Why Modern Readers are Less Tolerant of Description

Nancy Fulda has an excellent post about her theory on Why Modern Readers are Less Tolerant of Description, which rings totally true to me.

One hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, the average reader did not travel widely and did not have access to full-color photographs or television. They had never seen pyramids, or elephants, or tropical rain forests. Many people had also never seen a prairie, a pine forest, a stretch of English farmland, or an industrial city. This means that the reader’s repetoire of pre-conceived images was not as vast as the modern reader’s.

I think much of her post is also true for dialects in fiction. Once upon a time, not only was it possible for someone to have never heard a German accent, but it was also likely that they would be called upon to read that passage aloud. So writing dialects phonetically helped the reader. Fashions and readers’ expectations change.

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15 Responses

  1. Julia

    Hmm. But if lengthy description is dead, why does Jean Auel continue to sell her massive prehistoric odes to a Mary Sue in large, large numbers? Sometimes you have to sit through six or seven pages of description–and she’s only talking about one mammoth if you’re lucky! Yet you’re *there* when you read the Clan of the Cave Bear books. You can’t ever say you don’t have really clear mental pictures of everything and everywhere in those books. And they all make the bestsellers’ list, and have since whenever it was that she started writing them. The last one took over a decade to write! (I feel we’ll never see the end because she’ll pass away first, lol.)

    Jo Rowling may not be as loquacious as Auel, but her books are also heavy on description, and…those seven books do all right for themselves, I think 😉 It’s also why there’s always fan backlash regarding the movies–the fans have such clear mental pictures of the people and places in their heads that it’s a betrayal when the director’s vision doesn’t match up with theirs.

    Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series endures. Again, very well-visualized universe.

    Modern readers may not know that they want lots of description, and may be less tolerant of it on the surface, but I think, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy world, they crave it.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Each of the examples you pointed out have something in common with Nancy’s post. They all contain images that we would have had no way of seeing before. If the same real estate on a page were devoted to say, a depiction of a meadow, there’d better be something darn significant about that meadow.

      1. Julia

        Precisely why I said that sci-fi and fantasy should continue with description. Although I could argue your point a little bit and say that we all have at least a frame of reference for the setting of Auel’s books, since it IS Earth…same for Jo, we have frames of reference for the Scottish highlands and creaky old castles, most especially if you watch the History Channel…and yet we gobble up their descriptions with a spoon. Because it helps with the message if you see the setting the way the author does. 🙂

  2. Ann Leckie

    I’m not convinced. Was George Eliot writing for readers who had never seen the English countryside? Was Dickens writing for readers who had never seen London? Or who had never heard the accents he rendered phonetically?

    I think there’s been a general change in writing over the past hundred years, that’s more a question of fashion than anything else, and then it gets reinforced once younger readers and writers have read mostly recent work. (For certain values of recent.) I think long descriptive passages are out of style, like fins on cars are out of style. In times past, readers grew up reading things that are old now, and learned to read them and learned to appreciate them. Now they bore most readers, because we were trained on writers who didn’t write the same way. That’s my take, anyway.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Was George Eliot writing for readers who had never seen the English countryside? Was Dickens writing for readers who had never seen London? Or who had never heard the accents he rendered phonetically?

      Well, yes. Remember how difficult it was to travel when both of those writers were working. Most people didn’t go more than thirty miles from their home during the course of their lives.

      On the other hand, you’ve got a point about training the readers to look for and appreciate certain things. I’ve talked about the need to settle in to a Jane Austin book because the pace is slower. The one thing I’d say though is that, sure, descriptive text and phonetic spellings reflect mostly a shift in fashion, but why did the fashion change? Art evolves to reflect the society which created it.

  3. Ann Leckie

    Well, yes. Remember how difficult it was to travel when both of those writers were working. Most people didn’t go more than thirty miles from their home during the course of their lives.

    Most people didn’t read, either, or if they did, didn’t have time to do much recreational reading. People who had the leisure time to read novels were far more likely to be able to travel. Austen is a good example, I’m glad you mentioned her. Her heroines are constantly traveling between the country and London, or the country and Bath, or wherever.

    And I think Dickens himself, for instance, was often writing for British readers who would be familiar enough with his settings to take action on issues he brought up. The fact that people farther away also enjoyed his writing was gravy.

    I’m also kind of queasy with the argument that “they liked that boring stuff because it had educational value!” It’s a bit smug, for one thing, and it assumes that there’s no other value to those descriptive passages. We don’t like them, so people who did must have had some utilitarian reason, they can’t have actually enjoyed them on their own terms. Right? Well…I don’t buy it.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Did you read her entire post or are you just responding to the first paragraph that I quoted?

      I ask because it will help me frame my response. I feel like you might be disagreeing with something that hasn’t been said, but I can see where the bit I quote might lead you to that.

  4. Ann Leckie

    I’m responding to the paragraph you quoted. I didn’t click through, partly because I had an instant reaction to the paragraph. It’s a statement I’ve seen before, and disagreed with.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Then I’ve done Nancy a disservice by only quoting a teaser.

      This is the closing paragraph that made me want to link to it.

      This is not to say that long descriptive paragraphs are inherently bad, or that there are no readers who like them. But as a rule, modern readers come to the page with vastly different experiences than readers of the last century. This is why “But [insert classic author] did it!” is not a valid justification for opening a story with five paragraphs of weather and landscape.

  5. Ann Leckie

    I would agree with that last paragraph, definitely. “But X did it and their novel Y is a classic!” is no excuse. Do it as well as X did it, hon. And even then, if my reaction as a reader is negative, X’s success with it doesn’t matter.

    I think you can open with five paras of weather and landscape–if you do it well. You can do anything if it works. I’d never tell an aspiring writer that they can’t or shouldn’t open with five paras of scene description. I’d tell them to be sure they did it really, really well, and knock yourself out. Or I might explain why a particular five paras wasn’t working for a specific story, for me. But as for a writer crying foul when it’s not working for the reader–well. At some point, you have to either take the criticism, or decide with no malice that a particular reader isn’t your audience. The cry “But George Eliot did it!” does not inspire me with confidence as to the crier’s writing ability or maturity.

    And thinking about it, I’d lay money that the folks whose long scenery openings one actually notices are the ones that aren’t being executed particularly deftly.

    Anyway, the argument that long descriptive passages were acceptable/enjoyed was because they were travelogues still leaves me with a bad taste.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Anyway, the argument that long descriptive passages were acceptable/enjoyed was because they were travelogues still leaves me with a bad taste.

      That’s fine, but that’s not the gist of the post.

  6. momk

    As a reader (not a writer) I can tell you that I am only interested in ideas, not in images. I am inordinately eager to get to the point. Descriptive passages slow that process down. Even in reading an editorial I often skip to the LAST paragraph to get the ‘summation’. Maybe modern readers simply don’t have the time to stroll through a descriptive passage on their way to a concept? Speaking to an author I would suggest, “If you have something to say, “SAY IT”

  7. Tom Huber

    I hate to throw some cold water on all this wonderful exchange, but I believe that the editor makes all the difference in the work. If an editor likes long descriptions, then that is what they will tolerate (as long as the sales department agrees), but . . .

    Once an author (like McCaffrey or Rowling) is established, then they have open reign and artistic license on the descriptive nature of their work, especially someone like Rowling who could do no wrong in the later Harry Potter books (as dreadful as I found some of them).

    The key, and again this is my opinion, isn’t that these long descriptions are necessarily tolerated (many readers skip over them) but that the story has already grabbed them. Now the author is placing the reader into the setting.

  8. David Loftus

    All the thoughts that have been tossed in here have a place, but I’d like to emphasize something that I don’t think has been made explicit yet. Fulda mentioned travel and television in passing as sources of one’s ready-made stock of mental images. But I think even people who don’t travel much, or at all, have a HUGE stock of mental imagery for peoples, landscapes, and creatures from the far side of the globe from television and movies. Even if they’re not very accurate. Even if they’re nonexistent, like the landscape of Gotham or the Emerald City of Oz.

    Not so long ago, the only music you heard was live: you made it yourself or listened to other people create it in person. You couldn’t adjust the volume up or down, or switch to an entirely different type of music with the flick of a dial.

    You couldn’t ride for an hour and reach an entirely different landscape from the one immediately around your home.

    My larger point here is that people have been acclimated to experiencing changes in sight and sound much more quickly, whether in life or art. So they’re less likely to sit still for descriptive passages that “only delay” further plot developments.

    And Mr. Huber . . . the phrase “open reign” is so wonderfully evocative that it probably should stand, but I can’t help wondering whether you didn’t mean to say “free rein,” which is something different (speaking of editors. . . ).

  9. Tom Huber

    I think open reign goes hand-in-hand with artistic license, where as free reign rightly implies something else – a little like free jazz, perhaps? Artistic license implies a purpose, which I also feel applies to those experienced authors.

    I’ve been told that several well-known and respected authors have submitted new works under a previously-unknown pen name to see if it would be rejected or accepted. The work was rejected until the author submitted it under their own name.

    If an author takes free reign, I can see the editors quickly rejecting the new works as trash (again, a little like free jazz, which holds no meaning for me).