I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore one day and flipped open a book on display. I read a passage that said something about a handsome Englishman’s expensive untucked shirt and his handcrafted suit. I was immediately put off by the passage because I felt as if I were being led on without any authority.
Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.
Let us experiment with something. Suppose that I wish to convey to the reader that a man is comfortably wealthy, and that his suit and shirt is in fact expensive. Here is the first method:
The man wore his expensive shirt untucked, the shirt tail ruffling in the wind ever so gently. Over it, he wore a handcrafted suit. Coming out of his red Maserati, he flashed an easy smile at my wife.
Now, let us try a different way.
The man had about him a casual yet elegant air, an essence that was composed partly of his light graceful movement, and partly from his untucked shirt, which flowed easily thanks to the hand-stitching in the seams of the light and comfortable English-milled cotton. His shirt draped from his shapely chest down to his torso just so. Across his broad shoulders lay a handsome cotton blazer that was handmade for him by his tailors on Savile Row, who knew to gently taper the jacket down to his trim waist.
In the first example, we are loathe to simply believe the writer’s adjectives. Especially when the passage comes in the first five pages and before the writer has convinced us of his skill, such judgments alienate the reader. After all, how can I, as a reader, trust that what is told to me by the narrator is real and true? I need some sort of proof that he knows what he is talking about. And throwing around the descriptors ‘expensive’ and ‘handcrafted’ doesn’t do very much to convince me that he is indeed knowledgable and trustworthy.
On the other hand, in the second example, the reader tends to trust the narration because there is sufficient detail. Rather than telling you that his shirt is expensive and his jacket is “handcrafted,” I show you that it is so by directing your attention to the right places. You can infer that his clothes are expensive, and I needn’t tell you so. The reader must come to all judgments herself if the world is to be believable and engrossing.
It is only after the writer has established this trust with the reader that the writer can use shorthand. Once the writer has proven that he knows what precisely what qualities makes something expensive can he say later that something is expensive. He needn’t go through such great lengths to convince the reader again, though he is free to do so if he wishes.
What disappoints me is that the questionable passage was read in a book that was a self-proclaimed piece of literary fiction. The writing style contained sentences that were truncated and simple. While I do not feel that all literary fiction should necessarily lean towards the side of purple prose, I do expect literary fiction to have more respect and love for the written word. I am not sure what the trend is in this day and age, but I do hope that there is still room for more considered and more crafted prose.¶