Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Exotic and the Lush

Every once in a while I’m forcible reminded in my reading that I prefer lush prose with at least a hint of the exotic over sparse prose that reveals the mundane. The exotic settings is one of the reasons why I love fantasy, and I often find a similar sense of the exotic in historical fiction. I’m also realizing, however, that part of the exotic feel that I look for can be created with lush prose that immerses me in the sensory world of the story.

Consider the book I’m reading now, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger, which is set in India in 1799. The book is well written and the events are interesting. I’m following the story fine, although it is a bit slow so far. But while I was expecting to really immerse myself in the exotic sights and smells of old India, I’m actually finding the prose to be rather flat at times. I’m going to give an example below. These two brief descriptions feature tigers in a scene where an Indian Sultan is about to have two men executed for treason. One of the two will be fed to the tigers afterward.

“The six tigers, restless because they had been denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat meat, glared with yellow eyes from the courtyard’s edges.” And: “One of the six chained tigers stirred at the smell of blood and padded forward until its chain stretched to its full length and so held it back. The beast growled, then settled down to watch the second man die.”

There’s nothing wrong with these descriptions. They adequately place us in the scene. They are perfectly well written. The problem, for me, is that they 1) don’t “immerse” me in the exotic sensory world where these tigers live, and 2) don’t convince me that the tigers are intensely dangerous predators. I want the author to give me that sensory experience. The beasts are “restless,” the author says. Are they prowling about? Do the chains clink and rattle as they stalk? How do their hides ripple with muscle? How do their growls rumble? Do we see their fangs? And I want to feel as if those chains are only “barely” adequate to hold them. I want to feel their threat.

As bizarre as it is for a complete unknown such as myself to dare rewrite the prose of the hugely successful Bernard Cornwell, I’m going to do so simply to illustrate what “I” want from my reading.

Six tigers in gleaming chains, denied their midday meal of freshly slaughtered goat, rose restlessly to their feet at the courtyard’s edges. Muscles rippled under the striped hides and low growls rumbled the hot, still air. Yellow eyes glared as they stalked toward the line of watchers. The chain links rattled, tautened, strained, and only at the moment when the metal seemed destined to fail did the beasts turn away from the men.

And:

One tiger snarled at the smell of blood, its lips curling back over the white glisten of its incisors. It tested its chains, set the steel to clanking, then slowly settled onto its belly to watch the second man die.

Writing fiction is such an art rather than a science. If you strive for a high level of intensity, some readers will call you “over the top” and reject you. And you certainly can’t make every scene in a story equally intense or the reader won’t be able to stay with you. Bernard Cornwell is a very well known writer and I’m not claiming in any way that I’m better than he is. For all I know, he consciously made a decision to understate the tiger scene, perhaps to contrast with something that comes later, or perhaps just because he felt his readers would prefer it. I’m not one of his readers; this is the first work I’ve read by him. “This” reader, though, was hoping for a little more lushness and exotica. Hey, it's "tigers" for goodness sake. I'd like to think they might eat me.
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48 comments:

Heff said...

I tend to agree with you. I sense no reason he should have "toned it down", but what the hell do I know ?

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, of course, you and I are not known for our liking of subtlety. Maybe we're just too crude.

Akasha Savage. said...

I agree. I like to feel the threat when I'm reading - something to get my heart racing. Good rewriting of those two paragraphs.

Steve Malley said...

I often find myself 'mentally rewriting' as I read, trying to figure out how I would want to say the same thing...

Charles Gramlich said...

Akasha, thanks. I worry sometimes if readers consider me too 'over the top.'

Steve, I do that a fair amount too. Probably a hazard of the writing life.

Deka Black said...

You know what? My first short story about a hero i created was called "over the top". I mean... I write the kind of stories i like to read. And over the top sometimes is needed.

"Tone it down", like Heff quote... time will tell which prose is remembered and which not.

If being over the top helps build atmosphere, exotic setting and characters... welcome!

Evan Lewis said...

Interesting. Though Cornwell is one of my favorite storytellers, I sometimes mentally edit him too. Don't give up on Tiger, though. It's the first of the Sharpe in India trilogy, and the payoff in each book is tremendous.

X. Dell said...

Interesting. Lush description, even of the exotic, is something that I don't particularly enjoy when reading a novel. Worse yet are lush descriptions of the mundane (e.g., in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, the author goes into lengthy prose describing, of all things, meals).

Usually, lush description is an element that I would suffer through for the benefit of an overall compelling narrative (although I'll admit some writers are better at it than others). While I agree that the writer has to bring the reader to the scene, I think this could be done in a number of different ways, depending on the writer. Screenwriters, for example, have to convey a very strong impression of setting with very few words (a consequence of the format).

In the passage you cite, I can actually appreciate the descriptive elements of the original passage, for it allows me, the reader, to recreate it in my head. It doesn't force the totality of the author's vision on me, but allows me to share in the creative process.

By the same token, I can appreciate your rewrite of it. If you read it out loud, you'll discover a rhythm and pulse added by the additional prose, something that's harder to do in a more barebones narrative.

I don't think that writing should be all one methodology or another. It's the plurality that gives the whole thing spice. While it would seem that your tastes and mine converge, I wouldn't begrudge you what you want from a story as opposed to what I want.

I think my point (and I do have one) is that readers really should tolerate a wider variety of styles in order to enjoy a wider range of stories and reading experiences.

ivan said...

Bernard Corwell sounds like a writer I'd want to read.

I have, I think, been reading too much of the Argentine Fabulist Jorge Luis Borges.

Talk about exotic settings.

India.

A hard-pressed unwitting assassin is met by a foul-mouthed guru.

A conversation ensues:

"He says a number of other vile things and mentions, in passing, that fourteen nights have lapsed since he last cleansed himself with buffalo dung."

I was immediately corrected on this by a writer from India, who said they actually used cow urine.

To each his own.
Over here, we've got this thing about a breaded god.

But Mr. Borges' info certainly reeks of the exotic.
But my India correspondent say all this is false...Well, Borges is a writer of fiction, is he not.

Live and learn!

David Cranmer said...

Excellent post, Charles and I tend to agree with you, though, sparse prose done well (Hemingway, Chandler)is a fine thing.

ivan said...

:) Sparse prose.

"Bang!

"The war is over, Miss Scarlett."

G said...

I don't know, those original paragraphs, if they were symptomatic of the entire book, would probably make me not read beyond a few more pages.

Can't tell you how many books I stopped reading because was flat and tedious.

Richard Prosch said...

Another great thing about lush prose is the auxiliary benefit of learning new words (though once reading a SPACE:1999 paperback where I met the word "scintillating," and, after the author had used it 37,000 times, I hoped never to read it again).

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka Black, I agree. I can handle subtle but I don’t think one should write at one level anymore than an artist should paint with one color. Sometimes over the top is needed.

Evan Lewis, oh I will keep on through it. It’s definitely worth reading. Possibly my urge to revise is just because it has so much richness to it already.

X. Dell, I’ve realized that my tastes differ from a lot of other readers, particularly more modern readers. I like more lushness, although I don’t want it for the mundane stuff, and I know what you mean about Fleming’s “meals.” I agree that Cornwell’s stuff has its own power, and there is that element of bringing the reader in to the story. I’m still involved, though, and more involved, if the prose is a bit more sensory in nature.

ivan, a lot of my friends think highly of him and I will definitely read more of his work. There’s a lot of interesting historical detail as well. Your sparse prose point reminds me of Heminway’s six word story.

David Cranmer, there’s also the genre. I think Hemingway and Chandler can do that so effectively because they are generally talking about environments that many of us have more familiarity with. Fantasy is particularly troubled by that, though, since none of us will have had the familiarity with ‘its’ strange environments. Definitely more description needed.

G, The reader already has to do so much work in a book that I want the writer to put out their own effort and really write intensely.

Richard Prosch, yes, I learned so many words from Robert E. Howard, but yes, I’ve seen them overused. I can see why scintillating would be getting on your nerves.

Travis Cody said...

Your re-writes do certainly enhance the tension and sense of menace and danger. I think another effective technique is to see the tigers through the eyes of the second criminal to be executed, perhaps as he watches the first man devoured by them.

I guess there's merit to be found in both ways. On the one hand, sometimes a sky is just blue. But other times it needs more description because the events in the scene require it.

David J. West said...

I've read the 5 Saxon Tales of Cornwell's and I like those a lot-but yes I would call them spare in comparison to a lot of the authors I know both of us like.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, that would be an interesting view point for sure. And I know he couldn't dramatize every scene so much or the book would be much longer. It's a matter of pick and choose I suppose.

David J. West, I want to read those. I will try one of those next. What's the first one in that series?

David J. West said...

1. The Last Kingdom
2. The Pale Horseman
3. Lords of the North
4. Sword Song
5. The Burning Lands

They do stand on their own-I read them 4, 2, 1, 3, 5 amd was never lost.
I like them all but would argue 3 and 4 are the best. For bloody historical fiction, its among my favorite-and considering this series is written from first person POV it may give a different experience from the Sharpe's because Uthred is telling you his tale just like Ruenn does.

Ty Johnston said...

It's generally a matter of personal taste.

Hemingway, being the most famous and an obvious example, tended toward the sparse. But the man could write. The only other writer I can think of who was as good at sparse prose as Hemingway is probably Breece D'J Pancake, and his only published works were short stories, and far too few of them at that.

Mervyn Peake, on the other hand, went too far, in my opinion, in the other direction. He'd spend pages upon pages describing the minutest details. I'm sure he had his literary reasons, but it was all a bit much for me, though I do appreciate his tales.

I tend to prefer someone like Tolstoy, who is sort of in the middle, in my opinion, or at least he would go back and forth. Sometimes he sets a scene with a strong tone, other times he just jumps right in and covers whole scenes and major events in a matter of paragraphs. I believe it depended upon what he was trying to accomplish with a particular scene, or even a whole novel.

Ty Johnston said...

Oh, and as for myself as a writer, I tend toward the sparse end.

Sorry. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, thanks. I really like first person with adventure fiction. Sticks you right in the midst of things.

Ty, there are many things besides just the lushness of the prose that influences my enjoyment of a story. I'm not even sure that lushness and sparseness are the right terms, since I really like Hemingway alot and I know he is often considered spare but is really not in the way I think of it. Another example of how words are hardly adequate to the task of communication.

BernardL said...

I disagree, Charles. I understand your point but the reason you even miss the lush prose is because the story's flat. I'm betting if the story gripped you the absence of lush descriptive scenes would be an afterthought.

Ron Scheer said...

I'm the guy who prefers understatement, but with the flourish of a telling detail.

Gaston Studio said...

Loved your rewrite for I, too, must have the sensory experience. Crude? I don't think I am but then I'm biased.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've learned a lot about reading from you, you know. Thanks for that. :)

Lois Karlin said...

It can be overdone, but one or two telling details can go a long way. Especially if told in a secondary character's voice in dialog. "Jesus, man, that metal can't hold them."

laughingwolf said...

give me more of you kind of writing, charles, i feel what your words describe... conrnwell's leave me bleah!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Does lush as in drunk count?

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, you're probably right in that one really good virtue could make up for other sins. There are so many different elements that go into telling a compelling story. I think lushness is one, but not the only one certainly.

Ron Scheer, the details of what one emphasises plays such a critical role, for sure. In this case, I wanted the tigers to be such a telling detail, but Cornwell decided otherwise, and I'm sure he had his reasons.

Gaston Studios, I like my vicarious experience to be sensory rich and emotionally laden. But maybe I'm too controlling at times.

Lana, you are sweet to say so.

Lois Karlan, indeed, there are a lot of different ways it could be shown. The sweat on the men's brows as the tigers test the chains, some dialogue as you suggest here, and so on. Thanks for dropping by.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, it's probably that we have similar tastes, my friend.

Alex, only if the drunk is exotic.

Cloudia said...

matters of taste... good taste in your case :-)




Aloha from Waikiki

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Jodi MacArthur said...

The difference between your version and his is yours is enhancing the scene for sake of story (bless your imagination), where I feel his version is arrogant and dare I say, egotistical. (Oh geez, I prob just got myself in trouble!). I haven't read the book so I can't be a proper judge. But there's my opinion. ;-)

Chris Phillips said...

To me some of it has to do with walking a line of not over explaining and making what you do explain rich. I think that first tiger description could have lost the part about how they hadn't eaten and if need be had it snuck back in through dialog.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, yeah, primarily for sure.

Jodi MacArthur, thanks for the kind words. Sometimes all we can say is that something works or does not work for 'us.' His focus was clearly elsewhere than the tigers, but it's a story decision, I guess.

Chris Phillips, thanks for dropping by. Good point. Indicating in dialogue that the tigers hadn't eaten could have been used to set up a powerful scene with the restless tigers. So many ways in and out of a scene it would appear.

Rick said...

I'm right with you on this, Charles. It's fashionable to critize immersion prose (they have to, just have to call it purple prose if they didn't write it themselves). The current thrust of theory is that today's readers don't have the attention to "immerse in a story." Today's readers only have the attention span to "dip their toe" into a story, not dive in completely.

jodi said...

Charles, I too, love a rich description while still leaving something to the imagination. How can one subtly describe a tiger?? They are so large than life in every way!

Charles Gramlich said...

Rick, that's pretty insulting to us readers. Of course, they run the risk of producing that which they think already exists. Irritating.

Jodi, I may also be sensitized to the tiger thing because they are so endangered at present.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Me, too. Too tame the way it was.

Charles Gramlich said...

patty, a bit yes, I think.

the walking man said...

That is a part of the problem. Lush is subjective. In his mind he may have been writing what you wrote, saw it the way you saw and he and his editors thought it lush.

In a scene like that though I prefer a few more (as you did) adjectives. I want to smell their breath as I am about to die i want the chains just long enough to my place of execution but four links short of the claws being able to reach me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, Lush on the page and lush in the mind are definitely triggered by different levels of description. It's an art for sure rather than a science. BTW, I got the book you mailed. Thanks.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, this prompts a thought for a post ... how writers read.

I like your engagement with process.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I don't care so much whether the setting is an exotic place, or whether I'm reading about the mundane ... as long as the voice isn't so damn passive that my eyelids grow heavy.

Lauren said...

I do like exotic scenery and prose lush enough to help me as a reader understand what is going on physically and potentially...If I wanted to not feel anything I wouldn't be reading :). I also like interesting phrases.

Harry Markov said...

You know, I prefer my prose lush as well. Nothing worse than dull prose and even for works that I like and works well, flat prose deters from the pleasure.

Richard Godwin said...

I hear what you're saying Charles, remember this?

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake catches it, the danger and beauty, you see beauty and danger are bedfellows in some contexts.

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

Style, it's a bitch. It's like matching clothes when you don't know what the weather will be and the truth is there ain't no easy rules, capturing a beast like that is hard, overdoing it one tad screws with the story.
Nice post.
James Lee Burke gets the balance right. A spare style is right for a political novel.

Shauna Roberts said...

I read a fantasy recently by a well-known author (nameless here to protect the guilty), and I had trouble getting through it. Eventually I realized that the sense of exoticism was missing. That's what I read fantasy and historical fiction for as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

Don, I've talked with writer friends about this before and there is definitely a difference with writers.

JR, these days with all the distractions it certainly takes a bit of intensity to hold my imagination.

Lauren, Yes, the reader already has to do so much work in a story. Why make their job harder?

Harry Markov, exactly. the book is good. It just could be better. Or so it seems to me.

Richard Godwin, Blake is a great example. His words just drip with intensity and power. They are themselves scarcely chained.

Shauna Roberts, Me too. It's just very important to me to be transported to elsewhere, otherwhen.