I read a good book over the holidays, Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross. My book group read it a few years ago, but I was busy at the time and only read the first few pages. I could tell it would be interesting, and always intended to get back to it, but it’s rather thick and I never seemed to have enough spare time to do it justice. This year, when winter vacation arrived, I made a point of getting it from the library.
Now, I’m not one of those writers who complains that they can no longer read a book without critiquing it. In fact, even when I pick up a book with that intent, I am so easily sucked into a story that I forget to notice anything at all unless something is poorly phrased, or there’s a typo. This time, though, after about 250 pages, I became aware of how tiny the type was. Knowing that most books these days, even historical fiction, don’t exceed 125,000 words, I started to wonder when it had been published, and stopped reading long enough to find out. 1996. I then realized why I was enjoying it so much: it had been written before the kill the adverbs/show vs. tell revolution.
Devoid of all signs of the current wisdom on how to write, there was description, and there were adverbs, adjectives and gerunds. There were words other than “said” used as dialogue tags, and it was a behemoth, over 400 pages long, even set in eight-point-type. The point of view moved like quicksilver between the characters, and there was telling mixed with showing. There was even… a cliché.
Many writers have come to think that describing a location or what characters look like robs the reader of the joy of imagining it for themselves, but I disagree. As a former graphic artist, I have a seriously visual imagination. Filling in the blanks doesn’t squelch that, it only serves as a framework for me to build upon. The mention that a character’s eyebrows are bushy doesn’t lock me into a specific image. There are a hundred ways to picture bushy brows, but if I don’t know they are bushy in the first place, I have lost my connection to the author’s vision.
There is an animated children’s show called Caillou, that depicts the action in vignettes floating on whitespace. The viewer doesn’t imagine what might be there instead, there is just nothing. I find it disconcerting, and am more distracted by how the detail stops than I would be if the artists had just added background to the picture.
When an author uses description and flushes out the nuances with adverbs and dialogue tags, it gives their story dimension, adding depth to the world that readers build in their minds. The reader becomes a part of the action, rather than seeing it as frames in a cartoon.
Many recent books do a good job following the restrictions of the current trends and offer a clean and entertaining read, but if given the choice as a reader, I’ll take the old way. Give me adverbs, give me description, give me telling. I want to be in the same room that the characters are, to see the same people they’re looking at. Tell me a great story that I can replay 1000 times in my mind. If I want minimalism, I’ll read a map.