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For the Love of “Textual Density”

Analyzing what you like to read is a lot like researching why roses smell good or sugar tastes sweet. At some point, your findings kill the enjoyment.

That being said, I enjoy books with “textual density.”

That’s the phrase I stumbled across in a recent book review. In the latest Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, in her column Musing on Books, Michelle West begins her review of The Quantum Thief this way”

…this book has the textual density of a short story. It’s not long, but it’s not hugely forgiving if you don’t read for detail; skimming this book is hazardous for your comprehension.

I immediately put the book on my Must-Read List. Why? I love to “read for detail.”

Dave Long, former Sr. Acquisitions Editor for Bethany House, once wrote about this in a  series of posts concerning Density in Writing. He began the series thus:

When I was a Nittany Lion I grew weary of writing short stories because they were just at the length where an instructor or those annoying poetry students could insist on “getting every word right.” You can “perfect” a twelve page story. You can be held accountable for every word. Not so in a novel. It was too big a beast. Too sprawling. The language wasn’t tantamount anymore. Important of course, but not perfectable.

It’s a lazy way of thinking. Lazy and, I think, wrong.

The story we write rests on every word we choose. There’s really no other way of looking at writing. If we’re not focusing on the words…what in the world are we looking at?

Great writing hones and focuses language. They make their sentences work for them.

Call me a “literary elitist” if you like, but I’m definitely a sucker for good craft. Nothing thrills me like discovering a well-written sentence. Re-reading a paragraph simply for the joy of its prose is one of the reasons I read.

Of course, there’s a place for fast-paced commercial fiction. You know, the type of novels that permit “skimming.” But I side with Dave when it comes to a laissez–faire approach to writing. “If we’re not focusing on the words…what in the world are we looking at?”

Arguing against “literary density” is often “a lazy way of thinking.”

And reading.

Snob. Highbrow. High-and-mighty. Call it what you like. But I don’t want to write to be “skimmed.”

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Carradee September 22, 2011, 6:46 AM

    Hm. High “textual density” also has its problems. I remember showing the first few pages of a WiP to a friend, a few years back, and she kept asking for information that was already on the page—it was just packed in tightly enough that she wasn’t picking up on all of it.

    I really need to sit down and finish that one.

  • Bruce Hennigan September 22, 2011, 7:14 AM

    Mike, would you say “The Resurrection” has textual density? Because I think it does. You could not skim it. You had to read the words and let them roll around in your brain and on your tongue. That was one quality I enjoyed about your book. However, what I’ve discovered in my rewrite of my first book was the difficulty of cutting down the words for a word limit imposed by the publisher. Suddenly, I had to decide. Should I keep those wonderful stretches of prose that qualify for “textual density” or do I keep the story rolling? It was a tough choice. My book lacks textual density because of this. I had to cut 1/3 of the book to meet my word limit. I wonder if in today’s publishing marketplace, publishers are more concerned about selling a “quick and easy” read than honoring the “craft” as you call it. It is sad, but I think it is true!

    • Mike Duran September 22, 2011, 4:39 PM

      Bruce, above all we must “keep the story rolling.” One of the things about literary novels is often this lack of movement. Action is sacrificed in favor of beautiful prose. The story becomes a literary “still life.” I love beautiful prose. But one of the things I’m learning is the need to back off the flowery prose in order to keep the reader. But both can be done. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind is a good example of a story that is well-written, complex, and long (800 pages!).

  • Levi Montgomery September 22, 2011, 7:14 AM

    One of my daughters is my perfect First Reader (I suppose with six kids, the odds that one of them would be were running in our favor). She likes to say that I bury things to be found by careful readers.

    On the other hand, one of my sons is known by the rest of the family as “Mr Skimmo” because of his tendency to miss things and ask obvious questions.

    So, between the two of them, I can pretty much tell when I’ve done by job. 🙂

  • xdpaul September 22, 2011, 7:54 AM

    Don’t forget bloat.

    Just a cursory scan of the top 10 bestselling novels of 1900, 1950, 1990 and 2000 shows that novels have gone from averaging a little less than 400 pages to more than 500 pages, with a large number of latter-day “blockbuster” style novels reaching well into the 700-800 page range!

    With the more recent swing back to what would have been considered a “normal” novel length at the turn of the 20th Century, word control becomes a more viable target once again.

    Outside a few masters like Umberto Eco and Cormac McCarthy (and considering their subject matter, they remain remarkably economical, yet textured), a lot of the doorstop books tend to fray at the details. Honing 180,000 words without spending a decade chasing silverfish is an amazing feat if one can pull it off.

    There are some very cleverly crafted 50,000 word novels that would have simply smashed themselves to bits had they been stretched to double their size.

  • Patrick Todoroff September 22, 2011, 9:25 AM

    I agree, except I toss those high-brow novels with so much atmosphere my nose bleeds. After all, get too heavy and deep and you’ll drown. The real trick is to make it look and read casual, so that you can’t help but admire the precision, the poetry of the prose.

    William Gibson does this, and my latest two finds are Marcel Theroux’s “Far North” and Alden Bell’s “The Reapers are the Angels.” Genuinely outstanding. Not a throwaway sentence in either, IMO.

    One of my writing teachers constantly admonished “Don’t write the stuff people skip!”

  • Jessica Thomas September 22, 2011, 11:47 AM

    It depends on how you define density. Is density saying as much as possible with as few words as possible? Or does it mean, all the words, even the seemingly superfluous ones are there for a reason? For instance, I like to adjust my narrative style to reflect a character’s personality. If I have a vacuous, talkative character, I may ramble in my narrative to create an overall mood.

    Defining density in terms of “saying as much with as little as possible” can create problems. I know because I’ve cut, cut, pared down, snipped, only to end up with a story that none can seem to relate to, and that is frankly, annoying to read because of its pretentiousness. On the other hand, agonizing about every word, to make darn sure it’s there for a reason can be…well…agonizing.

    I think it’s important to think about every word, but we also need to let our writing hand flow and trust what it comes up with, without going back and butchering/analyzing the life out of it.

  • Mike Duran September 22, 2011, 12:13 PM

    Great question, Jessica. You might want to follow the link to Dave Long’s posts (there’s 3 or 4 of them I think) because he delves into the subject in more detail. I tend to define “density” not just in terms of word economy, but word choice. Sometimes fewer words is better, provided the ones that remain are strong enough to enrich the mood of the story. Of course, laboring over “the right word” can make for a torturous time.

  • Bob Avey September 22, 2011, 3:59 PM

    Good post, Mike. I know what you mean. It’s like when they show on TV the behind the scenes of a movie, how it was made and all of that. It just ruins it for me.

  • Tony September 24, 2011, 3:07 AM

    Absolutely agree with ya here Mike. It’s why I have so much trouble getting into James Patterson novels. I don’t like the idea that books try to compete with TV, and so they place story over all else. Story is great, and sure, it’s crucial. . .but words matter as well. . .if they didn’t, I’d just watch TV.

  • Alan Oathout September 24, 2011, 7:39 AM

    I appreciate Tony’s point: When written fiction tries to compete with modern visual media, it loses the very richness and nuance that set it apart in the first place. If the words themselves don’t matter anymore, then we might as well just read (and write) screenplays.

    I think the saddest (and most telling) part of Mike’s post is the last… We’re at a point where love of textual density equates with terms like “elitist,” “snob,” “high-brow”…. If you love a well-turned phrase, if you appreciate quality prose and care about *how* something is said, if a beautiful sentence makes you smile and you have the patience to go back and read it again before moving on, that’s somehow a bad thing.

  • Tim George September 24, 2011, 4:35 PM

    I never thought I would be equated with literary snobs. I mean I’m the guy that watches Fringe every Friday night and still loves Pinky and the Brain. Oh yeah, and I have enjoyed a fair amount of CBA fiction right alongside my favorite in the general market, Dean Koontz. But someone just told me I was talking over their head when I began to express my delight with Athol Dickson’s new novel, The Opposite of Art. Sure words can be overdone but the oils on the pallet of the written word are, well, words.

    Novels that try to compete with visual media, I’m afraid, will not stand the test of time. They are entertaining and that’s just fine. But we still need stories that enrich us as well as entertain us.

  • Alexander September 26, 2011, 2:11 AM

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