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‘Fog everywhere.’ In fiction writing, the long decline of description.

By CYNTHIA CROSSEN [Wall Street Journal] – Forty years ago, the writer and critic Mary McCarthy was already lamenting the decline of description in fiction. “We have come a long way from the time when the skill of an author was felt to be demonstrated by his descriptive prowess,” she wrote. “Dickens’ fogs, Fenimore Cooper’s waterfalls, forest, prairie, Emily Bronte’s moors, Hardy’s heath and milky vales, Melville’s Pacific.”

Most 19th-century novelists wrote about places and times of which their readers had no visual image. Today, if Charles Dickens wrote, “Fog everywhere,” as he did on the first page of Bleak House, most people could conjure an image of a London murk. We might even become impatient with his elaborations of the fog on the Essex marshes and Kentish heights. Yet his poetical description served a higher purpose—to reflect his characters: “fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck”…

I asked two book editors I know, who have been editing (and reading) fiction professionally for decades, if there is less descriptive language in fiction today. Both said, generally, yes, and both mentioned movies as a reason.

Continued in The Wall Street Journal [subscription] | More Chronicle & Notices.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I agree. And I am more used to writing screenplays. Description is hard for me, dialogue easy.

    Thursday, 4 March 2021 at 22:16 | Permalink

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