170. Is verbosity always bad?

Judges for the 2018 Man Booker Prize appealed to authors to edit. “Occasionally we felt that inside the book we read, was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said chair of the judging panel, Kwame Anthony Appiah.

I have great sympathy with this appeal. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post bemoaning the sharp increase in the length of novels after 1950. I also remarked there that this is an odd phenomenon in age in which, we are told, attention  span is shortening and instant gratification is the norm.

The modern reader, confronted with this opening of Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, might be expected to scrawl TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) and move on:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The reason for the discrepancy between short attention span and long novels is probably that the novels I used for comparative analysis are those that received critical approval, not necessarily those from the mass market.

Though I enjoy brevity, I want to make a few points here in defence of verbosity:

  1. To be verbose is not necessarily to be imprecise. The opposite of verbose is “succinct”, not “precise”.
  2. There is pleasure to be had in lush description.
  3. Verbosity has real narrative function.

Look back at the Dickens excerpt. What is he telling us? He is writing about the era of the French revolution, and contrasting two opposed worlds: one of radical change and the other of conservative stasis. He could, of course, have just said that. Instead, he makes us experience the contradiction. In the mode of the writing coach, I might say he “shows” us, rather than “tells” us. And, surely, that is the job of the writer—to allow us to live for a moment in another’s reality.

Excessive description (with a few exceptions like the Biblical Song of Solomon) is largely absent from literature before the advent of the modem novel. Just take a look at Homer’s spare prose, if you doubt this.

The classics of earlier eras are plot-rich. There was little drive to explore the inner life of protagonists because their goodness or evil was a function of their actions, not their thoughts and feelings. These stories were created for homogeneous communities with a shared understanding of the world. So, exploration of inner worlds would have been superfluous.They also describe worlds where change generally came slowly and yesterday was much like today.

Today, many of us live in diverse communities where the pace of change is dizzyingly fast. Understanding that diversity and capturing the fleeting present is one of the functions of description in fiction.

If I want to understand you, I need to appreciate your perception and your motivation, not just your actions. We all experience things differently. And, perhaps, the modern obsession with recording everything, and of “making memories” rather than simply experiencing things, is the clue to why verbosity matters.  If the slow world of the past generated stories full of fast action, our fast world needs slow stories that capture the moments before they’re gone.

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