Hemingway is famous for his short, straightforward sentences that get rid of unnecessary descriptive words for a more concise, minimalistic style of writing. – August Wainright
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
This was a grand departure from the great literature that preceded it, like that of Dickens, Hugo or other romantic novelists. While Hemingway was a pioneer in this more terse, modern style, his opinions are by no means universally accepted. I have done some research and given some thought to the divergence of opinion on the uses and styles of description in modern writing and what brought about the changes.
In “days gone by”, the only people with the opportunity and inclination to travel beyond their immediate neighbourhood were those of financial means. After the industrial revolution, illiteracy became less common. Most people knew how to read and one reason for reading was to escape beyond the limits of their reality. For them, much of the enjoyment from reading came through the detailed descriptions of worlds beyond their ken – even if those worlds were part of their society. The poor farmer’s wife never saw the opulence the aristocracy enjoyed, nay, could not even imagine it. The man who had never seen a tall ship reveled in the details of every sail, rope and pulley. For these readers, the descriptions of the surroundings characters acted in were often more intriguing than the stories. Because they had no way to experience these first-hand, every detail became food for their imaginations.
Enter the modern era, with Hemingway, et al. More people traveled, immigrated, emigrated, had greater access to information through media, magazines, cinema, radio. School curricula covered more than the three “R’s”. The mystique associated with things outside readers’ immediate experiences diminished. As the sense of “otherness” decreased, so did the need for details about how “others” lived.
At the same time, many people developed a taste for faster pace in plot, character development and shorter novels. Those who taught creative writing embraced Hemingway’s opinion. Adverbs and adjectives had to be pared. Less is more, they taught.
But, nothing is constant, and never more so than in the arts. So where that does that leave us?
It depends. As usual.
On what? On many factors, not the least of which is the skill of the writer.
A few years ago I read a book which I enjoyed. The story was great, the characters engaging, and the world this fantasy author created, plausible. But one scene near the beginning almost made me give up on it. The author described, in detail, all twenty-plus weapons the protagonist had on her body, with details about how and where each one was placed or hidden. I, as the reader, could not possibly remember all of this, nor did I care. I trusted that, when needed, she would have the appropriate weapon at hand and be able to use it. That, to me, would be the time to introduce it. The detailed explanation added nothing to the story (indeed most of the weapons were never used, as I recall). In this case, in my opinion, the author did his work a disservice. Even in Fantasy, it seems, there are limits to how much description is needed.
Certainly genre is a factor in deciding how much description is advisable. Two that I believe would generally benefit from more than usual are Fantasy and Science Fiction, since both of these take place in worlds that do not, nor have ever existed. When building alien worlds, it is often necessary to illuminate them with more details than a modern mystery or romance would require.
Personally, even though I write fantasy, I prefer to keep descriptive passages to a minimum, adding details as they become pertinent to the story or the situation. But that’s only my preference.
On the other side is my spouse. He’s a poet. Perhaps that is why he tends to appreciate a beautifully crafted descriptive passage more than I do.
But there’s the rub. It must be beautifully crafted and well connected to the rest of the book. He hates purple prose as much as I do, and decries superfluous repetition and rambling description that seems to go nowhere.
Both of us have given up on books that contain purple prose and rambling detailed descriptions that add nothing to the book and only demonstrate the author’s lack of finesse with the English language.
So what’s the bottom line? We must respect our readers and be able to offer them what they seek. Is it fast-paced modern action? Then keep your sentences short and your descriptions minimal. Is it poetic language? Then make certain that we craft our descriptive passages with skill and beauty. Descriptions that serve no real purpose have, in my opinion, no place in modern writing. If you can’t do it well, perhaps it’s best to pare it down.