The Art of Art #2: Detail or no detail?

I’ve just finished William Boyd’s latest novel, Love Is Blind, a historical romance about the obsessive love of a Scottish piano-tuner for a Russian opera singer, set in a variety of international locations (Edinburgh, Paris, Nice, Biarritz, Trieste, St Petersburg, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) around the beginning of the twentieth century. I found it a welcome return to form for Boyd, whose impeccable literary style I’ve always admired but whose storylines, at least in recent novels, I’ve found less satisfying.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the role of detail in heavily-researched (some would say over-researched) novels such as Boyd’s. It could be argued in Boyd’s defence that, with so many varying locations to cover and a distance of more than a hundred years to bridge, such painstaking attention to detail is necessary in order to impart a sense of authenticity and believability to the narrative. We need to believe the character really is in all these places 100-plus years ago and that requires authenticating detail. But do we really need to know the names and functions of all the different tools used by a piano-tuner in his work? Or the precise brand of tobacco he smokes and the name and address of the shop in Edinburgh he buys it from? What is the point of all this detail?

Partly it comes down to a question of narrative form. In a short story of a few pages the reader expects far less detail than you’d typically find in a novel of several hundred pages. In fact too much detail in a short story can be perceived as a failing, slowing the narrative down and retarding the onward action, while conversely too little detail in a novel can make the novel seem flimsy, lightweight, insufficiently realised. Nabokov was fond of saying that ‘God is in the details’ – ‘Caress the detail, the divine detail’ is another of his quotes. A long line of Nabokov’s illustrious literary forebears — Proust and Tolstoy spring immediately to mind – would doubtless have agreed with him.

So why all this emphasis on detail? Principally, as mentioned above, the detail is there to foster a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude within a text, what the structuralist critic Roland Barthes called l’effet de réel, in other words the illusion of reality. It helps us to suspend our disbelief in an invented tale, while a lack of detail has the opposite effect: after all, if there’s no evidence that the writer has fully imagined the scene being described, how can the reader be expected to do so?

The trouble is that detail takes time to read, often with no obvious benefit to the reader other than the illusion-of-reality effect. And this effect can be achieved far more rapidly and convincingly through the use of a medium such as film. You could write a page or more describing the interior of a room – the furniture, the lighting, the precise colour of the walls and carpet and so on – and you wouldn’t come close to achieving the sense of immediacy created by a movie shot of the same interior lasting just a few seconds. No doubt this is one of the reasons for the slow and protracted death of the novel, or at least of the old-fashioned richly-detailed literary novel in the tradition of Nabokov and Proust. Tellingly, the genre novel (particularly the crime novel and the fantasy novel, where plot is paramount) seems to be in a much healthier state. The easy translatability of such novels from page to screen is doubtless another factor in their survival

All is not lost, however, because it turns out that prose narrative can do things that movies can’t do, or can’t do as well. The novel and the short story can communicate a character’s thoughts, impressions and emotions far better, through the use of interior monologue, than can usually be achieved in a movie, restricted as the latter is to the externals of dialogue, gesture and facial expression etc. This is why the voiceover is generally eschewed by movie-makers, as it brings with it an implicit admission of failure.

So detail in a novel is good, it’s there for a reason. It may seem unnecessary or otiose, it may even be a bit boring to have to plough through it sometimes, but it’s doing its job without you being aware of it. It’s helping to create the illusion of reality that we require in order to suspend our disbelief. More than that – and this is why it was so important to Nabokov – it’s true to the texture of consciousness itself. After all, if I look out of my office window as I write these words, I don’t see simply some gardens and trees and wooden sheds and above them a cloudy sky. Rather I see a hyper-detailed, almost hallucinogenic (and this is without a joint!) tableau vivant of particular gardens and particular trees and particular sheds and particular clouds, all individually limned in my perceptual field. Conscious life consists of a series of unique detailed impressions. Insofar as fiction is meant to be a representation of life, it seeks to do the same.

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