While discussing “An Outpost of Progress” by Joseph Conrad with my students, I learned that a number of them disliked the story solely based on its length and “wordiness”. The latter comment caught me off guard; I don’t perceive Conrad as wordy at all. When I think about it, however, it seems that my students (and others I’m sure) believe the quantity of words is just as important as the quality. I asked a particular student “What do you mean by ‘wordy’?” He verified my suspicion. With the modern reader being so well adapted to the quick concise content and copy seen on the internet, how does a writer deliver prose with beautiful description without losing the reader along the way?
Thinking about the kind of prose that really captivates me, I’m inclined to enjoy vivid description intertwined with action. For me, the writer does not need to separate action from description. In addition, it seems that some writers who write long description with little action or dialogue in between some of the details tend to come across disorganized. Description can certainly be unessential in a number of cases; the street cat sitting on a fence in the background of a NYC alleyway shooting does not need to be introduced as “cream colored with orange stripes and a mosaic of black and gray across it’s left cheek and beneath the chin.” The reader of this story needs to know one thing, maybe: that the cat is there, and that the cat howls perhaps once the gun goes off. Or maybe the cat screeches and hisses as it bolts away in response to the shooting. The cat is merely background imagery, and background imagery shouldn’t hog the reader’s time.
In the case of Joseph Conrad, background imagery is substituted with backstory. Just like the imagery, backstory should be produced based on essentials only–if we’re considering the modern young adult to be our ideal reader. The need-to-know information should be introduced when it’s necessary, but Conrad seems to overload the reader with information in one long, excessive paragraph on pages one and two. He tells us about Kayerts and Carlier, about Makola and his family, and about the director of the trading company and the large steamboat. Later on, however, Conrad reveals through Kayerts that the men really knew little about each other. If Conrad’s intention was to give the reader more information than the characters have been given, then bravo–he’s done so with dramatic irony.
It seems that over time, the length of anything (including blog posts such as this) is greatly impacted by the needs of the readers. Modern readers are used to skimming on the web when searching for anything and everything; we as a collective people are not accustomed to “staying” with a long piece of writing if it doesn’t immediately meet our satisfaction, whether we be looking to find a news article that quenches our thirst for knowledge of what’s going on in the world or a great piece of fiction that delights, inspires, and entertains. Despite the necessity, in my opinion, for vivid prose and patient description, there is an unspoken rule in place that modern readers are searching for speed. They want to devour a book quickly. They want the good parts; they want action.
My position is this: write the book you want to write, write the description you want to write. If it takes sacrificing a small portion of your potential audience so you can deliver detailed description, then so be-it. If the story is up to par, if the dialogue is decent, and if the plot is complex and engaging, a good level of description won’t dissuade an eager reader. Just make sure your description isn’t bogging the story down for everyone; if it works for your “first-readers”, it’ll most likely work for the majority.