Friday, August 27, 2010

Writerliness Gone Mad, the Fetishization of Detail

I don't like to bash writers (oh, there are plenty others who deserve bashing, but not poor writers making such noble, unheralded attempts to articulate this crazy world).

That said (sorry), one of my peeves with contemporary fiction (especially that of the critically esteemed ilk) is its tendency to use overly detailed description, description further crippled by forced lyricism, to assert what I call "writerliness"--a way of writing that seems akin to conversational bragging, the sort of unsubtle one upmanship that guarantees annoyance rather than accolades--and works against simple connection (which is what stories of any sort are for, right?).

Take this first paragraph from American Idol by Robert Baird, featured in the current edition of Narrative Magazine.

"On the far side of the footbridge, the sun threw stretched shadows across the mudflats. Karen lowered her backpack and sat down on the damp planks to wait for the bus back to Rio Canto. The breeze at her back fluttered the tongue of the handkerchief that held down her hair. She dropped her head, closed her eyes, and let her legs swing gently from the knees. As the blood worked its way back into her calves and heels she felt the stirrings of a valedictory ache. When she opened her eyes again they fell to a gray mutt who nosed among the pilings at her feet. She watched him chew several rotten banana peels down to the fibers before his attention turned to the sodden waste washed up under the bridgehead."

I'm fine with the sun throwing shadows, but the dribblings of excessive words begin with the breeze fluttering the tongue of the handkerchief that held down her hair (the tongue?). It culminates in the blood working its way back into her calves and heels and something called "the stirrings of a valedictory ache," which I assume happens in her capillaries.

I don't know if it's just me, but I rarely feel my blood working its way through my calves. Perhaps I'm sensorily deprived.

The first of Elmore Leonard's 10 Tricks for Good Writing is to never open a book with the weather. I think Baird's first paragraph--and so many others--is akin to opening a book with the weather. Over description, the assertion of writerliness, doesn't draw one into a story but toward the author and his or her dubious skills with high falutin' language.

It reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's warning about vocabulary. As a writer, be careful of the vocabulary you learn because you'll end up using all of the words you know, and those words might ironically do the story a disservice.

It's what James Wood calls the “fetishization of detail” in How Fiction Works. “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye (There is so much detail in life that is not purely visual),” Wood writes.

I hope that contemporary fiction will start to fetishize dialogue, existential dilemmas, playfulness, anomalies, something else. I'd blame this tendency on MFA writing programs, but that just seems too easy.