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This is just a personal theory, but hey, it makes sense:

One hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, the average reader did not travel widely and did not have access to full-color photographs or television. They had never seen pyramids, or elephants, or tropical rain forests. Many people had also never seen a prairie, a pine forest, a stretch of English farmland, or an industrial city. This means that the reader's repetoire of pre-conceived images was not as vast as the modern reader's.

Description was inherently interesting because it took readers somewhere they'd never been before. Description was also necessary because brief phrases like "whitewater rapids" or "towering cliff face" were not sufficient to call up any pre-conceived images.

In general, modern readers still like description, but their taste is different. They like their description in bits and pieces, interspersed around interesting events. Or, if a full paragraph is to be devoted to description, they expect it to do more than simply describe the landscape--they expect the description to cause them to view the landscape in a new way, or evoke new insights into the story, or both.

This is not to say that long descriptive paragraphs are inherently bad, or that there are no readers who like them. But as a rule, modern readers come to the page with vastly different experiences than readers of the last century. This is why "But [insert classic author] did it!" is not a valid justification for opening a story with five paragraphs of weather and landscape.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
sboydtaylor
Jun. 10th, 2008 01:35 pm (UTC)
"Or, if a full paragraph is to be devoted to description, they expect it to do more than simply describe the landscape--they expect the description to cause them to view the landscape in a new way, or evoke new insights into the story, or both."

I believe that, before people had TV and movies and thus broad exposure to dramatic visuals, a relatively "normal" description of an exotic locale made people see the world in a new and expanded way. Basically, the reader was looking for the same thing. It was just easier to do back then, in a way.
maryrobinette
Jun. 10th, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC)
I have a similar theory about dialects in older fiction. Before audio recording, the only way you could know what an accent sounded like was to either meet someone who had it or to read it phonetically.
nancyfulda
Jun. 10th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
Ooh... fascinating observation. That would never have occurred to me.
j_cheney
Jun. 10th, 2008 02:48 pm (UTC)
I do think you're right about that.

I will publicly admit that I am a lazy reader. I tend to skip over descriptions, but I will go back and hunt for them if I decide they were important later...
dr_phil_physics
Jun. 10th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
Also many authors of the past had their stories and books published serially, and they were paid by the word. Charles Dickens, for example, is a classic example.

Not that short story authors aren't paid by the word today, but (a) you can't live on the income (grin) and (b) editors are much more willing to pare things down to modern tastes.

It's hell on us writers what write long. (double-length-grin)

Dr. Phil
gryphart
Jun. 10th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, God, absolutely. The descriptions are why I usually can't stand literary fiction, since every time I give it a shot, somebody's waxing on like Tolstoy. Give me swordfights and pirates any day!
desperance
Jun. 10th, 2008 09:00 pm (UTC)
They had never seen ... elephants

There's a story of a British taxidermist who, indeed, had never seen an elephant, but was presented with a skin and asked to stuff it. And he did: he stuffed it, and he stuffed it, and he just kept on stuffing, because of course it never occurred to him that the creature was meant to have all those creases and folds in its skin...

By the time he'd finished, it was entirely smooth and rounded, and looked pretty much like a blimp, allegedly...
ravens_writ
Jun. 11th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
Wow, that's a great story--with all kinds of implications for sf&f fiction...

Nancy, great point. I think I'll adopt that theory, in fact.

Suanne
dsgood
Jun. 10th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)
Is it different in books which are accessible to people who aren't used to reading for pleasure? That is, people who haven't learned to read fiction -- except for being forced to read it in school.
nancyfulda
Jun. 11th, 2008 07:39 am (UTC)
That's a question I'm probably not qualified to answer, but I'm going to take a stab at it anyway ;)

My guess is that people who aren't used to reading for pleasure will be even less tolerant of description than the average reader. Reading requires effort for them, and in order to keep such readers hooked you're going to have to work twice as hard to avoid lulls in the manuscript.

Somewhat paradoxically, you'll also have to slow down the pace a bit. There's a whole slew of hidden assumptions and ambient culture in literature--and particularly in speculative literature--which will leave new readers floundering if you don't slow down and explain what's going on.

Last year I was at a workshop attended by a mainstream author who was just dipping her toes into speculative fiction. She's an extremely intelligent person, and yet she stumbled over phrases and concepts I'd have taken for granted: terraforming, for example. I learned a lot during that workshop about the unspoken assumptions of our genre.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 12th, 2008 06:36 am (UTC)
On the gripping hand . . .
Well, says I to me as I read your theory, says I, "I guess James Michener cannot sell in this world," says I.

And then I reflects sans mirror and me replies, "Probably not."

The publishing world has changed since Michener wrote _Iberia_ and the like. You, dear, are quite possibly correct.

"The Longest Read"

Sometime in the near literary Pleistocene Epoch, I started Michener's _The Source_. After 500 *PAGES* I put the book down in disgust. Boring. First book I had not finished.

Eight years later, I moved. Found _The Source_ while unpacking, bookmark still tucked away. I needed an insomnia remedy, so I started reading the book again. It picked up after 800 pages -- at The Fires of Ma Couer -- and the last 1200 pages (!) were exciting. And that is how I took 8 years to read one book.

I agree with you, Ms Fulda, and I do not believe Michener could sell to a publishing house in this current market. POD, however . . . .

antares
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

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