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Further discussions regarding sensory description in writing. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
Further discussions regarding sensory description in writing.

Continuing the discussion from ‘Hobbies, FE, the Five Senses, and Writing’

 

 

 

I wrote, ‘The American conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “When Kipling smelled the supper-smokes of Amritsar, he should have elaborated.  Most poets seem to have subsisted on anthracite.”’

 

To which 

azdak

 replied, Perhaps Kipling was wise... and I have, myself, always preferred Austen to Dickens.

 

To this I would reply: Wise not to have elaborated, you mean?  Perhaps so.  But I note that Jane herself was, if subtly, as visual a writer as was Dickens, or GKC, or her great posthumous advocate, Kipling:

 

To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister.

       Mansfield Park

 

The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs Rushworth’s guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining doors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house.

                   Mansfield Park

 

Oddly enough, her brother, Henry, was the perpetual curate of St Mary’s, Bentley, for fourteen years.

*************

Quoting another of my remarks, 

‘Yes. Yes, they do. They live in suburbs, drive SUVs, and worry about getting the kids to their swimming/dance/music lessons. The majority are middle class, suburban, middle aged (or younger) middle Americans. In other words, the people most disconnected to the natural world.’

dbassassin

 wrote,‘“A remarkable number of writers in this fandom – excellent writers, writers who are by common consent better writers than am I – would seem, if one read only their fiction, to live lives of sensory deprivation.”

 

To this I would reply: Yet, as we both recognise, there is no actual disconnect. To these people, leading their lives of quiet desperation, one can but say, ‘You see, Watson, but you do not observe.’  The sheen of the piano’s polished wood, the rancid-butter smell of the changing-room, the chemical smell of the pool and the lap of water, the feel and scent of horsehair and rosin and oiled wood (I am after all a violinist) … the material is to hand, if they would but see it, even withindoors. 

 

‘Sound, especially crowd sound, is vital to the experience of sporting events and I’m continually dismayed that most action scenes in fanfic devolve into simple play-by-play commentary.’

 

I imagine this is partly a lack of experience as a touchline spectator, and partly a failure to grasp that JKR-canon gives both the commentary … and, through Harry’s actions and sensations on the pitch, the sensory data as well.

 

*********************

And 

omnivorously

 replied to the post by noting, ‘I have always been most impressed by writers who could bring describe the sensory parts of a scene. Impressed, and intimidated, because it’s so hard to fit sensations into words, rather than thoughts. Or is it just a matter of practice?’

 

I reply as follows: It is a ‘matter of practice’: craft rather than art.  And in fact, in your post referencing my post, immediately after your comment here, you did precisely what I was speaking of, in writing of your stir-fry.

 

Again, the incisive

omnivorously

: ‘And don’t you think those indoor scenes which you consider to be ... inadequate to a full life are worth describing as well? But then, you don’t go into the purpose of description in writing, you just say that it ought to be there, and it ought to reflect certain experiences which might be called old-fashioned, but which certainly are not characteristic of the information age. I hope I don’t sound combative, because I really would like to know, rather than guess, what you think the purpose of description is, and also whether you think that you have your own personal hierarchy for both experiences and things to be described (based on experience), or whether you do think there is a certain type of experience which is objectively valuable – like getting out of doors. I agree with you on that point, that experiencing nature is valuable, but I don’t know how to substantiate it, except that nature is interesting and beautiful, and that the main reasons I don’t want to ever live in the middle of a big city is because I don’t like the smells and sounds, and I need to have trees outside my window.’

 

My reply: Ah.  Not combative at all, and let me reply in kind: I don’t want to sound combative, so bear with me when I say that it is rather interesting that, as I am rather obviously a Tory in all senses, you feel you must ask why I might find the natural order to be of moment, and you consider some of the rural experiences that I adduced as examples or sources of sensory description, as being possibly old-fashioned in the information age.  I rather suspect that if I were known generally as a muesli-munching member of the Green Party rather than a Conservative who waxes rhapsoddingly about the Full English Breakfast, it mightn’t have occurred to you to ask.

 

What I mean by that is that this vaunted information age is in many ways an age of discrete groups talking at each other, and all at cross-purposes.  There is a reason why, proverbially, everyone talks about the weather.  Weather is one of the few things remaining that affects us all immanently and unmediated by prejudices, presumptions, prescription, and politics – even literary politics.  Weather, and other aspects of the natural order, are – as one of my favourite websites notes, eponymously – Common Ground.  Additionally, as the North American poetess Diane Ackerman notes, there are powerful connotations, accretionary meanings, that attach to, say, the rose: Shakespeare and Stein, England, York and Lancaster, sub rosa, the pre-Raphaelites, attar, the personal and poetic mythology of Yeats….  Or as George Gissing puts it, brilliantly, in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, one of the most lambent books in the language,

On my breakfast table there is a pot of honey. Not the manufactured stuff sold under that name in shops, but honey of the hive, brought to me by a neighbouring cottager whose bees often hum in my garden. It gives, I confess, more pleasure to my eye than to my palate; but I like to taste of it, because it is honey.

There is as much difference, said Johnson, between a lettered and an unlettered man as between the living and the dead; and, in a way, it was no extravagance. Think merely how one’s view of common things is affected by literary association. What were honey to me if I knew nothing of Hymettus and Hybla? – if my mind had no stores of poetry, no memories of romance? Suppose me town-pent, the name might bring with it some pleasantness of rustic odour; but of what poor significance even that, if the country were to me mere grass and corn and vegetables, as to the man who has never read nor wished to read. For the Poet is indeed a Maker: above the world of sense, trodden by hidebound humanity, he builds that world of his own whereto is summoned the unfettered spirit. Why does it delight me to see the bat flitting at dusk before my window, or to hear the hoot of the owl when all the ways are dark? I might regard the bat with disgust, and the owl either with vague superstition or not heed it at all. But these have their place in the poet’s world, and carry me above this idle present.

I once passed a night in a little market-town where I had arrived tired and went to bed early. I slept forthwith, but was presently awakened by I knew not what; in the darkness there sounded a sort of music, and, as my brain cleared, I was aware of the soft chiming of church bells. Why, what hour could it be? I struck a light and looked at my watch. Midnight. Then a glow came over me. ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!’ Never till then had I heard them. And the town in which I slept was Evesham, but a few miles from Stratford-on-Avon. What if those midnight bells had been to me but as any other, and I had reviled them for breaking my sleep? – Johnson did not much exaggerate.

The culture – what we might once have been able to call, ‘the common culture’ – is very much fragmented in these days.  So much so that, as I have noted before, the writer of thrillers or detective stories has difficulty in ‘playing fair’: the old commonality of ethics and morals and responses is so far diminished that misdirection and the planting of clues alike are affected.  Similarly, I should imagine that many of the associational accretions, the literary and cultural connotations, of cattle or sheep or honey or roses, are largely lost.  Few persons nowadays know anything of Hymettus and Hybla, or for that matter Rupert Brooke and the Old Vicarage, Grantchester; and those who do are unlikely to know much of honey.  Nonetheless, sensory experience, from Proustian biscuits to Brooke’s honey for tea to Turner’s and Ruskin’s and Constable’s clouds, skies, and weather, probably remain the nearest thing we yet possess to a common core of experiences.  Perhaps this is why – because the brute fact remains that this is so – perhaps this why hunting and shooting and fishing, farming and beekeeping, have generated so much of our best literature, speaking across languages and millennia and cultures, from the Canticles and Homer and Hesiod, through Vergil and Columella, through to Walton and on to Somerville & Ross and Adrian Bell.

In any event, whilst maintaining that rural or natural experiences provide the closest thing to common ground that we yet have, I do not mean to denigrate the uses of sensory description even in conveying the sense and experience of ‘those indoor scenes’: not at all.  Convey to me, as your story requires, the sense of womb-like comfort your character finds in a cosy room, alone with her books and her internet, or make me to feel the claustrophobia, the steady closing in, of wall and monitor, of desk to which your character is invisibly chained by circumstance, the sensation he has of being trapped, trammelled, a hare in a wire noose, and I am your devoted reader for life.  But these emotions are, after all, sense experiences, at the end of the day, and I do not know how they can be conveyed without the use of and reference to the five senses, Kipling’s faithful serving-men.

Finally, I note that, in this guise and on this site, I write Potterfic.  Perhaps I am too unimaginative, but I cannot see a better way to do that than by earthing the fantastic elements by a correspondingly greater attention to quotidian, Betjemanic sensory detail.  Dunsany and TH White did something very similar (as did Tollers; as did Jack Lewis; as did George MacDonald; as, indeed, did Spenser): to write of things ‘far from the fields we know’, it is necessary to pay attention to the fields we do know, to make the strange transcendent and otherworldly by making the familiar clear and sharply-limned.  (The theology of fairy-stories is another subject altogether.)  If the figures are to stand out in the foreground, the background wants painting-in, or so I hold; but, then, my tastes do run to Vermeer, and Constable, and even dear (or ‘deer’) old Landseer.

In the end, I suppose, it comes to this: whatever furthers the story and aids in communication has value, and one of the widest gates to communication, the most nearly infinite of the doors of perception, I know of is, that of sensory description. 

 

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(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

More buttered eggs, dear? Tea? Marmalade?

All excellent points. And you are especially spot-on in distinguishing decsribing from explaining.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

I must read that essay.

I have been forever saying that White, not Lewis or Tollers, is the model here: Jack and Tollers wrote of English children who enter Faerie; White, of Faerie existing within England (Eliot: 'here and England').

The funny thing is, as you say, that many of the real backwoodsmen conservatives (note the non-capitalisation) were Radicals, Socialists, and Distributists: Cobbett, Morris, Gissing, Orwell, GKC....
(Deleted comment)
azdak From: azdak Date: June 11th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
No, no, this will not do at all - if the passages you cite make Jane Austen a "visual writer", however subtle a one, then you can have no complaint about "sensorily deprived" fanfic. Jane Austen tells us that there is a sofa, a woman, nice clothes and a piece of needlework, but nothing about the colour, the texture, whether the dress rustles or crackles, whether it is smooth as silk or soft as velvet (in fact, the only visual information about clothing that I can recall her providing is when Edmund admires the "glossy spots" on Fanny's dress). We don't even know what pattern or picture is on the needlework, but must take the narrator's word for it that it is ugly and impractical (one reason why I worship Jane Austen is because she utterly inverts the tiresome fanfic rule of "showing not telling" and renders "telling" exhilerating). Similarly the description of Sotherton tells us that there is marble, mahogany, gilding and carving, but nothing about the shapes, colours, sizes or textures of these substances, or even what objects are composed of them. This is sensory information reduced to an absolute minimum - for, after all, what matters is not the things in themselves but what they tell us about the humans who own them.

Persuasion, I concede, has a few descriptions of nature, but they are all abstract, almost generic, and not at all concrete (and I think it is concreteness that you appreciate - the qualities that render a sensory experience specific rather than general. Jane Austen will not help you here. )
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 11th, 2007 08:17 pm (UTC) (Link)

I readily admit that no one will mistake Miss Austen ...

... for John Betjeman. (Or perhaps they might do: after all, Fuller's angel-cake, Robertson's marmalade, and Liberty lampshades are all of them rather evoked than described in 'Myfanwy'.) Nevertheless, working though she does at Hilyard miniatures and in intaglio rather than with the broad brush and the marble-chisel, Jane Austen does evoke, and she uses the senses to do, and it's all a world away from the sub-Hemingway deal of stuff one sees in the fanfic to which I adverted. Or so I feel. Evidently, I was unclear, or we simply disagree. Yet my own taste for the concrete quotidian detail is not the rule I was proposing, but, rather, I maintain that by evoking sense-perception, even if only by cataloguing marble and gilt and demanding that the reader fill in the rest, a writer wants to make the telling or the showing, as you rightly say, exhilarating.
dbassassin From: dbassassin Date: June 12th, 2007 04:24 am (UTC) (Link)
A reply that rambles like one of your country lanes:

</i>maintaining that rural or natural experiences provide the closest thing to common ground that we yet have</i>

Oh, I'd argue that point. It seems to me that those are precisely the experiences that the large majority of people lack, especially "rural" experiences. Even in Britain, what percentage of the population lives outside major cities? I'd agree that sensation, base sensory experience, is something that all readers can understand. But like any other element of narrative, it has to serve a purpose.

The substitution of sensation for a lapsed commonality of experience as the basis for a shared literary language is an intriguing arguement for wanting more sensory description in fiction. However, I think you may be exaggerating this supposed decline in commonality. There has never been such a thing as "common culture", other than a commonality tightly circumscribed by place, age and that thing that (in perhaps less self-conscious days) was once referred to as "class".

I would argue that culture has become more "common" rather than less (and no, that is not meant as a double entendre, though you're free to take it as one if you wish). I think you may be mistaking evolution for fragmentation. In a world where virtually all teenagers, regardless of their social and ethnic background, where they live, and what their parents do for a living listen to the same (revolting) music, and where virtually everyone in the free world knows (whether they want to or not) who Paris Hilton and Kate Moss are, I don't think you can argue that the commonality of experience is more fragmented than it was in the past.

To make a long point short, I'd argue that very few people ever knew anything of Hymettus and Hybla. But because you do, their fall out of memory is significant.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 12th, 2007 10:55 am (UTC) (Link)

Hmmm.

'Rural or natural' experiences: I concur, regretfully, in the sad suggestion that 'rural' experiences are on the wane, but surely 'natural' experiences are not? The rain continues, biblically, to fall equally upon the just and the unjust, and we all have the same 'base sensory' feelings when we get soaked to the skin. (It's in how we react that things get interesting.)

You say, 'There has never been such a thing as "common culture", other than a commonality tightly circumscribed by place, age and that thing that (in perhaps less self-conscious days) was once referred to as "class".' Oddly enough, that's one possible tack for resolving the Jane Austen Problem: her fans possess and are drawn from those possessing enough 'inside knowledge' that her allusions are meaningful to them and supply the place of other means of description and evocation (where, of course, a 'jolly vulgariser' such as Dickens is in this view a mass author, appealing to and relying on sensations and emotions everyone has and for the apprehension of which no special knowledge or class-specific experience is required).

'In a world where virtually all teenagers, regardless of their social and ethnic background, where they live, and what their parents do for a living, listen to the same (revolting) music, and where virtually everyone in the free world knows (whether they want to or not) who Paris Hilton and Kate Moss are, I don't think you can argue that the commonality of experience is more fragmented than it was in the past.' But to know the same undistinguished faces is not a shared experience, really, or is it? Even having discrete - not shared - auditory sense-experiences of pop-pap is a commonality of experience, if at all, of only the most tenuous sort; whereas almost everyone knows how tea or carrots or one's own burning, stressful bile, tastes.

Certainly, as I failed to make clear above, the fragmentation of the culture, or its evolution, however old or new, means that the connotative element may cease to be in play in writing of the senses and of sensation and of the sources or triggers of sensation. I had meant to say as much the first time. Proust's displeasing sopped biscuit, as JIM Stewart would put it, may no longer conjure Proust. But a biscuit dapped in one's Ceylon tea remains something most readers can imagine the taste of upon, as it were, their mind's tongue, and the sight of it in their mind's eye. And that, even naked of literary connotation, can be a tool, one I think too often overlooked, in giving a sense of time or of place, the act of 'dunking' the biccy in the cuppa a tool of showing character or at the least a tic of the character's, a ready and I would say under-utilised mechanism of world-building and granting a certain realism, or at least Gilbertian, Mikado-esque verisimilitude, to the fictional world in which one's characters live and move and have their being. That is the purpose and material justification for this 'element of narrative' - leaving to one side the vexed question of whether ornamentations, 'grace-notes', require justification.

But perhaps that is, as you suggest, an idiosyncratic view.
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 13th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Hmmm right back at you.

It's in how we react that things get interesting

I wholeheartedly agree. And for me, this is one of the principal reasons for writing "sensory" narrative (or any kind of descriptive detail): its ability to expose character in a way that is natural and unobtrusive, which I believe all supporting detail should be.

The connotative element is still present; it's just that the connotation is no longer literary, but personal. And as I stated before, I think the idea of replacing the literary with the sensory interesting; I hope I didn't give the impression that I considered it to have little merit. Quite the opposite, in fact.

World-building is a sorely missed element of most fanfiction. I think one of the principal attractions of fanfic is that the world comes ready-made; for the writer, the background is already on the canvas and he or she can focus on the foreground, the "interesting bits" of the story. For the reader, they can carry onto the field their full kit of preconceptions and know that they're likely not going to have to worry about a lot of meddlesome detail getting in the way of the porn. Both reader and writer can get away with being a little--or very--lazy. While fandom readers do not have the benefit possessed by Austen's contemporary audience of living in the world she wrote about, we do know a lot about the fandom universe in which our characters live. This is our allusion.

I think we're in agreement that each character, while existing in the broader world of (for example) the Potterverse, also exists in their own personal world. That the stories would be richer if writers made more of an effort to show us who the characters are as much as what they do is not in question, nor that the world around them and their responses to it, the small details of their lives, is one of the best ways to accomplish this.

The question of ornamentation or "grace-notes", I leave to the discretion of the individual church-goer.
dbassassin From: dbassassin Date: June 13th, 2007 01:43 am (UTC) (Link)

Ack!

This was me, by the way. I fail at logging in before clicking "Post comment".
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC) (Link)

Ack? Emma!

‘And for me, this is one of the principal reasons for writing “sensory” narrative (or any kind of descriptive detail): its ability to expose character in a way that is natural and unobtrusive, which I believe all supporting detail should be.

The connotative element is still present; it’s just that the connotation is no longer literary, but personal.

While fandom readers do not have the benefit possessed by Austen’s contemporary audience of living in the world she wrote about, we do know a lot about the fandom universe in which our characters live. This is our allusion.’
***********************
Yes, very much so: the canon, the fic-’verse, is a ponderable source of allusion within fanfic. I ought really to have thought about that.

And I agree that a primary purpose of detail is to expose character (or drive plot). But I don’t want to slight – and I don’t at all think you do – its other purposes, which may be to support theme as opposed to plot, or, again, to conjure connotation in the service of mood. The base data of an English country churchyard are largely the same in every parish, for example: yet JKR can use these to set a tone of horror, Sayers, a tone of Arcady lightly touched with equal tinges of comedy and regret, and, of course, Thomas Gray, an elegiac tone.

It is interesting in that context to examine Austen as a sort of literary inheritor of Bunyan: marble and gilt and chalcedony and jasper, without more, conjure less an image than a mood, a series of emotions: in the one case, social and aesthetic, in the other, Biblical and paradisal. This wants thinking upon, at least it prompts me to examine some insufficiently examined and inchoate thoughts half-held until now. I rather think I’ll have more to say under this head after I’ve mulled. Thank you for catalysing that.
dbassassin From: dbassassin Date: June 16th, 2007 04:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Ack? Emma!

Thank you for catalysing that.

You're welcome. Catalysis (is that even a word?) is infinitely easier than doing any real cogitation myself.

theme as opposed to plot

There does seem to be little interest in theme-exploring or mood-setting in fanfic. And from what I've seen, most people who try to set a mood in a story don't do it particularly well. I would prefer a straight-ahead, plot-driven story than a tedious slog through poorly written description troweled on with a heavy hand for no apparent purpose.

But I've become a very fussy, persnickety reader of fanfic; there's not a lot out there that I find both entertaining and well written (by my admittedly inconsistent standard), so I'm probably not the best or most objective judge of fanfic trends.

As it's been nigh on two decades since I've read either Bunyan or Austen, I can't comment on inheritance issues. Though I still can't get out of my mind a former professor once describing Bunyan's work (in essence, and not in those terms) as Bible fanfiction. But then, she thought that virtually all English literature written before 1918 was.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 16th, 2007 11:11 am (UTC) (Link)

Your old professor was perfectly correct.

Virtually all English literature written before 1918 was.

I think if one looks at the common use of evocative or connotative description-by-emotive-word (what a friend calls 'the same old "catalogue of ships" business') in Bunyan and Austen, one will see a surprising similarity in two remarkably dissimilar authors - where, by contrast, Barbara Pym, whom I love and who is generally considered to have been the 'modern Austen' (or, less reverently, the 'Austen Mini'), writes precisely observed sensory and natural detail with almost documentary specificity.

And I quite agree that, so far as most authors cannot manage theme-driven mood pieces, we're all best off if they, at least, stick to straight plotting even at the cost of minimalist description.
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 16th, 2007 09:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

You know you've been reading too much fanfic when...

'catalogue of ships' causes the imagination to jump to HP/SS and SS/RL rather than to Homer.

I sometimes wonder how many reference sets, how many discrete and contradictory meanings of and references from a single word the human mind can cope with before complete brainlock occurs.


Returning to our previous programming: Virtually all English literature written before 1918 was.

Which is the principal reason why I've largely avoided pre-20th century European literature for the last twenty years.
dbassassin From: dbassassin Date: June 16th, 2007 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Gah!

I really must break myself of this habit; it's getting embarrassing.
(Deleted comment)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 16th, 2007 11:01 am (UTC) (Link)

Spot on.

We anticipate or imagine sensations we've not had by extrapolating from those we've had: yes. Precisely. And where that will not suffice for the author, she trots off to the shops and returns with marmalade or what have you. And may I say how characteristic it is that dedication to one's craft results in an unexpected pleasure: here, the gaining experience of lingonberries, which are not to be missed.
synn From: synn Date: June 13th, 2007 02:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Most fanfic writers (indeed, most contemporary writers in general) do lack the sensory details -- though I think a previous commenter was right in saying that this is partially b/c the nature of fanfic, of already having a universe and characters with which the reader is familiar, allows it.
Though I also think much of it is due to the fact that most fanfic writers aren't taught how to write, they learn on their own. It's a basic, basic mistake of many new writers to neglect sensory detail -- just as it's a mistake of many new writers to write purple prose.

Still, I have to disagree about Jane Austen. This is a personal perspective, since I've only ever studied one of her books w/in a classroom, but I don't find her particularly sensory. It's one of the things I like about her work, she provides only enough to give you the character of a person/room/whatever and then leaves you to fill in the details. At the same time, other examples which I think you would find perfect, I find tiresome and overdone. They don't create a more real scene in my imaginings, but hinder it by bogging things down. Do I need to know what color the sky is, in this scene? what the horizon looks like? Is it relevant, as it is in Hemingway's 'hills like white elephants', or is it merely there to create a pretty picture in my head?
Perhaps my perspective is skewed because my first writing teacher focused on poetry, on expressing -- in the fewest, most accurate words -- an image or scene. What his lesson, and future experiences, have shown me is that it's not always a matter of showing the entire room, but the right pieces of the room. Most people, I think, fail to include sensory details because they fail to notice them, consciously, in life. Consequently, what I ask myself, as a writer, is what details would the character notice? When and why do we notice a scent? a touch? What might the character notice, and how can I use it to my advantage, symbolically?

But much of this is a matter of opinion -- how much is too much, too little?
I've rambled on a bit, haven't I?, hopefully comprehensively.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Rose is rose is - oh, sod that for a lark.

‘I don’t find [Austen] particularly sensory. It’s one of the things I like about her work, she provides only enough to give you the character of a person/room/whatever and then leaves you to fill in the details. At the same time, other examples which I think you would find perfect, I find tiresome and overdone. They don’t create a more real scene in my imaginings, but hinder it by bogging things down. Do I need to know what color the sky is, in this scene? what the horizon looks like? Is it relevant, as it is in Hemingway’s ‘hills like white elephants’, or is it merely there to create a pretty picture in my head?
Perhaps my perspective is skewed because my first writing teacher focused on poetry, on expressing – in the fewest, most accurate words – an image or scene. What his lesson, and future experiences, have shown me is that it’s not always a matter of showing the entire room, but the right pieces of the room. Most people, I think, fail to include sensory details because they fail to notice them, consciously, in life. Consequently, what I ask myself, as a writer, is what details would the character notice? When and why do we notice a scent? a touch? What might the character notice, and how can I use it to my advantage, symbolically?

But much of this is a matter of opinion -- how much is too much, too little?
I’ve rambled on a bit, haven’t I?, hopefully comprehensively.’

************************
Comprehensively and quite sensibly. Certainly, asking what the character would notice is a very effective and wise thing to do, and I’m very glad indeed that you pointed that out.

I find it interesting that you mention ‘symbolism’ so hard on the heels of poetry: Symbolism as such is of course as you quite rightly suggest very much dedicated to the isolation and presentation of the telling detail, all else pared away. Yet there are other ‘ways / Of making tribal lays’, as Kipling said, although I don’t agree with him that ‘every single one of them is right’: and the non-minimalist approach of the non-Symbolist movements has I think its place, piling acute detail on acute detail to amass something truly grand. Donne did it, as did Langland, Milton, Betjeman, Housman, Eliot….

To the question, Do you – as reader – ‘need to know’ the colour of the sky or the scent of hay, I can only reply that the author may have a hidden or inward reason for wanting you to know: not only may her motive be to show character or drive the plot, she may also wish to embellish the theme or suggest a mood. A purely utilitarian style is in fact a style, a deliberate choice to sacrifice some modes in favour of others, and the rightness or wrongness of that choice rests in the end upon whether or not it serves the writer’s purpose. Quite often, it may do, and there may be a hidden and subtle richness in an apparent or facial poverty of expression. My only complaint is that this seems to be the fashionable or default style – coupled with the further suggestion that beauty for its own sake so long as it does not stand in its own light and cripple the narrative and that narrative’s other purposes, is also a positive good and a worthy goal. In the end, I think that, rather than a pure matter of opinion, these choices do reduce as you suggest to the test of, What best serves the author’s purpose and the needs of the story? So long as that is the touchstone, I am well enough content.
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wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

The RSPB, behind every hedge.... Part One.

I definitely agree that description can aid in communication between writer and reader. … However. I don’t think sensory experience of the great outdoors necessarily creates a common experience. It all depends on where you grow up, and what you read while you’re growing up.

Perhaps more the latter?

I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut; New England, in fact. When I first saw England, there was a sense of familiarity about it, probably because I had read so much Tolkien when I was young – Tolkien’s descriptions, the trees and plants he mentioned, the weather, was based off his experience in England. On the other hand, Israel looks and feels alien to me. It’s too pale and bright. The Negev Desert felt like a different planet. I actually read a great deal of the Hebrew Bible when I was in elementary and middle school in the original, but of course there aren’t any descriptions in the Bible.

Canticles, surely? I’m not at all being facetious here, although God knows that is one of the more notorious qualities inculcated in those who have been moulded by my old college and its university as whole (‘and what a whole it is’). As you will notice above, I chanced to be made to reflect upon Bunyan in these discussions, and that in turn has reminded me of how much he, and to some extent Milton, and to no small extent the Authorised Version, had deep-dyed the consciousness of the British of 1914 – 1918 with what they at least thought were ultimately Biblical descriptions of ancient Israel (vide Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, that indispensable work).

The first series I ever got into, even before I could read the books for myself, was the the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have always had trouble envisioning the places described in the Little House books, because they take place in virgin forest and on the unspoilt prairies. However, I think that if I should ever find myself in virgin forest or on the unspoilt prairies, there will be a similar sense of recognition as that which I had when I saw the English countryside which Tolkien had in his own experience and in his mind when he was writing.

Can descriptive communication take place retroactively?


Yes. Without going into the tired old postprandial SCR debates about realism, conceptualism, and nominalism, communication rests, I would submit, upon the existence and recognition of such universals as are necessary to our ability to classify objects as sharing certain qualities, as redness, or coldness, or Being a Chair (part of the class of objects we collectively call ‘chairs’). (I can just hear Freddie Ayer and Miss Anscombe arguing from various texts in the Tractatus as we speak.) Your sense of recognition of, of familiarity with, parts of England and the English countryside relied upon precisely that. By extension, your recognition of the different light values sunlight has upon the Turl or St Aldate’s to those it has in the Negev, also depends upon the existence of common, sensory universals, without which you could not recognise that it is the details that differ, or how much or why and in what way they do.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: June 15th, 2007 01:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

The bird table, part two.

My point is that there are gaps in the commonality of sensory experience which have to be navigated. It can be powerful and add greatly to a piece of writing, but it is limited by how well the sensory experiences of the writer and the reader match up. The quality of light at noon in England after a dreary morning of rain when the sun has just come out is different from the noon light in Israel in high summer, when there hasn’t been a drop of rain in months. Nevertheless, a description of a place that the reader has never been to can enrich the imagination of the reader anyway, can be an experience (sensory? pseudo-sensory) in and of itself, and can enrich later sensory experiences.

Indeed. And I would submit that at the very least, it is because we do all of us share certain basic universal sensory experiences – the feeling of being wet, say – that we can, as you did before ever arriving in England or in Israel, make sense of the sensory data we experience in previously unfamiliar contexts, and have an imaginative and literary preparation for an experience thitherto known only through … sensory description in another’s writings. Of course there will be gaps; but there is a base substrate on which to build. And, as we’ve remarked, that can be especially important in giving a sense of verisimilitude in writings otherwise concerned with the fantastic and the magical.

And I didn’t have all that in my head when I started writing.

Likewise. This Socratic accomplishment on both our parts, forcing the examination of previously hazy ideas, at least justifies our tackling these issues. I’m very much enjoying, and learning from, your and everyone’s incisive contributions: thank you for that.
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