Dé Máirt 28 Meitheamh 2011

Descriptive writing in prose - a bit of a rant

[Originally posted here on October 25, 2010]

I’m reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I must say that I have mixed feelings about it. There are instances of brilliance in it, mainly when it concerns the characters themselves: her description of Roland Michell photocopying the stolen letter drafts brought a smile to my face as it described exactly my experiences as a chronic-photocopier during my time in UCD Library. I can empathise greatly with Maud Bailey as a character, and find that my attention levels heighten when she enters the narrative. Byatt’s use of folkloric plotline formulae create enjoyable stories written by Christabel LaMotte, but the poetry (so far and in my opinion) is awful. I do get the impression that Randolph Henry Ash is not supposed to me a great poet, but rather an obscure literary figure adopted by modern postgraduates in order for them to find a topic that hasn’t been picked to bits, so perhaps Byatt writes his poems in the most boring and brain-numbing manner to reflect his character (and Victorian time-period).

The problem that I have with Byatt is her banal descriptions, that make me feel impatient as a reader as they take away from the flow of the narrative. Here’s an example:
The valleys are deep and narrow, some wooded, some grassy, some ploughed. (Byatt, Possession, 68)
I may not be enrolled in a literary course in university anymore, but the literary critic in me is still very much switched on. This, for me, is an insipid description that is not necessary. As far as I am concerned, a modern writer should describe things of distinction distinctively. If they’re not distinctive, they don’t need description (unless, perhaps, to create the bored affect of banality from the position of a particular character). And if they’re worth describing, give them language worth writing (and worth reading)! If what you’re describing is an inanimate object, give it life, and characteristics; give it meaning in the context of what you’re trying to impress upon the reader.

This is why I frequently abandon prose-writings; it has to be cleverly written, with creative or poetic language, and gripping with activity and interesting characters for me to become enamoured with it. This kind of meaningless description like the one above bores me to tears and my mind either wanders or I become angered and argue with the writer! If I wanted ‘realistic’ descriptions, I’d pick up the newspaper. (‘Real’ being an ambiguous word these days…) Good writing/literature should grasp the imagination and the spirit, and (if it’s excellent) give them a good shake.

Maybe it’s because I’m returning to English literature after Gaelic, or to prose after poetry. I find Gaelic (Irish and particularly in Scottish) writing to be very rich in imagery - we use language sensually, using words to paint pictures, that causes tremours of meaning (very pretentiously put, I know!) in your very imagination. (I suppose I’m talking about poetry here for the most part, so maybe it’s not a fair comparison…) Only in the really old Gaelic texts do you find banal, dry and tedious descriptions with lists of adjectives. Basically, Gaelic writing is very fresh - to put it in terms of painting, the effect of the words would be like vivid shiney oils.
While I sat in bed last night under the full moon, with my blood full of wine and anger, I raging silently against Byatt’s writing and then began to think of how I would describe a similar rural setting. I wouldn’t describe something that wasn’t worth the words, as I have said already. So my mind’s eye wandered over to Scotland (as it so often does these days, in waking and sleeping), and I thought of the mountains near Glenfinnan.

As I took my rage out on the pages of my notebook, I stabbed in these two descriptions that I came up with for these sweeping mountains:
‘well-endowed bosoms of the earth’
‘a woman’s raised shapely knees under a green quilt’
So they’re not the best descriptions, by no means, but I’m using them to illustrate a point. Interestingly, in both descriptions I refer to female anatomy; coming from a Gaelic background in literature (and a specifically Irish Gaelic background), I see the land as feminine, as goddess. (In Scottish Gaelic tradition, as far as I know, they don’t often refer to the land of Scotland as a goddess like we do in Ireland.) I think I’ve gotten the shape of the mountain here right, and by refering to the feminine I’m betraying my Irish Gaelic approach. Literary language should say more than what it appears to be literally saying.

What does Byatt say in her description? Not a lot. You would really have to pressurise the text to get something out of that. Yawn.

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