The Proper Dosage of Description is?

One of the advantages of work shopping manuscripts, which is sort of what a critic does when reading a given work, is that the reader not only critiques but learns how to critique. So both the author and the reader benefit, at least in a workshop environment. That’s the theory. Not so certain this applies to critical reviews, possibly a whole ‘nother kettle of squid, but still, I find reading published works leads me to ponder the assorted tasks an author faces every time they go to work.

For instance, is there a proper balance achievable in terms of the amount of description a writer employs? What constitutes too little? How much is too much?

Too little, of course, makes it difficult for the reader to visualize the setting of the character interaction. If a story is mostly dialogue, it might as well be a radio play. Yes, you can rely on a reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, to a certain extant, but not if there’s no jumping off point. You can’t bridge an endless void. (Unless you’re reading or writing an existentialist novel, in which case there’s no hope for you.)

At the opposite end of the description spectrum is too much information, more than the reader can absorb. Sometimes this comes in the form of lists, as if attempting to include a thesaurus in the text (Rabelais was prone to this, but since he was describing a late medieval world the lists were rather fascinating). Modern efforts along these lines tend to disrupt the flow and irritate the reader, not to mention stopping him in his tracks. So generally not a good idea.

And then there’s piling on the description in convoluted, run on sentences. How many readers have the patience for this sort of thing? And yet, if the style is unique to the author, it can hold the reader fast like a bird mesmerized by a snake. The best example I can think of (and lying at hand in my den bookshelves) is Salvador Dali’s famous novel “Hidden Faces,” originally published in 1944. Consider the following:

“Cécile appeared to him now clothed with attributes combining infinitely attractive shades of malice and pathos. With her faultlessly beautiful legs he often visualized her emerging, silent and obedient, from the places where his most gnostic imaginative orgies and bacchanalia were consummated, and not infrequently at the climax of their troubling scenes it was precisely Cécile’s face, delicately veiled in grey, that would in the last moment replace the usual one of the Honourable Lady Chidester-Ames who in turn had until then supplied the human embodiment of certain fauns with flawless legs and the ambiguous bodies of hermaphrodites, covered with soft, shiny fur.”

“But if Cécile’s image now held the golden bridle of the extravagant cavalcades of his lasciviousness, harnessed to the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity…” and so on and so on.

I kinda like “… the mud-wallowing panthers of his perversity” myself. Not certain how modern editors would feel about it. But, of course, Dali’s novel was published because it was written by Dali, an artist of such incredible stature at the time that his grocery list–if illustrated–would have been a runaway best seller. He had reached the Olympian heights of someone allowed to break the rules, which suited him perfectly as that was something he had been doing all his life.

Dali liked details. His paintings were near hallucinatory in their realism because of his attention to detail. In fact his “paranoia-critical method of art” philosophy was based on a conscious and deliberate obsessive attention  to detail. I believe he carried this over in his writing. I’m pretty sure he visualised words as brush stokes to paint the scene he was describing, and, just as you layer on the oil paint to get the effect you want, he treated words the same way. Since the readers of the day expected and anticipated Dali would be true to the glorious task of being Dali, this was not a problem. Few writers today can get away with this. Some try, and I tend to believe they remain unpublished.

Somewhere there is a happy medium. I just don’t happen to know where to find it.

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