WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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