In Defence of Detail

Someone the other day made a snotty comment saying that a piece my writing was ‘too detailed.’ Ok… Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and not everyone is going to like my work, I accept that. Some people are going to find it too detailed for their tastes. That is not what this article is about though. Because this comment got me thinking, doing a bit of investigating into what this guy had said. It turns out that there are a few too many people, like this guy, who for some reason think that ‘detail’ is the work of the devil. They think that we should get rid of long descriptive passages and all the bits that might inform the reader about the settings and the characters and the context. They want every book stripped down to the barest minimum, stripped of everything except action and dialogue and perhaps a vague description of what some of the characters look like. They think that ‘detail’ is something that should be wiped out. For myself I find that what these people want would make for a very dull literary landscape. There is certainly a place for the simple, stripped down book but that doesn’t mean to say that these particular people are right. They are, in fact absolutely, one hundred percent so not right.

Before I get on to telling you of these people I should tell you a bit more about this comment and how it came about. For the last month or so I have been on a self promotional binge and I joined this writing website in order to try and get more of stuff out there, more attention. I uploaded a sample chapter of Eboracvm, the same sample I uploaded on here a few weeks ago. I was looking for a little bit of feedback on it, on how it was working out, and there was this section of the site where you could drop a message, say hi and ask for feedback. I went there, dropped a post on Eboracvm and waited. Then two things happened. The first was a snotty comment to my post stating how if I wanted feedback then I should comment and like other people’s stuff. Yeah? I was going to do that anyway. I just left the post because that was a place for requesting feedback. I then noticed that this guy was doing it to everybody who left a feedback request and further digging led me to the conclusion that he was part of a small ‘holier than thou’ elite who dominated the site. He was a dick-wad in other words.

Then the comment on Eboracvm came through and it was from another of the ‘holier than thous.’ The thrust of it was complaining about the detail and how certain sections of the chapter were, in his words ‘pointless.’ Specifically they were: Boston’s excruciatingly embarrassing comments about noisy sex, the whole bit in the Italian restaurant and the contrasting description concerning what the Shambles Club actually is versus what Marco expects it to be. I should say now that those bits aren’t pointless. They have some very good reasons for existing. They’re there for informing character and setting. They’re there to let you sink into the book, as if it were a warming bubble bath, and they’re there have it whisk you away into the imagination. The first, the sex stuff, is to do with Boston’s character- Boston is a valet, I should add, and he sometimes doesn’t know when to shut up and he has a tendency to go on about things longer than he should. The man is a serial rambler. And, though this isn’t apparent just from reading the chapter, this particular ramble also happens to be part of a running joke. All Morfasson are ridiculously loud when it comes to the bad thing and this crops up again and again in my works. It pops up in Dark Legend, The Rebels and D.S Proctor and it also comes boomeranging back in the very next chapter of Eboracvm when Marco, Victoria and Diana walk in on Marco’s cousin, Dylan, having a very loud wank. So it’s a brick joke in this case!

The restaurant bit serves a three fold purpose- The first is that it is about whisking the reader away, salivating the taste buds by throwing this gorgeous, expensive Italian food at them. It’s evocation. It’s steeping them in a melting pot, making them feel as if they’re right there at the table with Marco. It’s also about Italian imagery, which is recurs throughout the book. The last fold is to do with Marco’s character. In contrast to his brother Will (who is working class to the core) Marco is a posh boy. He’s flash. He throws money about. The restaurant is super posh and that fits Marco like a glove. It’s all about getting that aspect of his character across to the reader. The nightclub description is a similar sort of thing to the above, only I’m also playing on the images that the name conjures up, basing them on some old Bangor clubs that have long since gone the way of the dodo, one called ‘Octagon’ in particular. So far from being pointless I’d say these comparatively short sections actually have a good reason for being there. And personally I would say that the chapter, overall, isn’t that detailed.

But what is detail? Well… When it comes to literature the actual definition is a vague one at best. It means different things to different people. But generally it is anything that isn’t plot or dialogue or action. It is context and setting, the world inhabited by the characters. It’s in how the writer conveys the world to the reader, not just through description but through emotion and feelings and ideas, through the subtext. To understand it better think of a story as being like this: The plot is the bedrock. It is the base from which everything is built and directly on top we have the characters and the dialogue. Both of these propel the plot forwards. With just this trinity alone a story would be very basic and simple so we complicate things. We thus add flesh to the bones of the trinity by way of what we call detail; the setting, the context and the world which the story and characters inhabit. The more we flesh things out the more complex and the more detailed the story becomes.

This detail can be enormously powerful. If wielded in the right way it can metaphorically kidnap a reader, engross them and take them on a fantastical voyage. It can help a writer to drill into the head of a complete stranger and leave behind wonderful images that stay with them for the rest of their lives. It can manipulate thoughts, creating new ones and changing old ones. It can fuel imagination like nothing else on earth. It provides many of the primary reasons many people like to read. Without detail and the power that comes with it literature would be a very niche place indeed. It might not even exist.

Now I’m not saying it’s wrong to dislike detail. It is perfectly fine for someone to enjoy simpler, less complex prose. Even those of us who enjoy reading the more detailed stuff, like myself, like to wallow in something simple every now and again. Likewise, I am again not saying that the commenter was wrong for disliking my work. I asked for feedback, that is what I got. I can’t complain. BUT the comment reminded me of something I came across a while back, a something that suggested detail was a bad thing. At the time I ignored this thing but after reading a comment that was basically saying half of what I had written was pointless it came back to my mind and I started to wonder about it. What I came across when I looked into this thing further was an incredibly vocal minority who clearly don’t like detail but who also think that it has no place within the literary sphere, who don’t think anyone else should like detail. I found them spreading their claws almost everywhere on the internet, across the likes of Amazon, Goodreads and, as I first discovered, this writers thing I signed up for. These people can usually be found blasting apart anything that isn’t boorishly simple, anything with the tiniest amount of detail to it. And all too frequently these rants are accompanied by the words ‘what’s the point?’

They are especially prevalent when it comes to older books, works of so called classic literature. One of the ‘what’s the point’ brigade I came across was particularly aggrieved by the bleak depiction of the moorland in Wuthering heights, decrying them as being particularly egregious and pointless. Yet it is that very bleak moorland that makes Wuthering Heights what it is. The moors are like a character in themselves. There’d be no book without them… Or there would be, it wouldn’t be nearly so good though. I came across another ranting about Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. They were going on about one bit of metaphor early on where Pip compares the damp outside his windows to the tears of a goblin and how it was unnecessary and needed to be cut out. Now Dickens has many faults but his descriptive writing isn’t (usually) one of them. They, along with his characters, are what makes him worth reading. The start of Great Expectations, where the goblin thing comes from, is Dickens at his atmospheric best.

These people never acknowledge that these works of classic literature are almost two hundred years old and come from a time when there was no such things as simple, stripped down literature. That is a modern idea. A two hundred year old book is never going to be written in a modern style, obviously, and it is ridiculous to expect it to be. There are always going to be some challenges in reading them. You can’t, however, go ranting on the internet because you don’t like the fact that is considerably more detailed and descriptive than modern literature.

In general all of these sorts of comments and rants smack as if they come from people who just don’t understand the written word, the way literature works. That’s a harsh thing to say and probably not true for at least some proportion of the commenters, perhaps a large proportion, but the way in which they rail certainly makes it seem like they don’t understand. The fact that they shout ‘what’s the point?’ shows that in droves. If they had any understanding at all they’d know what the purpose was, how the detail is there to flesh out the story and what it is supposed to do for the reader. They wouldn’t go ranting in the way that they do.

These people are a vocal minority and they wouldn’t even be worth acknowledging except for one thing. They may already have penetrated the publishing industry. That was my first some time ago glimpse at this horror. I found a person, an agent, stating that she immediately throws some submissions away because they are ‘too detailed.’ I brushed this away as being the ludicrous opinion of one person because also on that list was ‘starts with description’ and ‘has a prologue.’ That last is particularly ridiculous as prologues have been around since god only knows when. But now I’ve seen more of this kind of thing in the ‘what’s the point’ brigade I am beginning to wonder how many more of this agent’s sort are out there. Are they widespread, condemning literature to a bland future? Money is, unfortunately, a contributing factor in the publishing industry and so I also wonder how many of these agents are pandering to this vocal minority? Not wanting to be daring and publish something with rich, gorgeous detail because this minority will hate it? There will be some, undoubtedly, and their presence means the minority currently have the upper hand. It effectively means they can dictate their wildest dreams and get rid of their much derided detail.

But they’re not winning. They’re not currently winning and I won’t ever let them. Two of the most popular literary book series of the last few decades are Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Both are fantasy but besides that both also feature incredibly detailed worlds. J.K Rowling has a whole website of details that didn’t make into the books (I’m in Ravenclaw by the way, just thought I’d tell you) and the books are stuffed to the gills as well. As for A Song of Ice and Fire… It is no wonder it takes George R.R Martin so long to write them because his books feature a world that is the richest, deepest and most complex since Tolkien created middle earth… And Tolkien is pretty popular as well now that I mention him. Martin’s Westeros is not just made up of what is there in the present but it also has an extensive history that shapes the characters, their actions and the plot as well. The enormous popularity of these books, the global fandoms these works have created and the amount of people who adore them up to and beyond the point of obsession is tantamount proof that detail is no bad thing. The detail, in fact, is what an awful lot of people love about those books. Saying all that detail is pointless, in my opinion, is undermining all that love. You’re stamping upon millions of people just for your own petty, trivial ideas.

What winds me up the most is that these people seem to think that just because they don’t like detail they can shit on the thousands of people who do love it. There is (and I stress this again) nothing wrong with liking less detailed literature but just because you don’t like the more detailed stuff doesn’t give you the right to go ranting on the internet about how it’s all pointless and should be wiped out. If you’re reviewing something or offering a feedback have some respect for both the writer and other readers. Don’t go slamming the whole thing as pointless just because you don’t like the fact it has a bit of detail. And if you’re offering feedback just be more broad minded. Try and be constructive and impartial. Don’t shit all over it just because it isn’t what you would normally read. If a work isn’t for you that’s no crime but what is unacceptable is when you start using your own views to viciously trample over others. That sort of intolerance leads to some bad shit and we don’t want to go down that road right now.

I’m prepared to accept that some people won’t like detail or like the way I and others like me write. There are plenty more who will and do like what I write. I don’t care if you think it is ‘too detailed.’ I write and always will write in the way I was taught to write, which is a descriptive style. All through school all the books and extracts I was taught were descriptive and detailed ones. One of the ones I remember was unfortunately entitled ‘Fanny Has Lunch With Papa’ and I think it was from Mansfield Park. Part of my English GCSE course involved writing something descriptive. And today I read a lot of early-mid twentieth literature and that, whilst not as challenging as nineteenth century literature, can still be quite detailed. No jumped up punk who wants to eradicate detail is going to make me change for anything. Even if I end up a lone and wordy voice in the wilderness, I will not change.

What we have with these people is yet another example of one of the internet’s by-products, the opinionated tit who thinks that their view is more important than the view of anybody else. They think they deserve to be heard. They’re not trolls (though trolls are closely related) but they’re just as bad a bunch. They don’t deserve to be heard and their views are no more important than the views of everyone else. It isn’t just in literature they crop up but in music, film and television- In comment sections across the internet on practically every subject. There are whole websites and blogs devoted to this sort of narrow mindedness ‘Oh you like that show?’ they sneer pretentiously as though you’re covered in dog shit. They think they have a licence to dictate what is right and wrong but they really don’t. Sadly they’re often the people who shout the loudest but we can’t let them win. These people have already got their claws into the publishing industry. Let’s not let them dig in any deeper.

And if you ARE one of those people who denegrate on detail and think it should be wiped out then may I suggest three simple, not very detailed books you might enjoy: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Ulysses by James Joyce and The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco.

As for me… I’ve deleted my account on that writer’s thing (because of the whole holier than thou culture and because a lot of the stuff on there was absolute garbage) and now I need to find some other way of promoting myself. It won’t be another writer’s thing.


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