Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Should writers cut back on scenery?

Laura Miller's Salon column yesterday got me thinking, again, about the relationship of setting to character. This is a particular concern of mine, because I've often worried that my own fiction lacks a sufficient sense of place. But how do you work a detailed sense of place into the narrative without bringing it to a grinding halt while you describe every highway, byway, lake, lawn, and tree?

Miller argues that one of the biggest problems in literary fiction today is, in fact, the overuse of description. Using Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife as her primary example, she quotes a paragraph of scenic description, and then says,

Zdrevkov is godforsaken, but this fact is amply conveyed in the following four paragraphs describing the town itself -- most of that bit is quite good, although still a shade exhaustive. Obreht has said in an interview that she wants to write about "the influences of place on characters," but the passage above is too flatly reportorial to suggest that this woman feels anything but overheated.

By way of contrast, Miller approvingly quotes Alias Grace:

Margaret Atwood writes of a suffocating Victorian parlor, "all possible surfaces of it are upholstered; the colors are those of the inside of the body -- the maroon of kidneys, the reddish purple of hearts, the opaque blue of veins, the ivory of teeth and bones."

The distinction I believe Miller is getting at is that Atwood's description reveals both the parlor, and the state of mind of the character viewing the parlor. Grace (who will later be accused of murdering the parlor's owner and committed to an asylum) is clearly, shall we say, unsettled in this setting. The "influence of place" on this character is indeed stifling--though Atwood, I would point out, leaves open the possibility that someone else (the rich owner of the house, for instance), would see these same items very differently.

In other words, places definitely influence characters, but the reverse is also true: characters influence settings, at least in terms of how the reader sees and interprets them through their eyes. Atwood's description is singular enough that we come to see both the parlor and Grace as singular. And throughout the novel, Grace and her setting will continue to interact and shape each other in surprising (and specific) ways. It seems to me this notion is crucial--the setting doesn't just "contain" the characters, but is continuous, and contiguous, with character. Setting and character are all part of the same fabric, the space-time of the novel (to rip off both Bakhtin and Brian Greene at the same time).

Still, this is much easier to realize if you are writing in the close third-person point of view. I haven't read The Tiger's Wife, and so don't know what point of view Oberht uses overall. Miller says her style is "subtle" and her main character mostly "opaque," which suggests a more external, even omniscient point of view. If you believe in or at least want to explore the possibility of omniscience (even a sort of blocked omniscience, which can't see inside people very well), some descriptive passages would have to originate from this point of view. This would seem to preclude the red-in-tooth-and-claw type of description we get from Atwood. But does that mean that such description would always end up being "flat" and "reportorial"?

Or maybe this really means that in literature (if not in life) no setting can exist outside of perception. That perception might be a character's, or it might even be the author's--more specifically, that of the author's persona, which we might call the voice. The author may or may not create a specific narrator for the story, but there is always a presence that the voice embodies. And it would behoove us writers to always be aware of that presence, what it is doing, and what its agenda is at any given moment in the narrative. Perhaps it's even in a tug-of-war with a character, vying (quietly or not) over whose description of reality is more true. You would then see layers (or striations) of perception in the landscape, which could make the scene very rich indeed--even if those layers are subtle.

Anyway, I can't decide whether I think Miller's right in telling authors to cut back on description. Elmore Leonard's advice to take out the boring parts is, of course, always correct--whether they are descriptions of setting, or dialog, or anything else. I suspect that boredom often ensues when the reader's sense of a human presence flags.

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