Michael Lydon, a well-known writer on popular music since the 1960s, has for many years also been writing about writing. Lydon's essays, written with a colloquial clarity, shed fresh light on familiar and not so familiar aspects of the writing art. Here Lydon takes issue with the novelist Elmore Leonard's "rules" against descriptive writing.
Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing" have been popping up on various literary sites in the last few months. Eight of Leonard's rules are matters of personal taste or make some sloppy sense, and since I figure they'll earn a writer money, always a good thing, I'll let them pass. But his two rules on visual description—
#8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
#9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
—must be faced down and stopped in their tracks.
Fellow writers, be warned: Leonard's two rules are grotesquely bad advice, advice bad enough to make one wonder if Leonard is joking, and if not, whether his own work, assuming that he practices as he preaches, has any value.
Avoid visual description? Revel in visual description! Word painting is not difficult: look and write what you see, using the simplest words possible. Here's the start of a sketched self-portrait:
A tall, thin man with a white beard and ponytail, wearing blue jeans and red canvas shirt, sat at a battered card table set up between a bureau and a bookcase in the bedroom of a crowded Manhattan apartment. On the table were scattered pens and pencils, two cups of coffee, papers clipped together but still messy, an address book and an extra pair of reading glasses.
Painting with words is one of our art's greatest glories, most useful and powerful tools. Whether we write fiction, non-fiction, biography, memoir, news, drama, even poetry, a primary goal is: get a person in a place. The person and place could be a debutante in Dubai, a Czech spy in a Chinese brothel, or a Martian in a Miami marina: in every case we need visual description to put them there. If readers can't see our characters in a three-dimensional world, what have we got? Nobody nowhere.
Here is somebody somewhere: Alice Vavasor, the "her" of Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? Trollope first paints Alice:
...she was tall and well made, rather large in her neck and shoulders, as were all the Vavasors, but by no means fat. Her hair was brown, but very dark, and she wore it rather lower on her forehead than is customary in the present day. Her eyes, too, were dark, though they were not black, and her complexion, though not quite that of a brunette, was far away from being fair. Her nose was somewhat broad, and rétrousse too, but to my thinking it was a charming nose...
—then her dowdy house:
...a small house on the south side of the street, squeezed in between two large mansions which seemed to crush it, and by which its fair proportion of doorstep and area was in truth curtailed. The stairs were narrow; the dining room was dark...[The drawingroom had] green paper, a green carpet, green curtains, and green damask chairs...
A person in a place, as simple as that. Homer, the authors of the Bible, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Fielding, Balzac, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Dreiser, James Jones, Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn—all excel in painting real people in real places. Here is Melville's savage portrait of Ahab on the Pequod:
He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made from solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.
Would Leonard ask Melville to rewrite that into, "The captain didn't look very nice"?
Leonard fears that visual description will slow down narrative action. In his hands perhaps, but good writers learn to move their point of view and get action not only from what they describe, but also their zooming around the subject trying to get the best possible view. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo takes us down to the smoky depths of Paris's thieves' kitchen:
Fires, round which swarmed strange-looking groups, were blazing here and there. All was bustle, confusion, uproar. Coarse laughter, the crying of children, the voices of women, were intermingled. The hands and heads of this multitude, black upon a luminous ground, were making a thousand antic gestures. A dog which looked like a man, or a man who looked like a dog, might be seen from time to time passing over the place...
—then, at an accelerating pace, he leads us up the cathedral towers until we get a bird's eye view of the whole sunlit city:
The spectator, on arriving breathless at that elevation, was dazzled by the chaos of roofs, chimneys, streets, bridges, belfries, towers, and steeples. All burst at once upon the eye—the carved gable, the sharp roof, the turret perched upon the angles of the walls, the stone pyramid of the eleventh century, the slated obelisk of the fifteenth, the round and naked keep of the castle, the square and fretted tower of the church, the great and the small, the massive and the light.
When Vronsky's horse breaks her back in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy takes us close to Vronsky on the racetrack—
...he stood staggering alone on the muddy, stationary ground and Frou-Frou lay breathing heavily before him, bending her head back and gazing at him with her beautiful eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened Vronsky tugged at the rein. Again she writhed like a fish, creaking the flaps of the saddle, and put out her forelegs but, unable to lift her back, immediately collapsed and fell on her side again.
—then moves to the grandstand where Anna sees the same event in long shot:
Without replying to her husband, Anna lifted her binoculars and gazed toward the place where Vronsky had fallen; but it was so far off and so many people had crowded there that it was impossible to distinguish anything.
Good writers use what they see to intuit inner states of mind, moving seamlessly from sight to insight—again Trollope, here in Framley Parsonage describing the cold Griselda Grantly:
She was decidedly a beauty, but somewhat statuesque in her loveliness. Her forehead was high and white, but perhaps too like marble to gratify the taste of those who are fond of flesh and blood. Her eyes were large and exquisitely formed, but they seldom showed much emotion....Her mouth, too, was very fine...but to me she always seemed as though she wanted fullness of lip.
"So 19th century," Leonard might argue, "us tough guy American modernists don't bother painting details." Raymond Chandler, grandpa of the tough guy style, bothered plenty, here a California highway at twilight:
Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west toward home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchen that would have poisoned a toad.
Leonard's rules on visual description, in sum, point us away from the broad vistas of good writing down a literary blind alley. My advice? Don't go there. Or if you must, let your reader see the alley: the stony walls and bricked-in windows, the sickly ailanthus tree, the burnt-out car, bald tires mired in oily puddles, broken beer bottles, torn black garbage bags, and forgotten, half-rotten books.
Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program.Click here to read other articles by Michael Lydon