Saturday, February 04, 2006

Hold the Roses

Read tonight in an old textbook on writing:

Flowery and extravagant diction interferes with a writer's doing justice to his subject.

The text goes on to talk about how writers often can't resist flowery diction, as they want to slap a coat of poetic varnish on dull old prose, i.e.:

Flowery: The respite from my studies was devoted to a sojourn at the ancestral mansion.

Plain English: I spent my vacation at my grandparents' house.

I know a couple of writers who write exactly like the flower power example minus the passive voice. They are acclaimed to the high heavens for the obscurity and beauty of their novels. The books don't sell, exactly, but apparently that's part of their priceless appeal, too. We all know how dull and vulgar it is to sell well.

I love poetry, but I can't read prose that has been lacquered into phony/pretty lines. It's like grading papers for a sixth grade creative writing class after they've seen Narnia or LOTR. Every other line is filled with phrases like denying the partaking and enduringly forever. I like plain words, not pretty. Pretty seems pretty shallow, while plain resonates with me on every level.

What do you guys think of flower power writers?

22 comments:

  1. I think they should have their fabulous petals plucked. (You can quote me ... carefully)
    Not that I have a problem with people writing in a literary style, but if they do they shouldn't (a) moan that the book buying public are only interested in cheap thrillers and wouldn't recognise a GOOD book if it was hanging next to the porcelain throne or (b) believe that a crappy plot or cardboard characters are magically transformed into *art* if you use five dollar words.
    In other words, write however you like but don't complain if nobody reads it ;-)

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  2. >What do you guys think of flower
    >power writers?
    In the words of a certain Bishop: "Kill them all, let God sort them out."

    It's not poetry when it's just "posh" language swapped in from a handy thesaurus. I'm always wary of prose which does not derive from the Anglo Saxon.

    I'd rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs than Sabatini.

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  3. Personally, I'd rather read someone like Nabokov, whose beautiful prose matches the ingenuity of his stories. In other words, I'll have my cake and eat it, please.

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  4. I agree with Simon. For example, the main reason I bought the Kushiel books was because I fell in love with the prose the moment I read the first line on the first page, and I haven't regretted it one moment because the story is strong enough to back it up.

    As for people who write flowery because they think it makes them more literary, I laugh about them. No story, no book, and no flowery diction is going to mask that.

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  5. I like a bit of both. Jeri mentioned the Kushiel books, and I think that's a very good example. While the language is heavily descriptive and definitely archaic in some places, it's not overdone. Rather, it adds a vivid atmosphere to the novel. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is the same way.

    I don't think you can deal in absolutes in regards to writing. Essentially, flowery language is *too much attention to detail... but plain sometimes can be not enough. Finding the right balance can be difficult. (I ought know; I've been working on it for years! :P)

    The prose should add to the story, not detract from it--and either taken to an extreme can do that.

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  6. I think Nonny hit it on the head. Some books I read and adore because they're well-written and tell a great story without letting the prose get in the way (Rachel Caine, Meg Cabot, you, Patricia Briggs, Kelley Armstrong, early LKH, early Lackey, Nora Roberts, Jenny Cruisie, etc. -- usually urbant fantasy), and some books I read and adore because the prose is woven like a tapestry that augments and enhances a great story and wonderful characters (Carey's Kushiel books, McKinley, McKillip, Marillier -- usually high fantasy).

    It's as easy to do flowery prose badly as it is to butcher anything else (like love scenes, for example, or thrillers, or anything that requires a great depth of knowledge on a subject, such as a surgeon as a main character). We had one book come in to the store by an author we had previously enjoyed immensely, only to find the book was so overwritten we couldn't get past page 5. Also, we've discovered that a certain subsection of the Luna authors seem to think they can use flowery prose to make up for a complete absence of plot, character, or common sense. Using the word "'Twas" on every other page, for instance, in descriptive passages rather than in dialogue, does not make your book seem more medieval.

    But those stories in which language is a structural device as important as plot or setting, when done well, are just as enjoyable to me as a really well-written chicklit, or mystery, or memoir. It's all a matter of mood -- sometimes I want an apple, sometimes I want a cookie, sometimes I want a twelve-layer chocolate cake with spun sugar flowers and icing rosettes on a bed of rasberry sorbet, but they're all really tasty and fun to eat.

    I think that's a common theme in writing. "If you're going to do something, do it well, or don't do it at all."

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  7. "...moan that the book buying public are only interested in cheap thrillers and wouldn't recognise a GOOD book if it was hanging next to the porcelain throne ..."

    Oh they might RECOGNIZE it... the question is, will they understand it? If I had to read a book that was written like the respite from my studies... I would end up therapy.

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  8. I agree with what most of the others have said - it's good to a point, but only to a point. I don't like it when the writing gets in the way of the story, but some authors - Dean Koontz, for instance - have a style that, while not exactly flowery, is poetic without getting in the way of the story.

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  9. Flowery prose tends to not be vulgar. Pretty stuff can be nice every now and then, but ya' know, a little vulgarity goes a long way.

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  10. I love them.

    I love them not.

    I love them.

    I love them NOT!

    If I'm reading for pleasure, just tell me the story. If I want poetry and prose together, I'll read Dr. Seuss.

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  11. In writing, the same as in business, a lot of people are impressed by a lot of big fancy words. Personally, I have little time for empty rhetoric.

    I'm reminded of a book I tried to read a while back. It was full of simile. Everything was 'like' something, and it was impossible to gather any sort of narrative drive.

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  12. All good comments, folks. I own the first couple of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, btw, and while she writes in a literaturish voice, I never saw her prose as especially flowery. If it was, the story probably kept me too absorbed to notice it.

    That might be the key to my problem with flower power writers. Prose that is so deliberately crafted that it's in my face shrieking "Look! I'm writing so pretty!" occludes the story, and I read for the story, not the author's command of Roget's Thesaurus.

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  13. As a general all-purpose label, I don't read it. If I have to get out a dictionary just to figure out what you're trying to tell me - and I’m reasonably well-read and educated - I won't read it. Frankly, I don’t have time to screw with it.

    I have endured too many books and stories written by people who think that just because they own a thesaurus they need to use every word in it. I have seen published prose that, if the words they used were actually used the way Roget & Webster’s intended, made no sense. The focus becomes on the froth, not the content.

    I want a story. I want things to make sense. I don't read a book or a short story to broaden my vocabulary, I read to broaden my mind, my horizons, my realm of experience. I read for entertainment or enlightenment, not to be lost in a soup of unpronounceable muck.

    When it becomes about the specific words instead of about the message, it becomes a waste of my time. If it’s about the author showing how “smart and literary” they are, well, I’d rather put my feet on the coffee table and burp than poke my pinky in the air. Sometimes the perfect word is a ten-dollar gem. Usually, though, the perfect word is direct, to the point, and completely accessible by anyone.

    Some readers love that stuff. I’m just not one of them.

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  14. I think the problem with overly flowery prose often is that it doesn't fit the story that's being told. I think a writer needs to be aware of the type of prose that fits their story and let that be the guide. I'm writing my contemporary cop book in a very sparse style because that's what fits the story. I have a different story in mind that's in a time and place where that style would sound wrong. It needs the feel of more "flowery" prose because that's the way the people of that time wrote. :)

    Linda

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  15. PBW said:

    That might be the key to my problem with flower power writers. Prose that is so deliberately crafted that it's in my face shrieking "Look! I'm writing so pretty!" occludes the story, and I read for the story, not the author's command of Roget's Thesaurus.

    *nods*

    Descriptive writing done well... you shouldn't notice it. Or, rather, it shouldn't "flag" anything like overwritten prose does.

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  16. I also agree that flowery prose should a) be well written (another Kushiel fan here, lol) and b) suit the context.

    Ancestral manors and sojourns are fine if you write a saga about a 19th century British family, but sound out of place in a SciFi novel. :-)

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  17. I'm another Kushiel fan here, and while her voice leans toward the more literary side of the spectrum, I think it fits her books.

    As a rule, I find flowery writing bores me. I don't finish boring books, and I most definitely do not recommend them to friends.

    Something has to keep me hooked on the book, and if it's not the writing, then it has to be characterization and plot.

    That said, I'd go for plot and characterization first any day.

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  18. I stay away from flowery writing. I don't like to read it and I don't like to write it. (Weeell, I once wrote a bit of flash fiction, "The Unbearable Lightness of Bullwinkle", which spoofed . . . aw, never mind.)

    On the other hand, ornate prose has its place. I'm thinking of Glen Duncan's terrific faux memoir, I, Lucifer. I'm sorry -- Satan should have a love and command of the language, and it should show.

    I also remember liking Arturo Perez-Reverte's Club Dumas, and that had an ornate style, too.

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  19. For me, it depends on the story. If it's something like LOTR, then the flowery phrasing is fine. If it's a modern set novel, then no.

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  20. Depends on the genre, but what I truly can't stand is plain writing which is also description-free. We never see anything: the settings, the characters, it's basically all introspection and dialogue, with a bit of action of indicate what they are doing at the moment. If I wanted to read a stage play with built-in internal monologues, I'd have bought a book of plays, not a novel.
    But for some reason, this seems to be a flowering, pun unintended, tendency.
    At least the books with flowery writing usually have some description :)

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  21. Beautiful language and plot are like the service and food at a restaurant. I'll only give 4 stars to a book that uses both well.

    I agree that ornate language for its own sake weighs down a story, but that shouldn't condemn beautiful, poetic language in fiction. Writers like LeGuin and McKillip know how to use language to its advantage and enhance the story.

    best,
    ljcohen

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  22. Sometimes the poetry of language has its appeal for me -- there's a reason I sometimes like to refer to the King James Version of the Bible, after all, despite it being a poor translation -- but for the most part I prefer simple language used well. I'm thinking right now of The Missing, by Thomas Eidson, which never departs into flights of multilayered foofaraw, but still manages to be elegant and beautiful.

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