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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chapter Eighty-Six, in which unimportant Details are omitted

One of the great joys for Your Bibliothecary is having writers for friends, because the discussions are as endless as they must be for philosophers. And being friends, as opposed to, for example, a group of people who all read the same book and gather to discuss it, we are able to assert our individuality and argue our points of view valiantly, without giving or taking offense.

Beloved Calisto has a guilty pleasure of reading category romances. She is well versed in literature, and these compact little stories are simply cotton candy for the mind--all fluff and no nutritional value. The regular reading of these, though, has skewed her responses to other fiction. For instance, after being told the eye color of thousands of characters, she has become conditioned to expect that detail.

At 50 Books, Doppelganger reviewed a book which, for her, had one big drawback. When she reads, her mind creates its own movie version of the novel, a complete visualization that seems to enhance the experience for her. What she did not like
is that [the author] does an almost too-thorough job of providing all the filmic details. ... At best, this merely deflates my own role in reading the book....
Writers are forever being coached to show, not tell. Details are what give a novel its verisimilitude. What, then, is Doppelganger's quibble?

At one of our recent discussions, Tiresias read a chapter from the novel he is presently working on. Our normal routine is to take turns giving feedback, asking questions, and pointing out what works and what doesn't. Calisto wondered why he hadn't told the reader the color of the protagonist's eyes.

Calisto, like Doppelganger, is not a passive reader. Then why, we wondered, does she seem unwilling to provide the color of the eyes herself? If a reader develops an image in her mind of a tall, blue-eyed protagonist, and then is told later that he is short with brown eyes, how is the dichotomy resolved? If the mind is convinced of its own image, how is the reader to continue to trust the author?

One of the most important features of the human mind is the ability to formulate and understand concepts. When a writer says a character lives in a big city, this is a concept which the reader will understand. A writer may then choose to zoom in on a building, or a street, and describe it in detail, but should do so only when the details have significance to the story. It is not necessary to show street lamps or oily puddles or crosswalks unless a character is going to hang himself from the lamp, or slip in the puddle, or get hit while crossing outside the walk.

In the absence of details such as eye color, Tiresias presumes a reader will supply her own detail based on her own past experience. This is the work the reader puts into the novel. If a reader is told the protagonist is from Italy, and every Italian man she has met has black eyes, then she will automatically assign black eyes to the protagonist. This is a superfluous detail. Only the unique detail ought to be described: so if the protagonist has red eyes, that is something a reader would not normally expect, and needs to be shown (not to mention have significance). Watching a film, however, is a purely passive experience. A viewer may be engaged, but never actively participates in the creation or the realization of the story the way a reader can. The reader's process of filling in details during reading contributes largely to what is often disillusionment, if not disappointment, at a movie version of a book. Did anyone in their right mind ever imagine Richard Gere as Lancelot?

Doppelganger is correct in our view. Not only has she been denied the pleasure of contributing to the novel she is reading, she also likely feels patronized by the writer. A writer ought to have confidence in a reader's ability to fill in the common details in a novel, and cherish the trust the reader offers as the most fragile gift.

Tiresias ultimately did not specify his protagonist's eye color.

For those who wonder, Calisto's eyes are a lustrous silver.

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