RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #20 – More Is Too Much

If you cannot learn to love real art at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. – William Morris

I’ve had a theme in my head for some time now. It escapes editing and goes off down the rabbit hole. Because it is ill-defined. Excess? (yes, to me) Sloppy? (not always) Lazy? (lots of toil involved in some cases) Self-serving? (difficult to say). Style? (close, but…) Wanking? (depends on sloppy or lazy)

What I’m trying to get to is superfluous content, author agendas (preaching), and the middle of the road. By MOR I mean clichés, weak language, lack of logic. Which brings me to Lester Dent. If you don’t know Lester Dent there are numerous websites dedicated to the man who prototyped the superhero, much as Morris did for fantasy. Dent’s “Doc Savage” was better looking and more charismatic than all the 007s, had more toys than Batman or M dreamed of. Without Doc Savage Stan Lee would have had no one to put in multicolored spandex. Dent’s take on pulp construction is short and explicit. It should be studied for no other reason than the discovery of truth in short noir-ish fiction formatting. To the point –

Dent told a funny story about setting, and fooling editors (and readers). If you want a story set in an exotic locale, foreign land or someplace you’ve never been you had to sell it. The editors were fearful of misrepresentation and exposure of the author as a phony. Dent’s example was Egypt. To con an editor into believing you’d been to Egypt, or were an amatuer Egyptologist, throw in a local character saying something in Egyptian. Use the old ploy of having another character translate it, or the main character translate it himself. “Yes, Afkhan, I know it’s a tree.”  It also helps to find some pictures of the area to recreate, if only briefly. I would suppose along the lines of the distance between two pyramids a character had to cover without being shot. Palm trees or whatever, a crazy colorful bazar (Indiana Jones). A little of that and the editor signed off on Egypt. Note – a little. Just enough to sell it, not a full-blown travelogue for Egypt (or wherever).

I mention this because I have read some books lately that are more travelogue than story. I enjoyed Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand save for the scheduled injections of rural Sussex that rivaled the output of the Romantics. She said in an interview that those parts of the book were a romanticized paean to her homeland. At least she owned it. And she could have pushed a real modern race/bigotry agenda in the book. Instead she made it a classic shot of Jane Austen-ish satire of manners with a touch of romantic fairy tale for the 21st century. Good for her. But I still flipped through the many pages of pastoral mist on England’s green and pleasant getting to the story. I should add I learned a couple of things about backstory insertion and character exposure tricks from that book.

Another glaring example is James Lee Burke. The man has sold a gazillion books. I picked up his Creole Belle at the library to see why. After maybe forty pages I have a couple of story, a lot of opinions about New Orleans, way too damn many descriptions of plant life. Characters can’t step out of a door without witnessing a half page laundry list of flora and bugs and snakes and the various states of the water – black in the shade, green with algae, glistening from a streetlamp and rain drumming in various quantities on every surface imaginable. I shouldn’t have had to get out my iPad and Googled botanical pictorial lookups to refresh my memory on caladiums and rhododendrons and fifteen other types of plants on the patio of an office building we’ll never go back to. Everything is described in massive detail. Substance rehab, stinky trailers, all a reason to go off for a page or more on philosophy and agenda and the evils of the world, the nasty yanks and the brave confederates. Some with not so transparent preaching ascribed to them. Do we really need all that shit to find out where Creole Belle went?

Tony Hillerman can put you on a rutted road in the New Mexico desert without all that. Robert Parker can put you on a corner in Boston, all you need. He can even wax good versus evil. You know Spenser and Hawk are hard guys without constantly being reminded of it. Yet Burke throws it in every couple of pages. Maybe because his big tough guys talk, on occasion, like teenage girls. “Isn’t that neat?” Like a couple of tough guys I read about trapped by gunfire saying, “What shall we do?” That wasn’t Burke, but he gets close. By page 40 we have been reminded 5 or 6 times the detective’s sidekick’s secretary is an ex nun. And the only dialect is Cajun Creole, from Creoles or Blacks. Everyone else reads exactly the same. Even the lady detective we’ve been reminded 4 times makes people uncomfortable because she’s a lesbian. You think we got the nun and the lesbian by now?

When people write like that, I wonder what they’re selling. Simonson admitted it. She also admitted to no liking the weather, the food and warm beer. All things she left out of her postcard from Sussex. All things Burke overdoses on. Minutiae. I find myself wanting to shake the book to get the crap out of it and get to the story. How much description do we need? How much clutter, how much crap?


The William Morris quote was taken out of context to sound elitist. I did that on purpose. It is offered below as contextual. Had I used it all up front it would have obviated the need for this post. That is, if you get it.

Simplicity of life, even the barest, is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement: a sanded floor and whitewashed walls, and the green trees, and flowery meads, and living waters outside; or a grimy palace amid the smoke with a regiment of housemaids always working to smear the dirt together so that it may be unnoticed; which, think you, is the most refined, the most fit for a gentleman of those two dwellings?
So I say, if you cannot learn to love real art; at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. It is not because the wretched thing is so ugly and silly and useless that I ask you to cast it from you; it is much more because these are but the outward symbols of the poison that lies within them; look through them and see all that has gone to their fashioning, and you will see how vain labour, and sorrow, and disgrace have been their companions from the first — and all this for trifles that no man really needs! – William Morris, speech in London 1880

Two Updates –

1 – Someone asked me where I got the trite rant from – Here you go.

Deleted Content

2 – If you wondered, which I doubt, what I did to fix my own perfect sounding but illogical line in Octopus! you may go see the whacked version.

If you’d like to know William Morris The William Morris Society is a good place to start. He is considered by many, including Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as their greatest influence on fantasy, utopia/dystopia and faerie stuff. Be advised do not go into that Morris lightly because a lot of it is in honest to God Olde and Middle English which is a lot harder to read than the pidgeon/pirate talk we have today. Plus it’s like really long. His speeches, though, rock. A consummate, if reluctant, rhetorician.

Published by

Phil Huston


20 thoughts on “RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #20 – More Is Too Much”

  1. I wonder if our accelerating lives and attention needs influence how much fluff we’ll suffer in reading a story. “I just don’t have time for all of this,” he said, shaking the ragged book by its covers, splayed inside-out like a butterflied chicken. “Be gone, you extraneous setting soliloquies.”

    Get to the point, already! Our attention spans have shrunk. Do you think this has altered our tolerance for jello, rolls and rice in our stories? “Give me the meat.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I dunno. I read stuff that is 200 years old that nails it. It’s in the language. I think that language skills have deteriorated to the point that stringing fluff together is a norm because few know how to express themselves. I run exercises on myself. Describe a person or place in six words, tops. Like Morris’s “grimy palace” and housemaids moving dust around. It’s in “grimy.” One word that conjures a multitude of visual triggers and one less well chosen would cost us inept writers 15 or more using weak language to get there. MacDonald, Jesus, he gives you 5 or fewer and the character is there. I just re read the opening of Coyote Waits where Chee ponders bad radio reception and two lines Hillerman has you in the mountains. No bullshit sun glinting or any of that. You get sagebrush when somebody has to retrieve something from under it. You get culture woven in to the bad radio reception. It’s not rocket science, it’s language and skill. I say all that fluff is cover.
      About science. Don’t read or write about science. But I’m with you. If it’s about a process, save the biographical junk. But while waiting at the eye doc I read an elitist publication geared to esoteric travel in Texas with a very poorly overwritten essay, inside out sentences, bad logic and all. Terrible. But he got paid! So I’m about to say fuck art, here’s my illogical draft quality nonsense and call myself a writer.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s a sign of society’s decadence when you have to be paid to write, and you write what you know you will be paid for. That’s not art, that’s whoredom.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Indeed, as you, yourself, are teaching the rest of us who are reading, pondering and hopefully learning. I have to tell you that increasingly when I write I am thinking, what would Phil make of that? It makes me write less, but with much more thought on ‘how’ I express what I want to say. You can be acerbic but I can assure you I’m damn glad I stuck with you and vice versa. In the end it’s all about communication. It’s not photography, and I don’t care if a picture is worth a thousand words, that’s a bullshit statement IMO.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Well, I do opine to make us all think before we fart in public, but not to instill any sort of fear. But to be honest when I’m creating I’m only thinking of doing the best I can in the moment. It is only later that I say, wow, that was better than I thought or wow, that’s pure dee shit. I keep a copy of a perfromance around to listen to where maybe I was the only one who noticed, but it keeps humble. Best laid plans and all that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Quote: “I find myself wanting to shake the book to get the crap out of it and get to the story.” Exactly how I’ve felt many a time reading so-called “hard science fiction.” Do I need to know how the Ukiitu aliens created their singularity grenade that fit in the palm of one’s hand yet could destroy a planet-buster ship? Is it likely I’m going to try to build one and test it? Well, OK, don’t tempt me, I can think of a few places such a little weapon would really come in handy, but what if it eats the whole planet… and me with it? If it’ dinner I’m going to prepare I really don’t need a complete inventory of every item in the fridge, freezer and pantry.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow! That is a lot of excess tree description. The apples must be pared before placing them in the pie shell. Same with sentences in a story. The whole thing tastes better. As always, a fabulous post, Phil. Now off to study Morris!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Morris was quite a character. My favorite quote of his which you will get “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up. He’ll never do any good at all.”


      1. That’s excellent. I wonder, though, why so many authors write like Burke. Apparently because the novels sell so well. There are many people who love dense description. I’m not one of them, but i sure see a lot of unnecessarily heavy forest in a lot of books i read…


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