In Defense of Description
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    There’s a common misconception — unfortunately growing — popular among so-called commercial-fiction coaches predominantly, though not exclusively, that stories and novels have one and only one real purpose: storytelling. Which is to say, plot. Which is to say, conflict. Anything, therefore, that slows the pace of the plot — or anything that disrupts the plot — should be “ruthlessly cut.”

    This is a misbegotten notion, and the fundamental error herein committed is the belief that the art of literature has only one real function, and that plot, which is merely a vehicle, is the essence of that function.

    But literature, like every legitimate art, consists fundamentally of two components: subject and style.

    Subject is what the writer presents.

    Style is how she presents it.

    For many of us, style is just as fulfilling as subject-matter, and many of us read for the sheer pleasure we get from the use of language alone.

    “The most interesting story is always the story of the writer’s style,” said Nabokov.

    Many people derive no such pleasure from style, and I am not here to call into question personal preferences — those for whom Top Gun and The Da Vinci Code represent the pinnacle of the art of literature and storytelling — except perhaps to say that these are the the people who admonish us to “ruthlessly cut” and “slay your darlings” — who may very well slay you if, for instance, you end a chapter with a character falling asleep.

    Yet there’s plenty of room for different tastes in literature. I love Jean Valjean and the plot of Les Miserables. You may find Les Miserables too discursive and loosely plotted, and Jean Valjean too shadowy. There’s still a market for you, and there’s still a market for me.

    The alternative is not tightly plotted commercial fiction, or nothing.

    There are, moreover, plenty of books and stories that have excellent and complicated plots and possess sophisticated beautiful styles, all at the same time.

    Here’s what I want to say to you: there is a formula (of sorts) to storytelling, but it’s not as rigid as many would have you believe. And, furthermore, books can be loosely plotted — even poorly plotted, or even flawed — and still be beautiful, and contain beautiful, convincing characters.

    So that if, like me, you don’t particularly care for formulaic fiction, or if you don’t want to write or read commercial fiction and yet you still seek to capture something beautiful on the page, I want you to know that you can.

    I’ll end with a passage that a fiction-writing coach recently told me she found “horribly purple” — by which she meant: it needed to be ruthlessly cut.

    [T]he kid wandered on through the raw mud streets and out past the houses of hide in the rows and across the gravel strand to the beach.

    Loose strands of ambercolored kelp lay in a rubbery wrack at the tideline. A dead seal. Beyond the inner bay part of a reef in a thin line like something foundered there on which the sea was teething. He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there staring out upon the darkening waters, and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.

    He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.

    He rose and turned toward the lights of town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.


    This is among the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read.

    One man’s nightmare is another man’s dream, I guess.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

3 Responses and Counting...

  • Larry 07.25.2013

    Interesting post. Trouble is, you are being as absolute with your “truisms” as you claim us misperceiving story coaches are. Your position is defensible within a specific genre — literary fiction — and completely off-base when it comes to genre fiction.

    Fact is, truth is… literary fiction need not rely on or even have plot to work on an artistic level. Style can be, often is, everything, the reason people buy and read the story. A good thing. That’s just true. I’ve never said otherwise.

    Fact it, truth is… genre fiction ALWAYS requires conflict-driven plot to work to its fullest potential. Genre fiction with commercial aspirations is absolutely reliant upon conflict-driven plot. Find me an exception that actually succeeded in the marketplace… I won’t hold my breath.

    So nobody gets to be wrong in this debate, because there are two sides to it. Or rather, two categories. So careful, Mr. Sawed Off Shotgun Guy, about absolutes in writing, it never happens. And you’re right, one man’s nightmare is another’s dream… and neither you or I get to stand in judgment of either.

  • You don’t need to put “truisms” in quotes, Larry, and I’ve addressed the point of your first paragraph in a previous post: the question of principles versus concretes.

    There are absolutes in writing, as there are absolutes in everything, and all absolutes by definition are contextual. The contexts may and often do change, but that doesn’t nullify the absolute: what’s absolute in a given context remains absolute in that context. This principle is the building-block of all subsequent knowledge, aesthetic, scientific, and otherwise.

    Literature is the artform of language. That is one absolute of writing.

    There is no art without subject-matter. That is another.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  • P.S.

    Larry wrote: “genre fiction ALWAYS requires conflict-driven plot to work to its fullest potential. Genre fiction with commercial aspirations is absolutely reliant upon conflict-driven plot. Find me an exception that actually succeeded in the marketplace… I won’t hold my breath.”

    That was never my point or my argument. You’re setting up strawmen so that you can knock them down.

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