Is Overwriting a Thing?

We admire authors who are great prose stylists. But overwriting can sometimes be a problem.

There are novels that make readers gape at how well authors put sentences together. Evocative descriptions, awesome grasp of language, clever wordplay, scintillating dialogue, etc. The question is whether the writer is showing off, and whether the wonderful prose can be a bit distracting to things like the plot, character development, and the emotions we want to feel. On the other hand, maybe that wonderful prose is a joy to read and makes everything better.

I thought about all this last week while reading The Corrections, in which Jonathan Franzen unleashes writing fireworks even when describing relatively mundane things. One example:

“Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99-cent ‘Big Gulp’ banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9’s…”

Impressive? Sure. A bit over-the-top? Probably. Franzen also periodically overdoes the language thing in his later, more-famous Freedom. But despite that and despite both novels having quite a few cringe-worthy characters, I liked the books a lot. Franzen’s skillful depiction of dysfunctional-family dynamics and his scathing social satire certainly help.

I’m also a fan of most novels by Cormac McCarthy, who’s seemingly incapable of writing a straightforward sentence — instead using rich prose that gets almost biblical at times. That’s also the case in Herman Melville’s work. Gabriel Garcia Marquez often uses lavish, bountiful wording that I feel doesn’t go overboard. And Mary Shelley, in novels such as Frankenstein and The Last Man, is a master as well at the kind of “overwriting” that’s totally welcome.

Marcel Proust is a bit of a different story for me. I was bowled over by his language and imagery when I read In Search of Lost Time, but I also found that famous fictional work frustrating enough, and sometimes almost boring enough, to give up after several hundred pages. I know that many literature lovers feel differently.

Then there’s Henry James. I’ve greatly enjoyed his early and mid-career novels, which are full of excellent literary writing but not too dense; The Portrait of a Lady is my favorite example of that. I also liked The Ambassadors — the one late-career James novel I’ve read — but it was at times somewhat of an overwritten slog to get through, even as a good deal of the prose was exquisite.

William Faulkner also elicits mixed reactions from me. I loved Light in August, liked As I Lay Dying, abandoned Absalom, Absalom! fairly early, and ran screaming from The Sound and the Fury after 30 or so incomprehensible (to me) pages.

Toni Morrison? I admired the very ambitious Beloved, but got lost in it at times and ended up liking rather than loving it. Something like Morrison’s Sula is much more straightforward, albeit not as interesting as Beloved — which wrestles with The Big Issues (virulent racism, the true meaning of good parenting, and more) amid the often-superb writing.

Umberto Eco? Big fan of The Name of the Rose; got a headache reading the overwritten Foucault’s Pendulum.

I haven’t sampled James Joyce and Virginia Woolf widely enough to comment on their most challenging works, but I really liked some of Joyce’s Dubliners story collection (especially “The Dead”) and all of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.

George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the reputation among some novel-goers of being “difficult” authors, but I find them VERY readable — even as they satisfy those of us seeking fantastic prose, literary flourishes, psychological nuance, and a deep dive into “the human condition.”

Anyway, I’m sure your opinions will vary about which novelists overwrite and which don’t. Your thoughts, and the authors you feel fit this topic? Or is there no overwriting problem if a novelist is good enough?

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86 thoughts on “Is Overwriting a Thing?

  1. I’ve only read the first few chapters of Dickens’ “Bleak House” before I gave up but the chapters told by the third person narrator seems to be overwritten compared to most of Dickens’ prose that I’ve read. This novel seems to lack the liveliness that characterize much of Dickens’ work and I am surprised that many critics considered this his greatest novel, but what do I know? I am only an amateur when it comes to literary matters.

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  2. Overwriting as a concept certainly exists but as to what defines overwriting is completely subjective. Overwriting to me means long winded and overly descriptive. Even when it’s beautifully written. The tedium of reading and reading and reading and making no progress in the story defeats my lust for the language. I just finished The Tommyknockers, all 700 pages of it, and it’s a prime example of overwriting. Even Steve himself will tell you that. He admittedly wrote it during the heaviest grip of his cocaine addiction and man it shows. It’s still an excellent book. Overwriting isn’t a deal breaker for me I just skim through it no problem.

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    • Thank you, beckyness77! Several excellent points! Overwriting is indeed (somewhat) subjective much of the time, but occasionally it’s pretty obvious. I totally agree about “The Tommyknockers”; Stephen King definitely overdid things in that novel but it’s still often compelling. I didn’t realize he was addicted to cocaine when he wrote it.


  3. I think it is interesting what you say re James, I toiled with his later works. I dunno if he was bled out and flogging the horse in terms of some of the overwriting or thought , he was giving the readers what they wanted because of previous successes. Some authors like Tolstoy and Hugo overwrote as we’ve discussed because they were often describing things people had never seen, but I have found them inaccessible. Good writing is the sum of its parts. I love to read exquisite prose but equally if every single word has got a descriptive attachment, the blinds come down. I am having a wee smile re Foucault’s Pendulum. My dad was aprofic reader, all his days and he got very upset over that book. he was old and done and my niece gave him it for Christma. She is ‘ fearfully’ ‘ fearfully’ you must understand. he couldn’t understand it all and it really upset him, so i took it away. After 20 pages it was in the bin.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      Intriguing thoughts about why Henry James overwrote later in his career. Both possibilities you mentioned are totally plausible.

      And, yes, it’s worth repeating that older novels predating photography or movies or TV or widespread travel, etc., had to offer more description of things readers had never seen.

      “Good writing is the sum of its parts. I love to read exquisite prose but equally if every single word has got a descriptive attachment, the blinds come down” — great two sentences.

      And it’s both hilarious and depressing to hear our (and your father’s) shared experiences with “Foucault’s Pendulum.” The world doesn’t have enough headache relievers to get over that bin-deserving novel. 🙂

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    • I don’t know that I’d use the term “overwriting,” because there are different types of prose styles that people find challenging, sometimes for historical reasons, sometimes because they don’t share the author’s particular interests (in nature, say, or history), but I think it’s most common with modernist writers like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, etc., who were experimenting with the novel form. I reread “To the Lighthouse” a few years ago and got bored with all the interior monologue, but it was new in its day. Some prose is so poetic and allusive that it has to be read slowly. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think authors almost never are trying to show off, unless you think poetry itself is pretentious.

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      • Thank you, Jean! I hear you, and very well said. Overwriting to one reader may be wonderful writing to many other readers. I do think some authors try to show off — with Jonathan Franzen being one of them, though I still love his work. 🙂 And even when “overwriting” annoys me, I often can still greatly admire the experimentation, etc.!


        • I very much agree with Jean. Sometimes you need to adjust your reading style to match the writing style, Beloved, for example. Beloved doesn’t belong on your list. It’s my definitive favourite book and I must defend it! 🙂 There is nothing overwritten about it. Just about every word of it is perfect in fact. The amount of story packed into those short 324 pages is a tangible measurement of Toni Morrison’s genius. In a mere 324 pages she leads us through the entire lifetime of serveral characters. Geographically it travels from Georgia to Kentucky then Cincinnati. It’s an epic journey that could stand alone in it’s story. But oh yeah, let’s not forget, it’s all secondary to the demon baby that shows up! All that in a measly 324 pages. It’s written in a dialect with stylized formatting. It’s just different. Not overwritten.

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  4. With the wholesale destruction of attention in our present social media mania, it is probably easiest for us to judge overwriting in our contemporaries, as in your Franzen example, noting such creative writing darlings such as ‘thunk’ and ‘pinging’ as over-eagerness to impress, and thus evidence, at least of a kind. One often hears artists say they work most of all to please themselves. In this example, it’s hard to disagree.

    But to turn our frazzled wits to the works of past ages and places and find them lacking, or rather, overfull, I think says more about our own incapacity for readerly concentration, though having said so, I can’t imagine that would make the old things look better to those who cannot look for long.

    Here’s a sentence of John Ruskin’s, a man who sought to elucidate artfully, on, in this instance, an aspect of Gothic sensibility as manifest in architectural decoration:

    “The sculptor who sought for his models among the forest leaves, could not but quickly and deeply feel that complexity need not involve the loss of grace, nor richness that of repose; and every hour which he spent in the study of the minute and various work of Nature, made him feel more forcibly the barrenness of what was best in that of man: nor is it to be wondered at, that, seeing her perfect and exquisite creations poured forth in a profusion which conception could not grasp nor calculation sum; he should think that it ill became him to be niggardly of his own rude craftsman- ship; and where he saw throughout the universe a faultless beauty lavished on measureless spaces of broidered field and blooming mountain, to grudge his poor and imperfect labour to the few stones that he had raised one upon another, for habitation or memorial.”

    It pleases me to see we might be expected, as readers, to take in such a complexity of expression. I take the sentence itself as a compliment, whether or not I find the thoughts therein agreeable. But I also take note that this sentence is only about 140 years old– what have we, in the meantime, become?

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    • Thank you, jhNY. You said a lot. That Franzen excerpt I included in my post is a mere piker compared to some of the incredibly rich prose of the past, as exemplified by that jaw-dropping Ruskin sentence/paragraph. Something like what Ruskin wrote does indeed assume a certain intelligence and attention span among the people who will read it, and the attention span part of that equation is definitely at risk in the 21st century. So many more “media” these days in addition to the printed word on paper. Yes, things have changed a huge amount in 140 years — in fact, in 14 or so years (Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, the iPhone in 2007…).


  5. I spent part of yesterday re-watching “The Longest Day,” one of my favorite films ever. I normally don’t enjoy war movies, but this one was perfect, especially since it wasn’t about blood and guts. I still haven’t watched “Saving Private Ryan,” because of that. I also read the books by Cornelius Ryan of “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far,” which were extremely good, though I know they were non-fiction. I seem to enjoy non-fiction as opposed to fiction, especially when they are about historical events!

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    • Very appropriate movie to have watched yesterday, Kat Lit. And I hear you about it being difficult to watch war movies with lots of on-screen carnage, although there’s something to be said for the horrors of war not being sanitized.

      I’m a fan of both historical fiction and nonfiction about historical events. 🙂


    • I too indulged in the semi-historical offerings of the day in film– saw “A Bridge Too Far” and “Overlord” and “The Battle of Britain”. It never ceases to dazzle me: the day the Battle of Britain ended– the day after the British had sent up every single available fighter, reserves and all, into the sky, and exhausted beyond measure, woke the next morning, looked up in the sky and saw: a bright day fleeced with a few clouds, and no Jerries. I try to imagine what a profound relief that must have been, knowing, really, I really can’t.

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    • “Saving Private Ryan”‘s action sequences are unique in my war movie experience– they move at proper speed–very,very fast– and you get the sense that, so long as they are able, on both sides, everybody is trying everything they can conceive of to kill and avoid being killed all at once.

      Real-life veterans of such moments of war, I have read, were moved to overwhelming emotion seeing this stuff, in some cases. I can’t say I recommend the movie, given its powerful effects. But I can say, having seen “The Longest Day”, that it does not prepare a viewer for the action in “Saving Private Ryan.”

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      • I’ve never seen “Saving Private Ryan.” From your description, jhNY, I’m impressed with how it comes closer to approximating the reality of war than most other war movies do.


      • I agree with you, jhNY, that “Saving Private Ryan,” must be more emotional and moving than “The Longest Day,” but I simply couldn’t watch it. The latter was perfect for me who doesn’t care about blood and guts, but just wanted to learn about D-Day, which I did, especially after reading the book by Cornelius Ryan.

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  6. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but it seems that many of the examples of overwriting named in the comments here originated elsewhere, or more exactly, in other languages. Without having the entirety of a literary tradition in, say, Russian, it’s hard to put the writing in proper context, and that includes what readers might perceive as overwriting. Although I concede, as Mandy likes to say,’you don’t have to know how to make an omelet to know when one tastes bad’.

    Plain things can be said plainly, and the modern impulse has mostly been to pare down. This may be traced in part to the fact that writers are no longer paid by the word, whereas in the Grub Street days, they were. Complicated things sometimes require complicated writing, and then the impulse to pare is misapplied, plainly.

    Then there’s the incantatory power of language– little used of late outside of song. Sometimes it takes a bit of rhythm and word volume to get going, which may read like overwriting to some.

    In the latest issue of the London Review of Books,there is, in a general discussion of his works, a quote of Pushkin’s from 1822: “They should say’ early in the morning’, but they write ‘Scarcely had the first rays of the rising sun illuminated the eastern realm of the azure sky.'”

    Of course there is something to be said for brevity; but the problem with the more verbose example is cliche more than overwriting. In skilled hands, an evocative mood might be made of dawn’s unfolding, though it might take more than a few words, well-chosen and well-placed.

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    • Also, sorta related: 19th century novels were as often read aloud as were read to oneself. Things that read as overwritten today might have sounded well on the ears of our ancestors.

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      • Thank you, jhNY! Interesting point about how writing in novels from countries other than the reader’s can be at times be perceived as overwriting. And the translation can of course have an impact on that as well.

        Several other interesting points, too — including the effect of reading aloud.

        Those morning-related passages Pushkin spoke of? I like the overwritten version better, as wordy and perhaps a bit pretentious as it might be. It’s evocative, beautifully expressed, and doesn’t feel too cliché to me. 🙂


      • Also also: As novels originating in languages other than English require translators for those of us who cannot read in the original, some blame (or praise) for the overall impression one gets of a writer’s style derives from the translator’s skill.

        Gregory Rabassa translated GG Marquez, and from all accounts did a fine job with the job at hand. Constance Garnett,1920’s-era translator of Gogol and Turgenev and other Russians, has not enjoyed such a reputation in recent years.

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          • I keep the Garnett translation of Turgenev’s “Sportsman’s Sketches” around because it’s the version of the book that moved Hemingway to admiration… I’ve got a better more recent translation somewhere around here as well.

            Likewise, I’d like to own the translation of Hugo that came across the waters during our Civil War. The book was popular enough that some Confederates referred to themselves as Lee’s Miserables.

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  7. I think it’s a fine line. Literary snobs usually won’t like your work if you aren’t deceptively flourishing with your prose, yet others think you’re trying too hard and not sounding like a normal person.

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  8. Off-topic again, but I had to have an MRI done this morning at a place I’d never been before, and they really have it down instead of every other one I’ve been to (though it’s been a while). The tech asked me what kind of music I liked, so I said folk music and she asked for a singer so I mentioned Joan Baez. So during the 45-50 minutes the test was occurring, I listened to Joan, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, many of my very favorites. It was heavenly!

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    • P.S. I think someone here thought Ray Bradbury was guilty of some overwriting, even you. I just always thought his prose was exquisite, so there you go. We all have our favorite writers, which is at it should be!

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      • Kat Lit, songs by the people you mentioned can indeed make an MRI a little less arduous! Hope the results of that test were or will be good for you.

        Ray Bradbury’s prose is indeed exquisite, so even when I feel he occasionally overwrites — as in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” — I often don’t mind. Makes things more atmospheric!


  9. I was going to answer in the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, but I didn’t have the necessary .9 cents to purchase some. Some people think Stanley Elkin overwrites. But his death scene in “George Mills” always will remain one of my favorites for its stunning insights and precision about the mystery of death.

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    • Ha! Sanserif and sans .9 cents…

      I haven’t read “George Mills” (yet), but possible overwriting in the service of a memorable scene such as the one you described so evocatively can be a very good thing.

      Thank you, William!


  10. What a great question, Dave!

    As you know, I’m currently struggling through “Love in the time of Cholera”. I wish I knew what makes for good writing, and what makes it boring. I have no idea what’s wrong with Marquez’s writing, I just know it puts me to sleep. I’m about three-quarters through, and honestly, don’t really know what’s happening. Or if anything is happening? I know Marquez is a talented and popular writer, because clever people like you have told me so, but it just doesn’t work for me.

    Same goes for Tolstoy. He’s probably the most famous Russian writer out there, but I just don’t get it. I read all of “War and Peace” and can’t remember a single thing happening. It’s like there’s a filter in my brain that just won’t recognise some kinds of writing. But I have no idea what triggers the filter or how it works, so no way to fix it. Unfortunately, I read poetry in the same way. I see the words, my brain recognises what the words mean, but there’s just no story there. They might as well be in Greek, or any other language that I could probably sound out, but have absolutely no idea what it all means.

    Strangely, I did the same with “Crime and Punishment” and as always, I tried to force myself to pay attention, and when I could make the words make sense, they were beautiful. So I really, really tried. I put aside a few hours and sat myself in a quiet spot, determined to read the first chapter for the third time and actually really pay attention. Which I did, and of course discovered my favourite book of all time.

    I really have no idea why I could make it work for Fyodor, but not for Leo or Gabriel.

    Dave, I’m not even sure if any of this fits your topic. I’m not sure that it’s overwriting that I have a problem with, but you mentioned all three of these authors, so I figured I couldn’t be too far off topic!

    I have both Jonathan Franzen and Henry James on my TBR. I think I’m equally parts excited and scared.

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    • Thank you, Sue!

      I hear you — sometimes it’s impossible to know exactly why we like certain writing a lot and don’t like other writing as much. It’s just kind of a feeling, and it differs with all of us. “Love in the Time of Cholera,” if nothing else, does have a memorable last few dozen pages. (At least to me; others may feel otherwise. 🙂 )

      I forget how much you’ve tried some of Tolstoy’s shorter work, but I really like it — “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” etc. Come to think of it, if you do try Henry James, one of his novellas — such as “Washington Square” or “The Aspern Papers” — could be a good place to start.

      I agree with you about poetry. With some exceptions, it’s just not a type of writing that strongly compels me.

      Wow! “Crime and Punishment” turned out to be your favorite novel of all time — that’s extraordinarily high praise! It’s definitely in my top five. 🙂

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      • You mean you don’t keep track of all the books that I’ve read, or what I think of them?! But you have all that free time…

        Actually, I read both of the Tolstoy novellas that you mentioned after you recommended them some time back, and and enjoyed both. Oh, and I think “Master and Man”? Which I really enjoyed.

        Do you have a favourite of the two James novellas? If so, I’ll make sure that’s the one I put on my TBR.

        Phew. I thought maybe when I first read “Crime and Punishment” a few years back, I might have gone on about it too much, but if you don’t recall it hitting the top of my list, maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. I think it might be on my re-read list at the end of the year though, so that might inspire me to go on and on again 🙂

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        • Ha, Sue! 🙂 I do have a list of novels you and other commenters have recommended — many of which I’ve since gotten to but even more that I haven’t gotten to yet. (All my time is free time, because, while I’m almost always busy, I don’t have to pay for that time…)

          Yes, “Master and Man” is a great/harrowing story.

          I knew you loved “Crime and Punishment,” but didn’t realize it was your absolute favorite — though of course you might well have mentioned that. 🙂

          Hmm, if I had to choose between “Washington Square” and “The Aspern Papers,” I guess I found the second a bit more memorable. My favorite Henry James work by far is the longer “The Portrait of a Lady.” Heartbreaking, but I can’t think of any James novel that’s particularly upbeat — though some obviously have upbeat moments.


          • Thanks, Dave. I’ll give “The Aspern Papers” a go and decide whether it’s worth finally getting to “The Portrait of a Lady”. Books certainly don’t have to be upbeat to be terrific.

            Of course, this probably won’t be happening any time soon. For every book I take off my TBR, I seem to add three!

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            • You’re welcome, Sue. Hope you like “The Aspern Papers” when you eventually get to it. I hear you about LONG reading lists, and agree that novels don’t have to be upbeat to be great. Many great novels are of course NOT upbeat.

              BTW, “The Aspern Papers” was recommended to me by commenter Brian Bess. And, though depressing, it’s set in beautiful Venice.


  11. For me, it depends. If it’s a classic novel and I know it’s coming (like Tolstoy!) I am in a sense prepared for it and even find it enjoyable. Plus, some writers are SOOO good that the lengthy prose is still very fluid. I’m STILL chipping away at Anna Karenina (over 90% done so I will finish very soon), but I have really enjoyed it the whole way through despite its length. In some books though, writing of this style feels tedious. It really grates on me when it drops into the middle of an action scene – like if something major is about to happen, but the author sidetracks into three or four paragraphs of description – I tend to get a bit frustrated. I rarely put the book down all together over it, but I do feel there is a time and a place to be descriptive, and I would prefer it’s not right before a character is about to lose his/her head.

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    • OMG yes! The same as too much description in the middle of dialogue. He asks a question, she answers it four paragraphs later, but I’ve forgotten what the question was because the author went off on a descriptive tangent!

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      • Excellent points, M.B. and Sue!

        Yes, if we’re expecting overwriting, and/or it’s in an “appropriate” place in a novel, it’s more palatable. In the latter case, it’s nice when authors exercise enough awareness and self-control to know when to make things smoother for readers — rather than showing off their writing chops or showing off their ability to be disruptive, nonlinear, etc.

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  12. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your thoughts, and the authors you feel fit this topic? Or is there no overwriting problem if a novelist is good enough? —

    Ever and anon over the course of the river of time I have been accosted between a rock and a hard place on and off the Web by great hordes of barbarous yawpers deriding the absolutely short-lived and relatively long-winded Thomas Wolfe as one of the writers of the purple prose so routinely scorned by all the English teachers in all the secondary schools in all the nation — at least at a certain time in its curious existence (whether glorious, inglorious or vainglorious shall be left to the serene judgment of history) — as if the prime directives in the likes of “Look Homeward, Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again” could have been delivered with a straight or crooked face in anything other than the Wolfian tones of the Bard of Blue Ridge Mountains. Inconceivable!

    Where have you gone, Maxwell Perkins?

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: Meanwhile: Sanserif? Methinks the barbarians are at — nay, through — the gates!

    P.P.S.: If Maria is chosen in the MLB Draft tonight, then I hope she is selected by the New York Yankees, despite your deep-seated disapprobation of the club’s ticket prices . . .

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    • Thank you, J.J.! Ha…now THAT’S an overwritten paragraph about Thomas Wolfe, etc. — and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Loved it!

      P.S.: Did Bob Marley write “I Shot the Sanserif (But I Did Not Shoot the Devanagari)”?

      P.P.S. LOL! Thank you for the kind words about Maria’s softball skills. 🙂 If the Yankees continue having all those injuries…


      • — Did Bob Marley write “I Shot the Sanserif (But I Did Not Shoot the Devanagari)”? —

        Devanagari! Now THAT’S an underwritten word you don’t see every day.

        — Thank you for the kind words about Maria’s softball skills. 🙂 If the Yankees continue having all those injuries… —

        It’s gotten to the point where I’ve broken out a tub of Ben-Gay and started working on my sinker for the first time in almost half a century. (I don’t care what Whitey Ford says about my stuff.)

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      • I seem to recall that Wolfe descended on Perkins with a steamer trunk full of ” Look Homeward, Angel”, which was pared down after much effort– most of all Perkins’– to its present sprawling rambling size.

        Asheville NC has recast itself as a retirement/vacation destination, but in the olde daze it was a place of refuge and sometimes recovery for TB patients from up and down the East coast, surrounded by hillfolk with varying aptitudes for reconstruction.

        Whatever else one might say about its longcomings, the book does evoke a time and a place and its denizens, and there are beautiful things in it, along with everything else.

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        • “longcomings” — brilliant word!!!

          jhNY, that’s interesting info on “Look Homeward, Angel” and Asheville, which I visited once back in 1997. (I visited the city, not the novel. 🙂 )

          Yes, rambling and perhaps partly overwritten novels often have many great moments along with the less-than-great ones.


  13. Hope I don’t trigger a riot, but I found Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes too rich to digest. A touch of poetic imagery here and there in a novel is a good thing, but Bradbury overdid it here.

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    • Thank you, Mike! No riot expected. 🙂 As much as I like Ray Bradbury’s work, he does tend to overwrite at times — in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (as you mentioned) and in “Dandelion Wine,” among other works. A fine line — I love SOME (not all) of those overwriting flourishes.


  14. As I mentioned above, I love the 18th-century style. I can’t think off the top of my head of any examples of what I found to be unreadable over-writing. I do, however, find a lot of modern American writing to be pretty tedious. The sentences are so short that after a while it becomes monotonous. I keep hoping for a semi-colon or something to break up the homogeneity.

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    • Thank you, Elena! Great point about sort of the opposite of overwriting — when some novelists unleash their inner Hemingway and get TOO terse. It certainly is nice to vary things — short sentences, long sentences, etc. And, yes, modern American writing is all over the map; but, fortunately, there are some terrific authors in the mix.

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  15. I tried once to read “Freedom” by Franzen, but gave it up after about a chapter or so and went so far as to throw it in the trash, not something I often do, but felt it justified (especially since I bought it at a library sale for practically nothing) 🙂 I suppose it was also because I didn’t like his seeming disdain for women writers.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit. I hear you. Franzen evokes mixed emotions. I’ve heard about his sexism — and some of that disturbing attitude comes through in his novels. Also, I didn’t like that “Freedom” (which I thought was really good for the most part) was hyped as “The Great American Novel” when several contemporary women writers in the U.S. have written novels as good or better (Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” etc.). Still, I find Franzen to be (mostly) compulsive reading despite all that. When it comes to literature, things can get complicated… 🙂


  16. Hi Dave, yes am still alive! I’ve been swamped with work, and alas, I get a little slower every year…
    I have not read “The Corrections”, but the sample you provided is enough to ensure I never will.I tried reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez but could not get very far – I even tried to read it in the original Spanish in case the problem was the translation, but it was no better.
    Marcel Proust is one of my favorite writers – loved every page of “In Search of Lost Time”, so much so that I also read it in the original French and it was even better. It remains one of my favorite novels.
    Had the same experience with Umberto Eco – I loved “The Name of the Rose” and “Foucalt’s Pendulum” both in the English translation and in the original Italian.
    I did find Henry James a bit overwritten now and then, but still enjoyed his novels very much; the same for Faulkner, I read most of his novels during my teen years. I tried James Joyce years ago, but was not impressed.
    I did not find Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky difficult at all; I have happy memories of many hours spent reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, curled up in a comfy chair in my uncle’s well furnished library. These days, I’m lucky if I have time to read a magazine article… but am still optimistically buying a book now and then, hoping to read it soon. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I also have fond memories of reading Tolstoy for the class I took in college. Though I wonder if I would have persevered if it weren’t for the course I took — I was nothing if not diligent when it came to reading assignments! This was one of the reasons I signed up for this course so I’d be forced to read all of his wonderful novels and other works. “Forced” isn’t probably the best word to use! I was also probably the only person in my high school English class who read the entire novel by Dickens, “Bleak House,” which remains to this day my favorite of his novels.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you, Clairdelune! Great to hear from you! It has indeed been a while. So sorry that your workload almost never lets up. 😦

        Ha! As much as I like “The Corrections” (I’m about two-thirds of the way through), I certainly wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly. The 566-page edition I’m reading could have easily been pared down to 400 or so pages.

        Impressive that you tried to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original Spanish (among the various other languages you know 🙂 ). As I mentioned under another blog post, I did like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” a lot but had mixed feelings about “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

        I wanted so much to unreservedly like “In Search of Lost Time,” but it was not to be. I guess we all have different reactions to ultra-ambitious literature, though I am a big fan of some ultra-ambitious literature!

        As for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — I totally agree! To me, they are compulsively readable. Great memories of your uncle’s library!

        I hope you’ll have some time at some point to enjoy literature again.


        • Kat Lit, I totally agree about how courses could be a great spur to reading novels in our younger days!

          I’m also a very big fan of virtually all the Tolstoy works I’ve read — his novels, novellas, and short stories.

          Much of the Dickens I’ve read happened in a “Dickens” course I took in college. “Bleak House” might indeed be his most impressive/complex achievement, but I guess my favorites of his would include “The Pickwick Papers,” “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” and “Dombey and Son.”


          • “David Copperfield” was my next favorite and I don’t think I liked “Great Expectations” much, but I read this is junior high school and it was probably a bit above my interests at the time.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Definitely crucial WHEN one reads a novel. I wasn’t a huge fan of “Moby-Dick” and “The Scarlet Letter” as a teen, but loved both books when I reread them as an adult. Of course, sometimes we’re not huge fans of a novel as a teen AND as an adult. 🙂


  17. I agree with what you say about Cormac McCarthy’s prose which gives a clue perhaps as to why ‘Blood Meridian’ is considered ‘unfilmable’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Anonymous! Excellent point! McCarthy’s prose can indeed make for difficult filming, and it might not also help the movie potential of “Blood Meridian” that it’s so incredibly violent. Still, several McCarthy novels (including “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men”) have made it to the screen, but I guess they were somewhat more filmable than “Blood Meridian”!


  18. In the hands of Henry Fielding, overwriting is art itself. Here’s my favorite sentence in his novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), in which Parson Adams rushes to the aid of a woman being attacked:

    “He did not therefore want the Entreaties of the poor Wretch to assist her, but lifting up his Crabstick, he immediately levelled a Blow at that Part of the Ravisher’s Head, where, according to the Opinions of the Ancients, the Brains of some Persons are deposited, and which he had undoubtedly let forth, had not Nature, (who, as wise Men have observed, equips all Creatures with what is most expedient for them;) taken a provident Care, (as she always doth with those she intends for Encounters) to make this part of the Head three times as thick as those of ordinary Men, who are designed to exercise Talents which are vulgarly called rational, and for whom, as Brains are necessary, she is obliged to leave some room for them in the Cavity of the Skull: whereas, those Ingredients being entirely useless to Persons of the heroic Calling, she hath an Opportunity of thickening the Bone, so as to make it less subject to any Impression or liable to be cracked or broken; and indeed, in some who are predestined to the Command of Armies and empires, she is supposed sometimes to make that Part perfectly solid.”

    See my blog entry for commentary if you like 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Daedalus Lex! That’s a spectacular example of overwriting! It certainly helps when a paragraph like that is at least partly funny — and “Joseph Andrew,” which I like a lot, is a VERY humorous novel. Also, Henry Fielding gets a bit of an excuse because he wrote at a time when many novels were rather wordy.

      I enjoyed your blog post, which I remember first reading a while back. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree about Fielding, but have had some mixed feelings about several other pre-19th-century novels — especially those in the form of letters. 🙂 But things usually work when one gets into the “old-fashioned” rhythm of great long-ago novels, and it’s fascinating, through those books, to see how life was back then.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I loved “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson, as well as Fielding’s parody “Shamela.” They were published together in a Signet Classics edition, and I used to read them both over lunch in the cafeteria. People would look at me strangely when I’d laugh over “Shamela” but I didn’t really give a hoot!

          Liked by 1 person

          • The comedic genius Fielding was indeed a parody expert, Kat Lit! If I’m remembering right, his “Joseph Andrew” novel was also at least partly a reaction to “Pamela,” with the “innocent” a male rather than a female.


            • You reminded me of a class assignment in high school English when we were tasked with writing a parody. I turned the poem “Miniver Cheevy” into a poem about “Miniver Cheaply.” My teacher said I was the only one in the class who got it, which was one of the highest praises I ever had from her!

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