On Some Fallacies of Some Amateur Fiction

As far as I know, J.D. Salinger, the great masterful author of my all-time favorite The Catcher In The Rye, didn’t teach any writing courses. I’m not sure that he gave much advice on how to write either. But he does give us some of his views on writing in Catcher.

That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place.

Later, Stradlater asks Holden to “make it descriptive as hell.” And that’s what we’re sort of taught in so many writing courses and in high school English: to make things descriptive as hell.

I see this sort of writing all of the time. Whether it’s the latest fiction in The New Yorker or a modern novel like Ames’ The Extra Man or Burgess’ Dogfight: A Love Story and I can’t help but balk whenever I read passages of detail. Sure, as a writer, it’s your job to paint a picture in your reader’s mind. Sure, it’s important to be vivid. But to be descriptive as hell, as Stradlater puts it, is absolutely useless more often than not. You see, when I read about orange carpet that winds around the room, creating a maze-like path that led from kitchen to bathroom, I can’t help but feel insulted. I wonder to myself, Why on earth am I reading this? I have read a few pieces of fiction in The New Yorker that start out with a very detailed description of the setting. And then I can’t stand to read the rest of the passage. Unnecessary details turn me off of the story. As a writer, you must always ask yourself, Why am I showing this to the reader? What does it mean? Many times, we writers must create the scene in our heads, so that it becomes vivid and a real living breathing space, so that we can create the characters who inhabit it. And many times, we end up writing the nitty gritty details of it, down to the last little rusted nail in the corner by the rotting baseboard.

But the truth is that more often than not, the description isn’t necessary. These details are mere vestiges of the writer’s creative process, things that should be erased; after all, what bearing does the color of a rug have on whether my protagonist lives or dies? Simply describing the rug’s color doesn’t mean anything to the story or to the reader. Instead, one must elevate the meaning of things. If one is to describe a room, the room’s characteristics had better have a bearing on something other than the senses. For example, a green rug that’s worn down could be elevated to rotting moss that ate away at the baseboards of the house, slowly eroding at its foundations and giving its owner a permanent wrinkle of the nose and a crease in his eyebrows.

I believe that truly good fiction is lean and polished. I can’t stand it when writers weigh down their stories with details that are inconsequential. While scene setting is important to a certain extent, I believe that florid details are outdated. Novels used to be the prime choice of entertainment, so it made sense that stories should be rife with details: the audience needed to construct the entertainment in their mind. But ever since the full color motion picture came out, people look to films to satiate their need for visual details. It is no longer necessary to bog down the reader’s mind with inanities like the color and texture of a rug that has no bearing on the story or its characters.

The truth is that, even in my own novel-in-progress, I see these vestigial scene-building details. I intend to go back and remove all unnecessary detail, and to question if these details are of any particular importance. For example, I described in great detail the workplace of my protagonist. But after reviewing the passage, I ask myself if there’s any particular reason the tables are blue rather than gray. I believe that such questions hone a writer’s eye for detail and to imbue things with meaning where there is meaning to be found. ¶

  • McGillicuddy

    There's a difference between physical descripton and narrative description. While Salinger eschews physical descriptions—setting, characters' attributes—he does spend a ton of time on his narrator's psyhological workings, reproducing a neurotic doubling-back of experience that is in itself fairly defined.

    For instance, in Catcher, there' two pages dedicated to  film that Holden watches and hates. It illumites his character through his obsession with authenticity and 'phonies'. That, too, is a form of description.

    But you are dead on here.There's a biiiig difference between necessary and auxillary detail. Good write up, sir.

    • wistfulwriter

      You seem to be rather well-read when it comes to Salinger, and you seem to be well-versed in analyzing literature.  I could stand to learn a lot from someone like you, would you be so kind as to point me towards some good resources to educate myself on such matters?

  • Some very prominent points there. I may be guilty myself of being overly descriptive of a scene. 
    Sometimes a poor description of a setting is worse than no description at all; We should never underestimate the power of imagination a reader has, and try to kindle that imagination within them when writing.

    JC Axe