How do you judge good writing? For me, it’s that moment when I think, “I could never in a million years write like that, so I just give up.” When I’m so blown away by a writer’s perfect–and perfectly appropriate–images and language that even the idea of using my name and the word “writer” in the same sentence embarrasses me to the point of blubbering.
Needless to say, I feel disappointed when I read bad description in a respected publication, ostensibly by a respected author. Something that leaves me thinking, “Even I could have written that.”
So why am I dwelling on sub-par prose? Because of the following passage from “The Weir” by Mark Haddon:
It’s one of those spring days which seem warm and cold at the same time. Cirrus clouds overhead. Ice crystals at sixteen thousand feet. Enough blue to make a pair of sailor’s trousers. A pied wagtail lands briefly on the path in front of him, then hops back into the air and is carried away.
Blah. Just blah. So uninspiring. It does NOT make me want to continue reading. This description, on the other hand, does:
Shallow ones, steep ones, smooth ones, corrugated ones. Knife-crested dunes, plane-crested dunes, irregularly crested dunes that resembled dunes piled on dunes–dune-dominoes.
Dunes. But no ocean.
Have you ever thought of sand dunes in relationship to knives or cardboard? Or dominoes for Christ’s sake? Stephen King’s description of the sand in “Beach World” is alive and moving. It brings an endless beach to mind without overkill or futility. Even the way he sandwiches the above paragraph between a 1-word paragraph and a 4-word one holds you in suspense and dares you not to continue reading.
Mark Haddon’s description perplexes me: what does the fact that it’s cold at 16,000 feet have to do with anything? The only possible excuse for this being on the page, and it’s a stretch, is that the protagonist ends up in the water on the following page. Cold water. But if this is foreshadowing for how cold the water will be, it doesn’t work. By the time the main character ends up in the water, we’ve forgotten about it.
And then we have the sailor’s trousers. This doesn’t make me think of a blue sky. Instead, it takes me out of the story, which is probably not the author’s intention. Another clunky attempt at foreshadowing? That may be the case, but let’s move on to more good descriptions.
Louise Erdrich. Oh, lovely Louise, a writer whose poetic prose seamlessly links the distant past to the present to the future, sometimes within a single chapter. And she beguiles you as she does it. Take this tidbit from The Antelope Wife:
To prove himself, he made a rendezvous promise and then took his way west following her glare. An icicle, it drove into his heart and melted there, leaving a trail of ice and blood. The way was long. She glided like a snake beneath his footsteps in fevered dreams.
I’m instantly entranced. Aren’t you? Erdrich’s description here is lulling and quickening at the same time: a glare like an icicle. A trail of ice and blood. A gliding snake in a scorned lover’s dreams. The dichotomy of ice and heat. At no point does Erdrich have to say, “This woman was a cold-hearted b@tch who broke this man’s heart.” The reader already knows.
And one more before I go. Middlesex is so full of them, I had trouble choosing:
Moving through the humid air, I felt like a snorkeler. On I came, kicking my heavy, padded legs and gaping through the goalie mask at the fantastic underwater life all around me. Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates’ legs. They came in all colors…higher up their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink.
What is there to expound upon? Jeffrey Eugenides’ extended sea life metaphor says it better than I ever could.
So please, please, PLEASE: wake those tired descriptions up. Give them a shot of adrenaline in their shriveled little hearts. Just don’t leave them in the lurch 16,000 feet up with only a pair of sailor’s trousers to dress themselves in.