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?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — covering everything from a march against draconian anti-abortion laws to an anti-war take on Memorial Day — is here.