Monday, April 26, 2010

Our passionate story drowns in a deep sea of descriptive eloquence - Robert Louis Stevenson on detail

Robert Louis Stevenson, in his 1883 essay "A Note on Realism," called the Naturalism of Zola and Maupassant and others "[t]his odd suicide of one branch of the realists."  Stevenson accuses the Naturalists of fetishizing detail.  He attributes the wash of details found in the realistic novels of his contemporaries not to the theories of the writers, or to a conceptual desire to accurately portray the world, but to their skill, their craft.  Now this is a curious and revealing argument.

After Scott we beheld the starveling story - once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as parable - begin to be pampered upon facts.  The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that amaze us now on a railway journey. (67)

Stevenson asserts that Zola, "[a] man of unquestionable force," "spends himself on technical successes," and that his devotion to "the extremity of detail" is often little more than "literary tricking."

The innovation of the mass of literary detail does belong to Scott, something I tried to describe two years ago, although Jane Austen made the same discovery at almost exactly the same time, and now I want to look back at Goethe and Sterne and so on, but will restrain myself.  The important question here is, how does the novel select details out of the available mass.  See this Interpolations post for a discussion of the issue in the context of Flaubert's A Simple Soul (1877) - Flaubert gives the reader very little, but somehow just enough.  How does he do it?

The question of realism, let it be then clearly understood, regards not in the least degree the fundamental truth, but only the technical method, of a work of art.  Be as ideal or as abstract as you please, you will be none the less veracious, but if you be weak, you run the risk of being tedious and inexpressive; and if you be very strong and honest, you may chance upon a masterpiece. (67-8)

Stevenson attributes the proliferation of detail - here's the point I'm trying to get at - to genuine advance in the craft of novel writing.  Writers picked up the new tool and mastered it, completely.  but now that they are expert with the nail gun, they want to solve every problem with it.  Everything needs to be pumped full of nails.  Every story must be told through rich, descriptive details.  Writers do just the thing they know how to do well - "any fact [is] welcome to admission if it be the ground of brilliant handiwork" (70).  The detail-obsessed writer comes to regard "the omission of a tedious passage as an infidelity to art."

I'm now reading a Walter Scott novel, The Antiquary (1816), in which Scott sometimes seems to be burying the reader in detail.  I recently finished Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End (1924-8), which consists of almost nothing but detail, brilliantly arranged, but exhausting.  Zola, or at least Thérèse Raquin (1867), is plain muslin cloth compared to those books.

I said that Stevenson's argument was revealing.  Stevenson's critical writing is always, in the end, about himself.  In the passage above, he does not really mean "you" - he means "I," himself.  He's describing his own methods and goals.  He's worried about his own use of details, his own reluctance to chop away some especially successful but useless description.

Stevenson was, I now think, a brilliant critic and essayist.  He was narrow, very much so compared to Virginia Woolf or Henry James, because his critical subject was fundamentally himself, his own creativity.  A worthwhile subject!

Page references are to the highly useful collection R. L. Stevenson on Fiction, ed. Glenda Norquay, Edinburgh University Press, 1999.  It will be my "text" this week.


  1. Where do you think we now stand on the use of detail? It seems rare thesedays to encounter "literature" that includes the depth of detail typical of 19th century "literature". I think what passes as detail in more popular fiction is often just brand name-dropping.

  2. So you've started The Antiquary--guess I'd better do the same, though it's hard to look forward to a mass of antiquarian details at the end of a long day of marking exams...

  3. CB - I think we are drowning in detail, artful and otherwise. I think I am brushing up against James Wood's "hysterical realism" here.

    Consider, for example, the Dunkirk section of Ian McEwen's Atonement. Or anything by Proustians like John Banville or Edmund White. The encyclopedists - Sebald, say, cataloguing the contents of a shop window in Austerlitz.

    We live in Flaubert's world. The well-chosen detail is a measure of artistic success.

    Or that's where I live, I guess. You may mean something different.

    Rohan - started, yes! But not exactly steaming ahead, which is not a comment on the novel but on extraneous matters such as work and school. So I'm in no hurry.