See What I Say? The Power of Descriptive Writing
Once, describing the silly little Argentinian films starring Eva Duarte years before she became Evita Perón, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote that those movies were so bad; they seemed to have been filmed before the invention of cinema. Oddly enough, though, at some point, the film industry discovered that hundreds of novels written in previous centuries were already great movies before the first camera started to roll. In turning them into actual flicks, filmakers seemed to believe they were giving them their final shape, their most perfect form. And then writers realized they had been watching films in their minds for a long time before they ever saw one on screen. After all, isn’t that—a private, mental, visual image, shining on an abstract écran—the origin of thousands of narrations, from even one or two millennia ago?
With those rather equivocal but potentially productive realizations, a long and prosperous collaboration started between literature and film, and it keeps growing and changing. From the ranks of literature, scores of writers have drawn inspiration from the movies but they haven’t done it in the same way. I would dare say that the history of the influence of films on literature has gone, roughly, through four stages and that now we are entering the fifth.In the first stage, writers discovered montage: flashbacks and prolepses, temporal jumps, the complexities of going from objective to subjective focuses and points of view. It’s true, a little of that was already in the works of Henry James and others, but not like this: a carnival of variations, a feast for the uncentered new world.In the second stage, writers rediscovered genre writing. Movies gave a new legitimacy to melodrama, noir, detective fiction, horror, gothic stories, monsters, mystery. Movies were black and white, like typewriter characters on a page, and novels and short stories became black and white, too, with a dense cast of grays in the middle. Even some of the great masters, like Jorge Luis Borges, were enthusiastically on board.In the third stage, writers adopted linguistic simplicity; Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero became king. Hemingway’s micro phrases, James Elroy’s non-phrases, and Dan Brown’s non-literature literature might be good examples, but the phenomenon is broader; it is pervasive. Today, too many novels read like film scripts. Some are good, some are bad, some will become good films, and some won’t. Filmmakers extraordinaire like Hitchcock and Kubrick made a life out of turning clumsy novels into filmed masterpieces. But mostly, I think, they are going in the wrong direction for literature.Before going into that, let’s delve into the fourth stage. Here, writers are captured by the visual. Not narrative organization as in stage one, not plots and imagination as in stage two, not the economy of language as in stage three, but the very stuff of films: what the eye can catch. Novels are written to be seen. This is true of modern tale-tellers such as Chabon or Murakami, and it explains the contemporary triumph of the graphic novel with brilliant stars like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Alison Bechdel. In fact, comics are becoming the mediators between movies and written novels, and they increasingly influence both.
Stages three and four are almost simultaneous, and that means that the visual is coming hand in hand with linguistic simplification, thus the wrong direction I mentioned earlier. There is, however, another way to go, and that is bringing back to literature the complexities of visual composition that are a fundamental element of the best films—not using words schematically as blueprints for apt moviemakers to turn into visual images, but delving into what is perhaps the most disparaged feature of narrative art these days: description.
Description has been shunned from fiction because it is too time-consuming; it delays the arrival of action. Description doesn’t happen. It just is. And we want things to happen. For the modern reader, descriptive passages have become like those extremely slow, long shots of a chair in the middle of an empty room that American audiences hate to find in European art films. Bergman stuff. Haneke stuff. Immobile stuff. Like something’s wrong with the digital projector. It is ruining my fun and I’m running out of popcorn.
But what happened to stage two? How do we get melodrama, noir, detective fiction, horror, gothic stories, monsters, and mystery without careful, atmospheric, vivid, meticulous description? In the best examples of genre, description tells you the story, because it is the existence itself of external difference and physical perversion that alerts you to the fact that there are other horrors and bigger atrocities. And that is precisely what genre writing has in common with some of the few true literary geniuses of our day, like J.M. Coetzee, or sometimes Kenzaburo Oe, or the best of all, the untimely gone W.G. Sebald.
In their books, the narrator is always watching, always describing what is seen—not telling what happened, is happening, or will happen—because at the core of this literature lies the idea that what is, happens. In Sebald, the reader sets eyes on a human face, a picture, a tree, a child walking down the train tracks with a doll in her hands, an old man catching butterflies outside a psychiatric hospital, an animal staring back from a zoo cage. The image is there for a long while, nothing seems to happen, and then suddenly a whole world opens up and we have the most terrible, the most devastating, the most nerve-wracking reality before us. That is the art of description, which is at once the art of seeing everything and the belief that the more we look, the more we will understand. Nothing is more visual than that. Nothing is more contemporary than seeing. Seeing and saying what we see is the literature of the future.