“I can’t stand all of those flowery descriptions in classic literature. Why don’t the authors just get to the action?” “I don’t like opera with all of that over-the-top emotion.” “Those old writers are just not realistic!” Those are common complaints, but they deserve an answer.
First of all, literature is an art form that consists of language. Whereas a painter uses daubs of paint, an author uses daubs of words. Whereas a musical composer works with individual musical notes, working them together into complex harmonies, rhythms, and melodies, an author creates the effects of a novel or a poem with individual words.
This is to say, an author can’t just “get to the action” because a story is not just a matter of action. It’s words. Plays, including the dramatic production that is a movie, do consist of action. But even a visualized story generally depends on the language of dialogue, which actors use to create their characters. Purists who want only action might restrict themselves to silent movies. But even silent movies—as with all dramatic scripts—have to be written.
Words are multi-dimensional and can create an infinite number of effects–including the illusion that the words are doing nothing. Those who are impatient with “style” often don’t realize that “realism” is also a style.
Some authors of the early 20th century reacted against the rich descriptions of emotions and of the natural world that characterized the “Romantic” style of the 19th century. Ernest Hemingway led the way, paring down descriptions to the bone, putting terse sentences into brief paragraphs that leave out all authorial digressions and commentary. He said that his stories are like icebergs: two-thirds are below the surface. This is in accord with the larger “modernist” style, which in architecture meant stripping away all ornamentation (glass, steel, and concrete buildings in which “form follows function”) and in painting meant “minimalism” (the least possible gesture—the black canvas, the empty frame—that can constitute a work of art). But Hemingway created his iceberg effect through his mastery of language. Cutting out adjectives meant having to rely on perfectly-chosen nouns and verbs. He created his characters by means of clipped, but evocative dialogue. Though Hemingway is sometimes action-packed—writing about bullfights and marlin fishing—he just as often pares back the action as well, leaving characters to hold conversations in a café, with even the most momentous action taking place beneath the surface.
“Realism” is also a style. And it carries with it certain assumptions about what is real. If the Romantics of the 19th century delved deeply into human subjectivity, the Realists of the 19th century sought to be as objective as possible, which meant—conditioned as they were by the new materialism fostered by Darwin and the industrial revolution—focusing on just the reality that can be seen. It wasn’t just emotions that were excised, but other non-material things, such as ideas, ideals, and moral values. Sometimes the authors left them out so as to provoke the reader into supplying them. Hemingway does that, as do authors such as Upton Sinclair who promoted social reform. But they all achieved their effects by the not-completely-material medium of language.
There are, in fact, lots of literary styles. There is not one correct way to write. Readers would do well to learn to appreciate all kinds of styles, thus multiplying their aesthetic pleasure.
If the illusion of realism is established by the creative use of language, why not employ the creative use of language to create the illusion of things that are not real at all? That is to say, let’s also appreciate fantasy. We can enjoy reading vivid accounts of life that give us a sense of recognition. We can also enjoy entering into virtual experiences that are completely new and otherwise impossible.
We can benefit from the explorations of the inner life that the Romantics offer us. We can also appreciate the attention to the objective order of life and art that is the hallmark of classicism. Then there is the baroque—the art of Milton, Bach, Ruebens—which brings together both objectivity and subjectivity.
As for “flowery language,” consider that the author is using words in a multi-leveled way. Yes, to describe the action. But also to situate that action in a setting, which itself is an imaginative creation. To give us what the characters are doing, but also—in something literature can do that other art forms can only hint at—what the characters are thinking and feeling.
The point is, there is a lot going on in a classic novel. Artists of words like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Herman Melville are setting up not only plots and characters, but themes and motifs every bit as complex as those in a symphony.
As for opera, even its biggest aficionados are cognizant of the fact that individuals in times of stress do not actually break out in song. All art and all styles have their conventions. It is possible to bring inner states to the surface—rather than keeping them below the surface as in Hemingway’s iceberg—so they can be contemplated by the audience. The complexities of music can be added to the complexities of language—as well as the complexities of drama and stagecraft—resulting in a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional work of art.
To be sure, a three-minute pop song on the radio is much simpler than an opera, just as a half-hour television drama is much simpler than a classic novel. This should not discredit pop songs and situation comedies, which have their own styles, conventions, and levels of quality. Nor should we allow pop music and TV shows to set the standards for bigger, richer fare.
Each style deserves to be judged by its own terms and appreciated for what it is. And those of us who receive them as readers or members of the audience can take distinct and different pleasures from them all.