The Flaw of A Writer's Heavy-handed Rhetoric

The more I read, the more I develop my own sense of writing aesthetic. And the more I read, the more I come to see that my own style is ascetic. You see, I have no patience for overt rhetoric and florid language because I deem such devices to be impure and the mark of an amateur. I have already touched on how just about anybody can be “descriptive as hell,” and it is a sentiment that has become a core part of my approach to writing a novel.

I find intense details suspicious in stories. I prefer for the stories to be told by the characters rather than the narrators. Overtly descriptive writing breaks the illusion that I am in the world the piece is set in. It seems paradoxical, to be sure. After all, how can you be engrossed in a worldthat is bland? But I believe that actions speak louder than words, and that talk is cheap. I’m not interested in a writer’s ability to play with language and to create lyrical and poetic sentences. If I wanted to read that sort of thing, I’d read a poem. When I read prose — whether it is short fiction or a novel — I want to know what happens. A writer’s rhetoric merely gets in the way of me discovering for myself what the characters’ and the world they inhabit are like. I do not want to read a writer’s description because I want to form my own conclusions. A woman’s flowing white dress is angelic enough when it is blowing in the wind: I needn’t be reminded that the author wants me to believe that she is angelic.

Another realization tha t just occurred to me is that I am writing the sort of novel that I would be interested in reading. There is a danger in this sort of thinking. Because I regard my own creative instincts to be superior to what misguided advice is offered to writers, I am at risk of losing sight of what is truly good writing: I am at risk of becoming obsessed with my own style and standards and losing touch with what the literary community regards as good writing. Thus I must always remember to balance my own insular views with a touch of the real world. Otherwise, I’ll end up like all those other self-published authors who treasure their own little Espresso Book Machine creations, crying over how they are merely misunderstood or underappreciated.

  • Jkatsanis

    Have missed your writings and always enjoy reading your post and this one is no exception. Question: In view of your comments here, what's your take on William Gibson. Personally I find his writing lyrical and extremly descriptive, but have a difficult time following the plot. Your thoughts…

    • Anonymous

      Hi there,
      It's always good to be appreciated, so thank you for your kind comments.

      I skimmed a bit of Gibson's Neuromancer and I, like you, find it a little difficult to follow the plot.  I don't read much science fiction these days (I only read some of the Star Wars Expanded Universe when I was younger), and I've only toyed with the idea of writing science fiction (namely a novel that uses science fiction as a device to examine the flaws of the human condition), but from what I can tell Gibson's writing could stand to use a little more direction in some parts.  It doesn't have that urgency of needing to know.  Especially when you are trying to get your reader involved with an entire imaginary world, an author needs to know how to pull a reader in and to keep his audience entertained enough to continue reading.  The weight lies on the author's shoulder to be responsible for roping in the audience.  A lazy writer assumes his reader will want to read all the way through to the end no matter what, that the reader will suffer through great lengths to get to the end of the story.  A good writer knows that, if he is to achieve any degree of success, a story must compel the reader to continue.

      I like to use my extensive sales experience to inform my writing.  There is that famous Glengarry Glenross scene with Alec Baldwin where he explains AIDA: Attention Interest Decision Action.  It applies to sales, and it applies to writing as well.  You must grab your reader's Attention.  You must Interest them in your story.  You must make them Decide to commit to reading your novel, and incite them to Action (read the novel).  

      Gibson doesn't grab your attention much in the first paragraphs of the novel.  He throws the reader immediately into his world, but he fails to engage them.  The reason Star Wars was successful was because George Lucas had the foresight to make his universe familiar enough.  Gibson, on the other hand, immediately begins to alienate readers from the very first chapter.  The name Case is a little odd.  What is a 'Chat' ("…as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat")?  What exactly is a Sprawl voice?  What is a joeboy?

      All of these questions serve to ultimately lead a reader's thoughts to the worst question to be asked: Why am I even reading this?

      Unless the reader is already invested in reading the story (for example, a big fan may be following an author's third book), such alienation just turns a reader off of the story.

      Thanks for writing in with this comment, as it has incited me to write another brief post about my thoughts on the art of writing.

  • McGillis

    I dont think writing is something that can be inhernly good or bad. Salinger uses rhetorical telling, and over descriptiveness, as a way of interacting with his character's subjecive perceptions of the world (subjective perceptions he will use to establish tension with other characters).
    On the other hand, Denis Johnson in Jesus' Son writes with spare emotional weight, as if everything except his narrator's nerves had been burned away.

    One uses heavy-handed narrative telling, the other stripped-down showing. Both are great stylists and storytellers.

    • wistfulwriter

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      I'm afraid that you may be spoiled by good writing.  Do you mean to tell me that there are no bad writers?  

      Writing, like any other art form, can certainly be judged to be good or bad.  There are basic elements of craft that simply cannot be done away with.  Perhaps it is true that no art can be good or bad when we are six years old.  But when it comes time to present your work to the world, there must be standards.

      Perhaps you mean to say that whether one is "descriptive as hell" or not is inherently bad.  And in that sense, I agree with you.  As I have tried to lay out, it is when the purpose of the over-descriptiveness is absent that I poo-poo such writing.  

      I will not presume to know much about Salinger's style, as I have never studied his work academically; nor have I studied the craft of writing in academic way.  But in my cursory readings, he seems to write in the first-person most of the time.  In which case, descriptions are spoken by the narrator.  I am sure that Salinger would not commit the egregious error of breaking from character, so if the descriptions are a little too "purple", I would have been accustomed to that because Salinger would have written the character such that I understand him or her to be a particularly lyrical person.  Such descriptions would not stick out.

      More specifically, it is the fact that things stick out to me when I read something that tells me that the writer's rhetoric is at work.  The main point here is that a writer needs to take him or herself out of the sentence.  Descriptiveness can be a useful rhetorical device, but I find that many writers tend to wax lyrical for their own egotistical benefit rather than the reader.

  • Emily

    I agree with some of your points, but not all. I agree that some novels can be unappealing or boring if they are cluttered with superfluous descriptions. I myself have skimmed over many a book, finding the details too distracting. There are exceptions to this viewpoint, however. Take, for example, the book Dream of the Red Chamber, written in the Qing Dynasty. This book is not particularly well-loved for its storyline , but its beauty and individuality lies in the minute details and vivid descriptions that the author had so cunningly inserted. I have summed up that, the real flaw of a heavy handed rhetoric is if he is trying to write, not draw a written picture.