Sunday, June 5, 2011

Descriptions: Writer Keep Out

 The word that seems to have been buzzing about your head like an aggressive fly is description, which, as most tools in the writer's toolkit do, has undergone metamorphosis.  It is with great certainty not what it was back in the nineteenth century, when it was all the rage because stories were coming in from all points of the compass, places readers were curious about, wished to be able to visualize.

Even then, narrative lines were being drawn in the sand by two polar opposites, Sir Walter Scott, who was content to bring a story--any story--to a screeching halt for the opportunity to dash off a page or two of descriptions of trees, roads, castles, and clothing, and would sometimes bring new characters forth if only to describe them; and Jane Austen, who made her descriptions work for their keep as though they were characters.

How pleasing to observe that Austen's approach has prevailed and that description, properly chastened because of its excesses, has been taken up in MFA writing programs, made to wear the dunce's cap, and positioned in the corner.  No, no, no.

But now, as the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference looms, a scant two weeks away, evidences come to you, seemingly from everywhere, suggesting that many writers see description as a chance to prove themselves as writers, describing their way to qualities and conditions you believe can be achieved only by dramatic movement.
"Oh, you mean action," one individual said with no little scorn.  "No," you said, "I mean confrontation by one individual with one or more individuals and with the awareness as well of inner confrontations roiling within."

"I'm using description to get the reader in the mood,"  one individual told you.

Because you are being paid to read the material, the best you could venture is, "The reader is being put in the mood, all right; the mood to set the book down, then walk away from it."

The look on the writer's face was at first a register of shock, eyes widened, lips parted at gasp level.  But it soon changed to the smile or moral superiority.  "Of course.  You're talking commercial.  Mine is spiritual."

"If you mean readers paying for a work, then yes, I do think the likes of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are commercial, but--"  and you did allow yourself a chortle, "--that definition of commercial is not a good use of description."

What you are getting at, of course, is the shift away from authorial point of view to character-driven point of view, away from the author intruding to instruct the reader how to see a patch of garden to the awareness or lack thereof by a reader in relation to that same patch of garden.  This is where description begins and ends, suffers or flourishes.  Description is What is there, seen through the eyes of one or more characters.  Author keep out.

No comments: