on text with texture and getting essential with the extraneous
It’s Saturday! Lose the digital avatar. Time to be human again. Take off that VR headset and return to your body. Select some premium vinyl—Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, perhaps—and lay it down on the turntable. Drop the needle gently; you don’t want to scratch it. Now, stretch out on a comfy old divan, tamp some aromatic cavendish into your corncob, and puff away in silence while having a deep think or two. Life is short—you smoke a pipe, after all—so don’t spend all of it scrolling through updates about Trump and North Korea.
For now, let’s turn our worn and trembling minds to philosophy for a moment. (It goes back to your writing, don’t worry.)
The other day, I spotted a New York Review Books reissue of 2 William Sloane stories under the title The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. (The Rim of Morning? What a title! Kudos, NYRB.) Introduction by Stephen King: sold.
The cosmic horror failed to chill me—Trump and North Korea have raised the bar on that way past anything H.P. Lovecraft wrote—but the 1930s period detail absolutely grounded me in the narrative and kept me reading happily despite a profound absence of action. Sloane, who never wrote another novel after these two and spent most of his career in publishing, embeds you in his era with simple, lucid descriptions of the world around his characters.
Sure, there is something a bit…off about Professor LeNormand’s widow—spoiler alert: she’s possessed by a disembodied intelligence from out of time—but the texture is what captured my attention and kept me hooked. The little details of what the characters eat, drink, wear, read, hear. That they say “swell” without irony.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the realization that every observation I’ve ever made—including Moldawer’s Law, sadly—has already been made, better, by a philosopher, often by a sequence of philosophers going all the way back to Ur. (This is why I never strive for originality anymore. Everything is plagiarism anyway.) So it came as no surprise to learn there’s a philosophical term for seemingly superfluous texture in writing: reality-effect. Roland Barthes coined (or re-coined) the idea in a 1968 essay. Summarized as follows:
The small details of person, place, and action that while contributing little or nothing to the narrative, give the story its atmosphere, making it feel real. It does not add to the plot to know that the character James Bond wears Egyptian cotton shirts, but it clearly does add considerably to our understanding of him. By the same token, knowing that he buys his food from Fortnum and Mason makes him more real.
A rare few writers employ reality-effect well. The ones who do usually end up being among my favorites. Again, reality-effect details don’t further the story or heighten its dynamics. You can’t use them to figure out whodunit. They just put you there. I’ve been reading The Fellowship of the Ring to my son. As an author, Tolkien finds the contents of a hobbit’s larder of equal or greater interest than battles among Orcs and Elves. Ultimately, I think that’s the reason Amazon paid nine figures for a new TV series set in his world. After all, there were cheaper wizards available.
I notice reality-effect (or lack thereof) in every work of practical nonfiction I read. I suspect it accounts for much of a business book’s vitality. This isn’t as simple as saying “use stories to make your point,” although stories are essential to illustrating your lessons. Some business books, even those brimming with stories and case studies, simply feel flat. They sit there on the page, tepid sequences of suggestions and ideas and examples. Others sparkle. The best ones feel like a conversation with the author or, even better, as though the author is sitting right over your shoulder as you master the material, guiding you along as you learn and helping you avoid the same mistakes. What accounts for this palpable humanity in a book?
We’re told again and again to make every word count, but for what? Many writers, especially those with academic or corporate backgrounds, interpret this to mean that a book should feel like a paper or a memo. “How can I write this as simply and clearly as possible? What can I trim?” Writing well isn’t as simple as concision. A piece of writing stripped of non-essential detail feels non-essential.
When writing, ground it. Give it all the texture you can and winnow it later only if you have to. Include the “extraneous” details that will help bring the scene to life in the reader’s mind. Sure, that make-or-break presentation taught you something important about positioning your product. But the half-empty deli cups of lukewarm coffee on the conference table put your readers in that conference room with you. How else are they going to learn the same lesson you did?