you? Thick, rich, vibrant descriptions like this one from Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels:

From the other bank, I watched darkness turn to purple-orange light above the town; the color of flesh transforming to spirit. They flew up. The dead passed above me, weird haloes and arcs smothering the stars. The trees bent under their weight. I'd never been alone in the night forest, the wild bare branches were frozen snakes. The ground tilted and I didn't hold on. I strained to join them, to rise with them, to peel from the ground like paper ungluing at its edges. I know why we bury our dead and mark the place with stone, with the heaviest, most permanent thing we can think of: because the dead are everywhere but the ground. I stayed where I was. Clammy with cold, stuck to the ground. I begged: If I can't rise, then let me sink, sink into the forest floor like a seal into wax.

Or, simple, straightforward narrative, short sentences where every single word has a very clear meaning, less open to the fanciful interpretation of poetry, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy:

They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, dont you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Which is a better read for you? Does one or the other reveal the story better or worse? Does a simple narrative let the reader introduce her own bias and experience of the world?

Or, perhaps it totally depends on your mood.


  1. I'm on Team Cormac. But maybe that's just my gut reaction because there is a lot of bad writing out there. I think there are some authors who can pull that style off. When it comes to the ones who can't, though, it makes reading too much work and feels like the author doesn't have enough faith in their own story that they have to pad the pages with fluff.

  2. Yeah, I agree about bad writers using verbiage to add fluff and padding. I don't think it's very often intentional but more to try and add weight to a scene or section. I've been guilty of writing some "purple prose" m'self on occasion. Some do grandiose writing well. Most do not.

  3. I don’t know if you look at these old posts, but I thought this one most interesting. I like nice, clean straightforward narrative: For example, Hemingway, or in Sci Fi, A.C. Clarke and especially Larry Niven. A great exception would be Tolkien, who combines both styles quite well (an understatement).
    A few bad contemporary examples would be Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Hamilton, and Justin Cronin. Good stories wrapped in thousands of useless words. Cronin, to me, is unreadable.
    Even some of my favorite writers, such as fantasy writer Terry Brooks, can test my attention span. How he can write 2000 words describing ‘Shea Olmsford’s feelings as he bounds down the path towards his home’ is beyond me. But, that may be me...

  4. Mark, the fact that you are commenting on these posts thrills me as it means someone is out there paying attention to something I was pondering. Plus, they are fun for me to go back through. I'm a newish father (a two year old and another on the way) so the last three years have been a blur to me -- these posts actually feel like they were written five minutes ago.

    I mention that fact also to illuminate my next point. I'm not sure if I'm maturing as a reader or if it has to do with my more recent lifestyle but I don't have much desire to wade through extraneous detail. Even excessive dialogue that doesn't add either serious character shading or plot relevance seems to get in the way for me. I've definitely changed how I write and what holds my attention for reading.

    My next book should prove interesting from this perspective. I am already noticing how pared down it seems. And I thought my previous writing was far from bloated. I'm really enjoying shorter novels, too: 50,000 words as opposed to 150,000. Maybe I'm simply suffering the same attention burn out as everyone else these days.

  5. Seriously, Justin Cronin is unreadable. The next time you're wondering through a Barnes and Noble, pick up one of his bloated tomes... I dare you to read a few pages.


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