Mark Terry

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Don't Know How To Write Anymore

August 23, 2010
I'm reading THE CONFESSOR by Daniel Silva. It's a fine espionage novel. Silva is an excellent writer. I enjoy it. But he's a very, very different writer than I am, one who is apparently lauded by literary critics and others who applaud a certain type of writing. Here's a paragraph that I read last night and have been pondering ever since.

Foa peered down a marble-floored corridor. At the end was an open door giving onto a pompous office. Seated behind a polished desk was a forbidding figure named Rudolf Gertz, the former Austrian television journalist who was now the head of the Vatican Press Office. It was against the rules to set foot in the corridor without permission. Foa decided on a suicide run. When the nun wasn't looking, he leapt down the hall like a springbok. A few steps from Gertz's door a burly priest seized Foa by his coat collar and lifted him off the floor. Foa managed to hold up the bollettino.

Here's my problem, the one single f-ing word that makes me question whether I even know how to write. It's the word "pompous" in the second sentence.

At the end of the open door giving onto a pompous office.

No description of the office except to say that is has a polished desk. No indication if it is large. If the furniture is expensive. If it is floored with polished oak, antique rugs, or high-grade wool. If the polished desk is made of the boabob tree, if it is a modern monstrosity hand-carved from teak harvested from a sunken ship, if it has walls of glass that overlook St. Peter's Square with the basilica imposing the skyline.

That said, I rather like the "suicide run" thing and the "leapt down the hall like a springbok."

But that "pompous office" thing kicked my sad and sorry ass right out of the story as I contemplated what a "pompous office" actually was and what it might look like.

Now, I'm not slamming Silva here at all. I think he's quite good and his books are as well, but I sort of latched onto "pompous office" as being the sort of thing that literary critics, college professors and certain book editors like, and I'll be damned if I know why. Is is the sort of laziness that we're told not to use and why adjectives and adverbs are so dangerous? Or was it an imaginative shortcut to avoid details?

Any thoughts?


Anonymous Jim said...

That's the same word that stood out for me. Writers are often advised to show rather than tell. I realize there can be justifiable exceptions to all rules, but this does not strike me as being one.

I would have no problem with the term if this had been a first person narration or a third-person subjective (giving some taste of the character's stream of consciousness) so that the word "pompous" would be reflecting the character's feeling about the office, but this appears to be relatively straight third person (leaning, perhaps, toward omniscient since we are told that permission was required to enter the hallway, etc.) but this appears to be auctorial voice. Thus "pompous" is used in the same way that "large" or "wood-paneled" or "cramped" might be used.

Nope, it didn't work for me either.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I have tried to read him three or four times. My mom is a fan. I can never get past page 5. I am not sure why, except I actually find him wordy.

As for the word bugging you, I don't mind it because I don't need tons of detail. I want character and pacing and I really could give a sh*t about the office, LOL!

So, again, it's why I have turned into a big fan of Mike Lawson, because his books are really very much about the characters--both him and his best friend, the Speaker, all of it.


7:34 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

"Pompous office" says it all for me. I don't need further description. I know exactly what it looks like.

I think one needs to be selective about "show, don't tell," or it can get ridiculous fast.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I'm with Natasha. I love "pompous." Lists of furnishings and decoration just slide past me. I might not even know if the stuff he was describing was pompous. So, presumably, the character gets a quick impression rather than enumerating all the furnishings. But yeah, I would feel nervous doing it myself because of that whole show don't tell shibboleth.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Eric... I agree with you about a character's quick impression, but I do not believe that this is that kind of situation. True, if it is a character describing it directly "spoken" to us via 1st person narration or through a narrative voice that although perhaps not first person nevertheless has taken on a distinct character or through some manner of stream of consciousness that is conveying the thoughts or emotions of a character -- what you say is possible -- but I do not think that is what we had in this case. I think the author was saying it was "pompous office" and I think it is telling not showing.

That line bothered me for the same reasons it bothered Mark. If that had been a character's description of the room I would have accepted it -- it may or may not have been a fair or accurate description (depending upon how that character is presented (are we to believe everything he says?) but in skilled hands it could tell us something about the office (and its occupant) as well as telling us something about the character who gives us that description. Bus as used in that paragraph quoted by Mark, I do not think it works. At least it did not work for me. I fully appreciate Natasha's comment about needing to be selective about "show don't tell" but I don't believe that this was one of those situations.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

It is a description I think you'd find more in a European novel, though Silva is an American, his books have that taste of European novelists. I read a number of books by our brothers across the Atlantic, and I kind of like the "feel" of passages like "pompous office". It pretty much says that it could be all of those things and more-polished oak floors, antique rugs, etc...and more. That said, the description would not work in a hard boiled story and I do have to take a moment to ready myself when I switch from, say, Clancy to Umberto Eco.

12:01 AM  

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