Proper Nouns and Their Distancing Effect In Writing

I believe that the use of proper nouns should be limited if one wishes to create approachable and readable fiction. Like I have already said in a previous article, I find that the use of unfamiliar proper nouns can have a detrimental effect on the reading experience.

For instance, in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, the narrator makes a myriad of references to literary figures early on in the novel:

I knew that Maupasant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein.

The problem here is twofold. Firstly, it is a long and unwieldy sentence. Secondly, if a reader is unfamiliar with these names, he or she is liable to put down the book and never return to it.

On the whole, I find that the use of names are shortcuts that should be avoided when possible. Unless one is writing for a specific audience—say, for an academic journal—then one should keep the general reading public in mind. And, in doing so, one might avoid such references and put it in its place something that is more approachable. After all, proper nouns having different meanings to different folks. Take ‘New York’ for example. To me, it means New York City, a place that encompasses a variety of socioeconomic classes. To someone from England or Chicago, though, New York City could mean an exciting city full of fine dining and high culture. And to someone else, it could very well include rural upstate New York. It helps to add qualifiers so that a reader is guided towards what the writer wishes her to feel or think about a certain topic. Dropping too many names and proper nouns can be jarring and unpleasant to read; if that is the desired effect, then I would recommend the writer choose a different one, unless he wishes to reduce his readership.