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.

Last (?) words on Brexit

A couple of final points about this all-consuming subject, then I’m going to gag myself.

Point One. Everyone agrees that a general election is called for in the coming weeks or months. So much has happened, or failed to happen, since the last election in 2017 that it’s perfectly reasonable that the electorate should be given the opportunity to cast their vote again. Fine, no one can argue with that. The curious thing is that the same principle seems not to apply with regard to the result of the 2016 referendum. You hear again and again that the narrow majority in favour of Leave in 2016 represented ‘the will of the people’ and should not therefore be questioned. But you never hear anyone saying that the result of the 2017 election also represented the will of the people and therefore there’s no need for another election. You never hear anyone say, ‘Well, X million people voted Tory and Y million people voted Labour in 2017, that was the will of the people and it would be an anti-democratic outrage to require people to vote again.’

Point Two. As to the reason or reasons why so many people voted Leave in 2016 (putting aside the fact that the Leave campaign was built upon a heap of untruths about the supposed economic benefits of leaving), there’s this: if you live in a depressed part of the country and you have a poorly-paid job or no job at all and you’re given the choice between the status quo and a Big Change with the possibility that the latter may bring with it an improvement to your living standards, then of course you’re going to vote for the Big Change. Because why would you vote for things to remain the same when the things in question are uniformly crap? After all, what have you got to lose? That’s the reason why London and other similarly affluent cities and regions voted Remain while places like Stoke-on-Trent (a city I lived in for a number of years and can therefore attest to its extraordinary shittiness) polled a vote of almost 70% for Leave. It was this, far more than fears about immigration or a wish to ‘take back control’, that drove and perhaps continues to drive the Leave vote.

Postscript: Boris’s shameless display of demagoguery in the Commons last night was truly disturbing. His role as PM should of course be to heal the country’s divisions, not sow further division with his half-arsed bluster about surrender, cowardice and betrayal. Incidentally, I can’t be the only one to have noticed Brexit parallels everywhere on TV these days: for example in the BBC documentary series ‘The Rise of the Nazis’ (Hitler and Boris) and the 1930s drama series ‘Peaky Blinders’ (Mosley and Farage). Presumably these parallels are not accidental.

The Art of Art #1: the emotional back story

(An occasional series that may never get beyond #1)

Art often derives its power from what it does not say, from what it leaves unsaid. Artworks such as novels and poems and movies and songs typically include spaces or gaps which the reader (in the case of verbal art) is required to fill in, based on information encoded in the text but not explicitly stated.

Take Hemingway’s famous 6-word story: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn. The reason this micro-story works so well, or works at all, is that it carries an emotional back story and that back story is supplied by the reader, not the writer, though the writer fully intends such a back story to be elicited in the reader’s mind. What the story doesn’t say of course is that the baby in question has obviously died before he or she was even old enough to need shoes, which evokes our pity. But it’s more than that. It also implies that the baby’s parents were good parents, full of plans for the future, having prepared for the birth by buying clothes which wouldn’t be required till later. And this in spite of the fact that they’re clearly not well off – or why else would they now be selling off these same clothes, unless it’s because they can’t bear to be surrounded by reminders of their beloved baby’s death. Either way, our pity is again evoked. All this is contained or implied in the story’s six words but none of it is made explicit. It’s left for the reader to make the necessary connections.

Emotional back stories come in many forms, you even find them in TV ads. One of the ads I remember most fondly from my youth – and I remember it precisely because it packed an emotional punch – is the Del Monte tinned oranges ad: ‘The man from Del Monte he say yes!’ (Later versions of the ad changed ‘say’ to the more politically-correct ‘says’.) Each time I saw this ad I would briefly share in the triumphant euphoria of the old Spanish farmer whose livelihood depended so heavily on getting the thumbs-up for his oranges from Del Monte. For a moment I would stand in his shoes: the expectant wait for the Del Monte buyer to arrive, the inspection of the crop and the anxious uncertainty while awaiting his verdict, the rushing home to his wife to share the good news. One must not forget, however, that this was an advert and, like all adverts, it was designed to increase sales. So it also managed to smuggle in a neat little message about the high quality of Del Monte products and how rigorously they’re inspected before selection so that only the juiciest oranges from the most conscientious farmers ever make it into their tins. But the point is that all this is accomplished with just an 8-word slogan.

Songs of course are full of emotional back stories. One of my favourite Springsteen tracks is ‘Meeting Across the River’ from the Born To Run album. Like many Springsteen songs, it’s a character sketch – this time of a down-on-his-luck small-time Jersey crook who has a big job lined up in NYC if only he can cadge a lift through the tunnel from a friend. In fact he’s so down on his luck he’s even been reduced to pawning his girlfriend’s radio – an act of desperation, even sacrilege, for any Springsteen character, never mind the appropriation of his girlfriend’s property – prompting the girlfriend, Cherry, to threaten to leave him. All this is stated more or less upfront in the song’s lyric. But the song is also full of telling details and subtle turns of phrase that allow the listener to paint a broader and more nuanced picture of the song’s subject and finally to feel sympathy for him.

Take the song’s closing lines:

Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said: In other words he’s been talking the job up, promising Cherry this is the big one, the one that’ll finally end their financial woes.

And when I walk through that door I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed: Which suggests the couple are living out of a motel room or perhaps in a one-bed apartment, another signifier of their indigence. And the significance of throwing the money on the bed can be summed up in a single word: vindication.

She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking: So this has happened before, perhaps many times, he’s talked a job up and nothing has come of it, he’s disappointed her. But this time it’ll be different.

Then I’m gonna go out walking: We leave him enjoying his fantasy of his soon-to-be-acquired sense of vindication, celebrating by just strolling through the city streets on his own, feeling good about himself.

So a song about a penniless small-time crook ends by becoming a song about hope and dreams (albeit of a limited and criminal variety) and self-respect. And this transformation is brought about largely by the listener, who supplies the missing, or rather implied, emotional content.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website on the subject of humour and there I suggested that, for a joke to be successful, it always requires the listener to make a creative connection – a connection deliberately placed there by the joke-teller, waiting to be found – in order to complete the comedic circuit of the joke. The emotional back story is a variant of this device. All art is a conversation between the artist, or rather the artwork, and its audience. Sentimental art occurs when the emotional back story is too clearly foregrounded so that the message is obvious and no creative collaboration on the part of the reader/viewer/listener is required. (The equivalent of the sentimental story in joke form is the joke that provokes a groan rather than a laugh because it’s too obvious.) Great art occurs, or can occur, when our creative responses are so cleverly and subtly manipulated that we have no sense we’re being manipulated at all.

For what it’s worth, my own short story ‘The Book of Ands’ – a story about a book from which everything but the word ‘and’ has been excluded, in other words a book which ends up being written by the reader – is a Borgesian exploration of this same idea.

And here’s another thing…

You often hear Brexiteers say that a second referendum would be ‘a betrayal of democracy’. Now let’s be clear about this. In order for a ‘betrayal of democracy’ scenario to occur, two things would have to happen. One, there would need to be another referendum. And two, there would need to be a majority for Remain. But surely in those circumstances — there’s another referendum and a majority for Remain — any democrat would be forced to agree that the result of the second or more recent referendum should have priority over the result of the first or earlier referendum. Otherwise you’re left in the absurd position of arguing that the result of the first referendum should take precedence simply because it occurred longest ago.

Please Retain Control

The slogan of the Leave campaign was ‘Take Back Control’. It strikes me, on the basis of the current Brexit fiasco, that the last people who should be in control of our affairs are Theresa May and the current government. So thank you, EU, for showing more leadership and commonsense in one night than Theresa May has been capable of in three years.

May’s Doubletalk

Too much has been said and written already on Brexit but FWIW I want to add a brief comment on Theresa May’s deceitful and duplicitous use of language. If it’s true – as the PM is the first to stress – that “we need to heal the deep divisions in our society,” then how can she also claim that the narrow majority in favour of leaving the EU (17 million versus 16 million) somehow represents “the will of the British people”. Likewise, “the country voted to leave”. It didn’t. The country (which country? Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain) didn’t vote for anything. What happened was that a small majority of voters – largely working-class voters from the north of England – voted to leave, partly as a result of the lies fed to them about the guaranteed economic benefits of Brexit and partly because no one knew exactly what they were voting for anyway. This being the case, May’s use of phrases like “the will of the people” and “the clear mandate given us by the electorate” should be seen for what they are: hollow rhetoric, worthless cliches and shameless verbal posturing. Because if it’s true that “the British people” voted for Brexit, does it not therefore follow as the clear corollary of those words that the 16 million who voted Remain do not form part of the British people? You can’t have it both ways.

Following her disastrous tenure as Home Secretary and even more disastrous record at Number Ten, May will be remembered as one of the most inept and incompetent PMs in this country’s long history. She’s incapable of seeing anyone’s point of view other than her own, understands things (or rather fails to understand them) in simple black and white terms, and, like Thatcher before her, is devoid of empathy and fellow feeling. She’s an autocrat disguised as a democrat. For my own part, I mute the TV these days as soon as she appears on the screen, so offensive do I find her image and words. She reminds me of the guest at a dinner party who hangs around till way past midnight, monopolizing the conversation and refusing to leave till everyone else has gone. Someone call her a taxi, please.

Fact and Fiction, Truth and Lies

I recently reread Jonathan Coe’s richly rewarding biography of BS Johnson, the English experimental writer who committed suicide in 1973 at the age of 40. Johnson is largely forgotten today beyond a cult following, but if there’s one thing people know about him it’s that he believed fiction is lying. How can one write authentically about something that one hasn’t personally experienced? he asks. ‘Telling stories is telling lies.’ In other words, autobiography in one form or another is the only legitimate way forward for the novel. Memory is king and imagination fundamentally dishonest.

The problem with this view is twofold. First, psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that memory doesn’t supply us with a faithful or accurate representation of events – in fact every time we access a memory we change it slightly. If this is the case, then the distinction between memory and imagination already begins to dissolve. And second, as Nabokov pointed out in an interview, ‘Imagination is a form of memory.’ He goes on: ‘An image depends on the power of association, and association is supplied and prompted by memory. When we speak of a vivid individual recollection we are paying a compliment not to our capacity of retention but to Mnemosyne’s mysterious foresight in having stored up this or that element which creative imagination may want to use when combining it with later recollections and inventions.’ QED.

I’m not a fan of Johnson’s novels. They contain moments of virtuosic brilliance but overall they seem to me gimmicky and experimental only in name. One novel has holes cut in the pages so the reader can see through to a later scene. Towards the end of this same novel the author interrupts the fairly conventional narrative about an architect to declare. ‘OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING’, and continues in this vein right through to the end of the book. The chapters of another novel come in separate signatures inside a box, allowing the reader to shuffle them any way he or she wishes (something that had already been done in a more radical way in a novel called Composition No. 1 by French writer Marc Saporta, which Coe shows that Johnson must have known about).

There are other problems with Johnson’s view. Apart from anything else, what does his distrust of the imagination imply about the great novels of the past? Were they all dishonest and therefore somehow unworthy? And doesn’t such an attitude also entail that once a writer has used up his stock of autobiographical material his career must be at an end? That can’t be right, surely, especially as most writers’ lives, once they’ve begun to be published, are extremely dull and mostly consist of sitting at a desk.

There’s another thing that troubles me too. How autobiographical are Johnson’s own novels? After all, they contain fictional characters. Albert Angelo and Christie Malry even appear in the titles of their respective books. And even if these characters are modelled on real people, or on Johnson himself, the fact remains that they’re inventions, they don’t exist. It’s still a kind of lying. In fact Johnson is doing precisely what Nabokov describes above: recombining memories and bits of memories to create something new, something imaginary.

Nor does Johnson compare well with his contemporaries. When one thinks of the sophisticated metafictional games being played by Nabokov or Italo Calvino or John Barth at around the same time — or even somewhat later by Philip Roth, another autobiographical writer, in The Counterlife — Johnson’s experiments begin to seem very tame and obvious and, well, English.

Having said all that, Johnson’s letters to agents and editors and others involved in the literary or publishing scenes, which Coe reproduces at length, are great fun to read. Arrogant, bumptious, overbearing, pompous, self-important – he believed himself to be the equal of his great heroes Joyce and Beckett – Johnson was certainly a colourful character who shook up the world of letters for a while. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to see another Johnson come along today.

Struggle? What Struggle?

The success of Norwegian writer Karl-Ove Knausgaard is baffling to me. His 6-volume Min Kamp (My Struggle) series of memoirs has been an international bestseller. Rachel Cusk calls it ‘the most significant literary enterprise of our times’ and comparisons with Proust abound. What is it that readers find to admire? I confess I’m at a complete loss.

I’ve just finished Volume 1 of the series, A Death in the Family, covering Knausgaard’s early life and the titular death of his father. Virtually every paragraph of this supposed memoir falls into one of the following three categories.

1 Page after page after page of inconsequential dialogue supposedly recalled from decades previously. Something like the following telephone conversation between Knausgaard and his wife:

‘Hello?’ I said.

‘Hi, it’s me.’


‘I was just wondering how things were going. Are you managing OK down there?’

She sounded happy.

‘I don’t know. I’ve only been here a few hours,’ I said.


‘Are you coming home soon?’

‘You don’t need to hassle me.’ I said. ‘I’ll come when I come.’

She didn’t answer.

‘Shall I buy something on the way?’ I asked at length.

‘No, I’ve done the shopping.’

‘OK. See you then.’

‘Right. Bye. Hold it. Cocoa.’

‘Cocoa,’ I said. ‘Anything else?’

‘No, that’s all.’

‘OK. Bye.’


2 Long lists of common everyday activities, spelled out in stultifying detail. Something like the following: ‘I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch, put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.’

Or he could have just written: ‘I rolled a cigarette’.

3 Endless catalogues of the momentary impressions that supposedly passed through the author’s brain at various times in the past, again apparently recollected with total recall. Something like the following, which ends Part One: ‘A gust of wind blew across the yard. The overhanging flaps of the tablecloth fluttered. A serviette went flying across the lawn. The foliage above us swished. I lifted my glass and drank…’

It’s clear what Knausgaard is trying to do: to capture the texture of lived experience, the welter of ephemeral impressions – sights, sounds, smells, thoughts – that traverse our consciousness moment by moment and are immediately forgotten. Lost time, to use Proust’s phrase. But is the result worth the effort? Does it require nearly 400 pages of dull and often banal prose to make the point? Proust may not be everyone’s cup of tea but at least his sentences, long and complex as they are, are beautifully crafted and laden with meaning. Knausgaard isn’t even a pale imitator of Proust. He’s more like Proust’s dumber younger brother.

I won’t be reading volumes 2 to 6.

Brave new world?

Last night I watched BBC4’s Stephen Hawking night. One of the programmes concerned the search for an exo-planet that human beings could colonise. According to Hawking, we need to find a way to reach such a planet within the next 100 years, otherwise we’re toast: asteroids, a global virus, AI gone rogue etc. But hang on a sec. Surely all those things could just as easily happen on the new planet. In fact wouldn’t they be more likely to happen on such a planet where environmental conditions are unpredictably different and probably hostile and the number of colonists initially small?

So why are we spending, or likely to spend, trillions of dollars on such a wild goose chase? It seems to me obscene that we allow millions of people in the Third World to live lives of unrelenting poverty and misery before succumbing to starvation or disease or war while a small cadre of smart privileged scientists and not-so-smart privileged politicians in the so-called developed world pour shitloads of money into what’s essentially a vanity project designed to satisfy a megalomaniac wish for intellectual adventure or egotistical self-aggrandisement. Why not spend all that money on fixing up our own planet instead? Getting population numbers under control, curing disease, ending poverty, rewilding the landscape. Everything we need is here on our doorstep, not on another brave new world that we’d probably end up trashing anyway. All we lack are the wisdom and compassion to see what a baboon could probably tell you if it could talk.

Besides, what’s so special about us? We won’t be around forever because nothing is around forever. Species come and species go. What makes us think we’re so different? If we’re being generous we might call it mankind’s insatiable intellectual curiosity or that vapid term, human exceptionalism. But if we’re being honest it’s just plain old vanity by another name, the same vanity that once led people to believe that the sun went round the earth or that Adam was granted dominion over the animals or that humans are anything other than an evolutionary way station on a relatively insignificant piece of cosmic real estate destined for eventual demolition.

At least that’s one thing the Bible got right: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

One final thought. What if the exo-planet we finally choose to colonise turns out to have other ‘lower’ life forms already living on it? Haven’t we been here before?