Monday, April 25, 2011

Laundry Lists

Laundry lists are compilations of attributions or descriptions, cast as extras in novels and short stories to help convey background and personality, but, impressed by their exposure--their moment on the stage--they yearn for larger parts, more lines.

Anything that calls attention away from story is chancy casting, perhaps even risky.  If a list of qualities or types supports the story, the reader will welcome it, but such such motives as demonstrating your wit and cleverness, your "way with words," or in any other way upstaging the story will cost you.  The reader will know you for the show-off you deny being.

There was a time roughly between the 1950s and '70s, where the realists were inventing opportunities to probe someones bathroom, therein to probe the shelves and cabinets, producing through products the symptoms, habits, and brand tastes of the  characters who used the bathroom.  You could tell a good deal about a character if you knew he used a teeth whitener.  Back in your day, a person who was known to use tooth powder instead of toothpaste was invariably conservative, perhaps even stingy.  Laundry lists of products used were important "tells" of how the character thought of her- or himself.

Details that blend without intrusion add a sense of convincing presence, of plausibility; excessive details betray their laundry list origins, the literary equivalent of not knowing where the fish fork is set in relationship to the placement of the salad fork.  Even worse, to extend the metaphor, it is not even knowing there is such a thing as a fish fork.

Try to avoid too many occasions where you use two successive adjectives--a short, squat building (or person)--and be sure never to place three consecutive adjectives in place to modify a noun:  a short, square, gray building (or person).

The "Talk of the Town" sketches in the front matter of The New Yorker magazine are instructive in
their careful use of modifiers in general and adjectives in particular as well as their observation of word length in sentences, by way of holding forth in a conversational tone rather than imparting a sense of lecturing.  They'll throw the one-two-adjective punch at you by way of introducing a character:  "Mary Brown, a tall, slender brunette--" and then they'll connect that to a "with," to which they add an interesting caboose.  "--a tall, slender brunette with large green eyes" gives you a growing sense of her presence, to which they might add a "that," as in "that engage you in conversation even before you've begun to talk."  A good deal to learn about adjectives and revealing dialogue in those sketches, taking you well away from any thoughts of piling on laundry lists of detail and yet delivering, often in five or six hundred words, a picture of a real person in action.

The danger of a well-edited magazine is that it will produce materials that sound as though they have all been written by the same person, notable examples being The Nation and The National Geographic.   Possibly Harper's, as well.  Which in its way brings out the "foolish consistency" part of Ralph Waldo Emerson's reminder of what becomes the hobgoblin of small minds.  No worries for such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Tin House;  they're too busy getting at the color and the texture.

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