Thursday, October 11, 2012

Something fishy this way comes


My family reads books aloud the way some families watch TV.  We don't have a TV, you know.
(Ooh, conservative-homeschooler-snob alert! Blare the alarms!)

We've been doing it since I was three and my mom began reading through the Little House on the Prairie series.  In the following fourteen years, we've made our way through The Swiss Family Robinson (blech), Old Yeller (amazing), Around the World in Eighty Days (great), The Yearling (twice!), Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, Treasure Island, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, (love that one!) Robinson Crusoe, Gentle Ben, Oliver Twist, Journey to the Center of the Earth (don't ask...), The Cabin Faced West, Toby Tyler, Little House on the Prairie (again), and way too many others to count.  We're in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch right now, in case you're curious.

By now you're probably glancing back at the post title and asking, what does all this have to do with fish?  And what on earth does it have to do with writing?

Be patient.  I have to have an introduction, don't I?  Grab your attention and all that.

So I like fish.  I really, really like fish.  But I like them on a plate and not in the pages of a book.
(I mean that FIGURATIVELY, peeps.  Do you honestly think I've opened books to find flattened salmon squished inside them?  Please.  Peanut butter and jelly, yes, fish, no.)

Four or five years ago, my dad read aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to our family.  It was pretty good as far as Jules Vernes' science fiction goes-- better than Journey to the Center of the Earth (we didn't even finish that one) but not as good as Around the World in Eighty Days.  The premise of the story is fascinating-- it's all about this crazy guy named Captain Nemo who built himself a submarine, a marvel of engineering, in which he lives all the year round, hiding from the world in the depths of the ocean.  Oh, and he stabs ships with the submarine.  Did I mention it has a tusk thingy? He's actually become the enemy of pretty much the entire seagoing world: navies from dozens of countries are bent on finding Nemo and getting him to stop his unexplained ship-stabbing.

The book is told from a professor's point of view, an ordinary man whose ordinary ship sinks in the Atlantic. He and two of his friends are--quote, unquote--rescued by Captain Nemo and permitted to stay on the submarine, known as the Nautilus.  (It's chambered, by the by.)  Captain Nemo's mysterious existence fascinates the professor, whose name escapes me, and the professor and his friends are most curious to find out who this man is and why he does what he does.  They travel all over the ocean floor together, and a lot of interesting things happen (I won't give too much away, I promise) but for a good deal of the time, the submarine just zooms along quietly and a great many fish swim by the windows.

Fish!  Fish! There they are at last!  Now we get to the fish!

If you've read 20,000 Leagues, you'll understand what I mean when I say that the fish descriptions are... lengthy.  If you haven't read it, let me endeavor to explain.  Imagine that Jules Verne is an overexcited five-year-old sitting at the breakfast table recounting a long and involved dream he had last night.  Now imagine that he has a book contract and is being paid by the word.  Add a shake or two of Fondness For Description, be sure to include a bit of Let Me Educate My Ignorant Readers, multiply by 100 and repeat ad nauseum.

Um, okay, so I exaggerated a wee bit.  BUT STILL.  The amount of fish description that goes into this book is unbelievable.  In some parts it reads like an adventure story, but in others it reads like a textbook on marine life.  And the marine life parts are about as boring as Mr. Woodhouse's grocery list (which, if you're interested, consists of oatmeal, oatmeal, oatmeal and skim milk).

But why?  What's wrong with description?  Why can't Jules Verne drone about fish and hold our attention at the same time?  Is there something wrong with fish?  Does Amy have something against fish?  Hmmmmmm?

Nope, there's nothing wrong with fish.  Or description for that matter.  The point I'm trying to make here is not that fish and endless description are bad, but that they are often unnecessary.  Fish are good.  Especially with lemon butter.  Description is good too... when properly used.  You can have too much of a good thing, you know.

Part of the appeal of a book (for me at least) is that a truly good one will make pictures in my head without any effort on my part.  (Laziness may have something to do with my enjoyment of that...) A truly good book will allow me to "see" what's going on by combining just the right amount of words.  Too much description tempts me to skip.  A mention or two of the heroine's beauty is fine, but if every other page contains a drawn-out harangue on her porcelain skin and fine golden hair, I'm going to start yawning.  (Listen up, Baroness Orczy.)  Too much politicking and sewer history is guaranteed to put anyone to sleep.  (I'm looking at you, Victor Hugo.)  An overabundance of subplots and the full family history of Mrs. Wiggleflipper's godmother's milkman is not always interesting reading.  (Do you hear me, Charles Dickens?)

You notice I didn't mention Jane Austen in that last paragraph... there's a good reason for that and it's called One Does Not Criticize Perfection.   Jane Austen left things to the reader's imagination.  Sure, she described from time to time.  But she didn't whap her readers over the head with twelve-sentence paragraphs about the luster and sparkle in Elizabeth Bennet's eyes-- she merely said that Lizzy had fine eyes and left it at that.  (Could she have described a little more? Probably, yes, but she did an amazing job with what she did describe and as I said before, perfection cannot really be improved upon, thankyouverymuch.)

Jane Austen herself said that she did not write for such dull elves as had not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.  (See, she was a poet, too.  I bet she did not know it, eh what?) That is to say, she did not believe in over-explaining-- and that, I think, is a key to good description.  Teddy Roosevelt was fond of the maxim, "Stand up, speak up, and then shut up."  I'm inclined to apply this to writing as well.  Certainly there is always a time and place for good, well-executed description, but a clear word-picture of a beautiful part of the ocean need not become a biology lesson.

Unless, of course, you're writing a textbook on fish.  In which case, have at it.

But most of us aren't.  So if you aren't writing a textbook on fish, leave fish out entirely.  Leave any and all superfluous windbaggery out, for that matter, or else you may be saddled with a finished product looking something like this...


Also fish.

18 comments:

Molly said...

Ha,ha. I loved the poster. :) And I agree absolutely about the fish.

Katy-Anne said...

Haha! Agree with you 100%. Confession: I skipped all the fishy bits of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. And I might have skimmed Hugo's description of Waterloo and the sewers, or I might have skipped them, too. And I never, ever try to even comprehend all the minor characters in Dickens. And don't even get me STARTED on Tolstoy. At least the other ones are descriptions. His are philosophical debates.

All I can say is, well done, Jane Austen.

Anne-girl said...

Mr. Woodhouse's grocery list shall be put in the annals of Great Humor

Alexandra said...

I feel ignorant...my only exposure to 20,000 Leagues is the Disney version - it was my brother's favorite movie for a while when we were wee and so James Mason is forever Captain Nemo to me (so when AA saves James Mason's Isaac at the beginning of Ivanhoe my brother murmured, "You saved my life...why?" Hehe.)

I used to be one of those five-page-description people, until I made an effort to stop...and now unfortunately I have the tendency to have no description at all, which drives Tori crazy. :-P So now I have to make an effort to add it in there. :D

And I haaaaaaaave to beg to differ with perfection...hellooooo, she could have *so* added more in her novels, like, PROPOSALS in most of her novels, peoples. (Sorry...watched the '95 Edward/Elinor proposal clip today and marveled how gorgeous it is...and HOW IT ISN'T IN THE BOOOOOK!!!!!! Rant over.)

Glad to see you back on the blogsphere (ha, like I've been a great example of consistent blogging...hehehe)

Miss Melody Muffin said...

My family is the same way about books and TV!!

You don't like The Swiss Family Robinson?? Horror of all horrors! :) LOL!

Monsieur Aronnax is the professor's name m'dear. (Hmm, can you tell I'm a fan of 20,000 Leagues?) That said, I do agree. The endless fish descriptions are a bit much. I read them all the first time through the book, and skipped them every other time. (I've read the book at least 4 times now.) I will pursue the same course of action with Les Miserables in the future as well. *grin* (Which reminds me, my review is FINALLY done!)

I actually don't mind any excess description in Baroness Orczy's books. That woman can do almost no wrong with me. :)

Love that Teddy Roosevelt quote! That is going into my vocabulary!

Mr Woodhouse's grocery list!! Hahaha!! *GROAN* I detest oatmeal, despite having eaten it all my life. That man and I would never get along.

Amen, Amy!!

Now that I've left this rather rambling comment, I'm off to finish some writing of my own... and I'll keep the description to a minimum. =)

Hayden said...

hahaha. Oh, the dull hours sepnt skipping over the "scientific" descriptions in Journey to the Center of the Earth...nearly scared me off of Verne forever, but I tried Around the World in 80 days and LOVED it :)

And Hugo and Tolstoy are on my classics club list...now I'm scared.... :)

Melody said...

Just had to let you know, dearest dear, how very, very pleased I was about your bit about JA. You go, girl. Amen. Lovely, lovely, lovely. And I liked the mentioning of the dull elves quote.

But, Alexandra, really! How you can make such statements without having ever read the books except maybe one or two or parts thereof? You can't understand from just hearing people say that proposals were left out (and she did not either leave them out in MOST of her books... it was even. 50-50. And she only had 6 chances, the poor thing.), all the other good points that Make Up For It. As Amy said, she did an amazing job with what she DID describe. (Besides, if she'd put the proposal in S&S, then poor Emma Thompson wouldn't have had the fun of making it up. She has a great deal of ingenuity herself. :P)

And while I have this habit of jumping on every opportunity to defend her, Miss Austen would probably just be laughing in your face. (Well, maybe not in your face. She'd probably have the decorum just to smirk, and laugh at you in private later on.)

I'M SORRY, IT JUST POPT OUT.
If I am a wild Beast I cannot help it...

And anyway. I do maintain that I still need to read El Dorado before I can decide my opinion of Sir Percy. The same should go for you, don't you think? You can't judge Jane Austen until you've read Jane Austen. :D

(Heh, Amy, I really just came here to direct that comment at the top to you, but then I saw Alexandra's. Ahem. Sorry about that.)

Rachel (Cynthia) Heffington said...

BAHAHAHA! (Please excuse my belated chuckle) Wowwwww...this post totally made me crack up, Dear Amy! Especially that last picture...and I haven't even read War and Peace. And honestly? Moby Dick was really similar...I haven't finished that guy yet.... *guilty smile*

Alexandra said...

My dear Melody!

I muuuuust say in my own defense that I have read one JA book (NA, again without a proposal and the ending was so rushed and quickly resolved I was hopping mad), half of P&P (the end half, so I know how the proposal - or rather the half-of-one-sort-of-not-there - goes in that end) and I'm presently getting myself through S&S to have the supreme accomplishment of saying I didn't (and I have read the...erm...lack of proposal there, too). ;) Soooooo I'm not entirely uneducated on her novels. ;) And you are totally true, Emma Thompson would have never been able to show her genius if she had. So even things that were bad can eventually be used for good. Hehe. :-P

Melody said...

Okay, Alexandra, so first of all, reading NA before you're much acquainted with Jane Austen is a big no-no. :P You caun't appreciate her humor... and the fact that the book is a satire is what I firmly believe the rush at the end was. See, NA often had things be the exact opposite from how things went in other Gothic novels of the time, and those probably had very long, mushy proposals and drawn-out happily-ever-afters. And there are actually two proposals in P&P. Plus you need to read Persuasion. But I'm sure nobody's ever told you that before. :P And Emma has my favorite proposal ever in any book, the end. Furthermore, poking through Jane Austen is just not the way to acquaint yourself with them. I mean, I did that before and I wasn't half as impressed as I was when I read the books in their entirety. (Well, I did like what I read, haha, but anyways...)

But don't worry... I realize that Jane Austen can't be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak. (Probably I wouldn't be able to understand them too well, though... heh, heh, heh.)

But hey, what did you think of the rushed thing with Marianne and Col. Brandon at the end of S&S95? No proposal there--practically nothing, actually, which rather disappointed me. He just reads poetry to her, and then supposedly time passes and suddenly you see them getting married. Okayyyy...

Ha. :P

Miss Dashwood said...

*fetches popcorn and sits down with delighted interest to watch the Melody-and-Ally debate*

And, um, sorry Ally, but I'm totally on Melody's side. :D

Eva said...

This post - made me laugh! :) Oh, and our family doesn't have a TV either (and I'm homeschooled)

Alexandra said...

Wow, did I start a debate? Oops! How delightful. ;)

Ahhhh, I see about NA. Ok, that makes sense. Because the book fell so flat to me I was appalled I had spent sooo much time on it (and I don't understand the whole singing-Henry-Tilney's-praises thing, unless you're talking JJ Feild or something...the book's Henry was rather boring after all the hype I'd heard about him. I like the film's much better, although I'd hardly call him absolutely amazing). Which all that makes sense if NA is not recommended by a Janeite for my first Austen experience.

I knowwww there are two proposals in P&P - I'm not *that* unacquainted with the story...I do have the 95 miniseries and 05 film, after all. ;) And I do like the first one. The second one fell flat - to be honest, sans knight-in-shining-pajamas, I immensely prefer the 2005's version of the proposal (yes, the whole 'bewitched me body and sould and I love...I love...I love you' thing).

What frustrates me to no end with the JA I have read is how she devotes huge chunks to TELLING what's going on (like with proposals) instead of showing us with the dialogue and in general being IN the scene more than just hearing about it. For example in the P&P second proposal, he's just said how he loves her and to tell him her feelings, blah blah, and then instead of telling us what she said or what happened after that, it's just "She told him how she felt, the end." And it's like, seriously?! I know a lot of it has to do with it being older literature, but just personally it gets on my nerves. Sydney Carton's scene wouldn't have as much of an emotional punch if Dickens had just said "he told Lucie about how he loved her and would give his life for someone she loved" or the prison scene in El Dorado if it had just said that "Percy told her how worn he had been and how she made him feel better, and how they must help the Dauphin escape even if it meant his life."

I'm going through S&S right now, and in the six chapters I've done so far, there's huuuuuuuuuge chunks of just telling with very little dialogue, it just kind of gets on my nerves.

I'm still going to try Persuasion for that proposal everyone tells me about, though. :)

I *do* heartily, heartily agree about Marianne and Colonel Brandon, though!!! That does bug me really bad that after all that buildup in the relationship that we don't get a nice proposal! Of course, the lovely wedding makes up for it, but still. :)

Ok, this is my biggest, biggest stickler with the Jane Austen obsession (which isn't that bad lately). For years all you would hear about is Jane Austen this and that, and it bugged me to no end just because it was like, ok, to each his own and all, but there's SO MANY MORE amazing books and films out there besides JA and so many more amazing heroes than Mr. Darcy and it was like, no one knew anything about them. Of course in the past few years things have really expanded and there's a lot more exposure to those other authors and films and stuff, so it's not that bad now. Anyway, that's the gist of it. ;)

And I agree with you - in the end, it may not be my cup of tea (and TSP may not be yours)...and that's totally ok. :)

And now I give the opportunity for the opposing party to defend their case. ;)

Melody said...

Oh, Ally, Ally. I do pity you. First of all you say Henry Tilney is boring. Henry Tilney?!?! BORING?? That is what I call an OXYMORON, folks. You say Edmund Bertram is boring and I'm kind of like, oh, you're so mean... but at the same time I can sort of understand even though I DO still like him... but Henry? That does not compute. And you've caught me right when I have rather a fascination for him. Eh, heh. And I SO do not mean JJ Feild. I mean, he was pretty good, but not as good as the real HT. You obviously didn't understand him. :P
And THEN you say you immensely preferred the 2005's version of the second 'proposal'...

EWWWWWWWWWWW.

Ugh.

Okay... so I haven't actually seen that part. That's just a small detail to be overlooked. Moving on.

I will confess that I was rather disappointed that JA didn't tell us what Elizabeth said in so many words... but what she did say was SOOO much better than "she told him how she felt, the end." It actually gives you a good idea of what she said. And as for what HE said... well, you just have to feel the emotion and the story. (Which is hard to do if you haven't been reading the thing through.) And I do think that the scene in the 1995 version could be a little better. YES, EVEN I. For one thing, Mr. Darcy should SMILE. It STRONGLY SUGGESTS in the book that he smiled. Hahaha. Also, the conversation could have gone on a little longer because it was just Cute in the book. *goofy grin*

And if we're dragging A Tale of Two Cities into this, I was a bit sad when Charles Darnay's proposal was not included. Yes, I liked him. Stone me if you like. He was stupid at times, but still. The conversation with her father was nice. But it wasn't quite what I wanted to read. Haha.

And anyway, give Miss Austen a break. She never knew a real romance herself, you know. (As far as we know. MYSTERY ABOUNDS, HOWEVER.) She got to observe a lot of human nature, but I doubt she observed very many romantic proposals. :P

And as for S&S... well, I'm going to pass this one to Amy. COME ON, MISS POPCORN. You're the one who loves S&S so much and who told Ally she should read it. YOU defend it. :D
But *lowers voice* between you and me and that bed post, one of the reasons I tend to like S&S less than a few of the other books is because there's not as much dialogue. Just don't tell Amy I said that. (Oh, wait...)
But, I believe it improves as the book goes on... the main thing with S&S is not to judge it from the first few chapters.

And just to warn you, I can't say Persuasion is one of her more dialogue-y books, either... although 'tis much shorter. I've heard it's about 1/3 the length of P&P. However, the narrative is beautiful. Sniffle. So nostalgic and sentimental.

And as for all that at the end... well, all I can say is that I'm sad not to have been around when all you would here is Jane Austen this and that. La, how glorious it would be! I think there's too much of Everything Else around here these days. :P Not that I can't appreciate other stuff, of course. (That's the "Etc." after "Jane Austen.") It's just that Jane Austen is first and foremost forever and always. And so are her characters. :D

Okay, Millie... 'tis your turn. :D

And I must say I do not think debates are oops-how-delightful. It is just that I cannot help myself when JA is in question. It is not my own fault.

And it all goes back to the fact with all the other great things (which you do not seem to notice or understand) about Jane Austen make up for lack of proposals and all that nonsense. >:D I wouldn't like the most beautifully described proposal in the world if I didn't like the story or the characters.

Miss Dashwood said...

I am here, Melody, here to defend you and JA and my beloved S&S, but if you continue to make disparaging remarks about lack of dialogue, my Tween, I may be forced to set Oskar the Odacious upon you. BE FOREWARNED.

Ally, Melody already did a great job of defending Northanger and P&P, so I'll let those rest temporarily and turn to S&S. (Um... and apologies in advance for joining forces with Miss M to gang up against you. Heehee.)

I agree that in the beginning of S&S there's a LOT of telling with very little dialogue, but you have to remember that it was her first published book. So she had room for improvement. And IMHO, the amazingness of the story and characters far transcends anything that may have been a teeny bit lacking at the beginning. Plus, the narrative is interesting! Nobody can stick little snarky bits into the narrative like JA can, and her prose is the kind that you can read quite calmly until suddenly a funny part leaps off the page at you and causes you to jump and giggle at the same time.

Oops, I have to go, so I'll come back and finish this later...

Melody said...

Me? Being accused of making disparaging remarks concerning JA? Well! This MUST be the Frosty Friday.

But pray do not set the evil Oskar upon me! I LOVE S&S! I've NEVUH been so wickedly WRONGED! *sobs*

Ahem. Fanny Dorrit moment. Oh, by the bye, I adore thy new profile picture, Miss Amy. :D

Anyway, though. In total agreement with what you said, my deauh. Ditto and all that. JA's subtle wit is one of my favorite things about her. Some people don't quite catch on to it, though... haha, one must be paying attention or one might miss funny things, and that is a great pity, indeed, a great pity.

Alexandra said...

Hmmm. I guess I'm one of those dull souls who miss the wit....hehehe. Because I didn't pick up on it after everyone had said how hilariously witty she was. In the book-and-a-half I read, so I could be wrong. ;)

by the way...I don't enjoy debate or disagreeing situations either. :-P But I do enjoy the rousing discussions we have. :D So I don't know if that counts.

Anyway, I've got something going this weekend so I've got to run...but I think it all boils down to different taste. Yes, I know that she tells us what Elizabeth says in so many words, but I don't want HER to tell it, I want to hear Elizabeth say it herself. It's the show vs. tell principle (since we're debating on a writing blog ;))But much of that is purely taste, and purely the fact that it's old literature before they had these rules about POVs and all that jazz. Although some writers still managed it then...Jane Eyre is deliciously modern in its writing style...while I was reading it I never felt like it was "older" literature in its writing.

I'm not trying to be bull-headed here. Really. I *want* to like JA as much as everyone else does. Being the freak is not fun. :-P So yeah. :)

And Melody...glad we can agree on S&S. Hehe. ;) And I am sorry for your sake that there is Too Much of Anything Else for your taste...just not sorry enough to change it. Hehehehe. :-P

Hope this is all in fun, peoples. Because I always enjoy myself with you two. :)

Melody said...

Well, I would like to have Elizabeth say it too; I was merely pointing out that it was much better than your paraphrase. Hahaha. ;P And I have come to the conclusion that you must feel similarly about Jane Austen as I do about Les Miz. Seeing all these other people like it makes you want to understand, though deep down inside you think you never will, but are sort of willing to give it at least a partial try and try not to be biased but you just can't help it to a certain extent.
Haha.

But I do hope you'll continue giving her a try. I know there are plenty of people out there who profess a strong dislike for JA in the beginning and end up becoming a fan, so I have hope for you who don't have a strong dislike, at least ending up liking her somewhat. :) And there are also cases of people who don't like some of the books and like other ones a lot. And then there are us crazy people who like every single one of them a great deal. :D

And we don't agree on S&S... I just agree with you a tad more than Amy does. ;D

And Amy, you never did come back for more... haha.