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Old 08-30-2018, 09:59 PM   #1
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Unrelevant details in a novel

My recent reading of "Madame Bovary" found that the first chapter gives too many details about Charles Bovary in his early school days and it might be lead the reader to believe this novel is about the life of this man, but as we all know, his wife is the protagnist, he isn't. And such details seem not to make any good contribution to the characteristics of the person, much less to the plot of the story.

Same thing happens in the Chinese classical novel "Dream of A Red Mansion" that tells the story about the corrupt life of big families of high officials at feudal times. There is a chapter that deals with the medical service of a doctor to the family member of such big officials, with the medicines to be purchased from a shop listed in full that occupies half a page but reads ridiculous, because readers do not seem to care so much about the particulars. Some critics even praise the author for his specialization in medicine that his prescription in a novel can even be used in real life. But it departs from the intention of a novel, right?
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Old 08-30-2018, 10:00 PM   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by gxnn View Post
My recent reading of "Madame Bovary" found that the first chapter gives too many details about Charles Bovary in his early school days and it might be lead the reader to believe this novel is about the life of this man, but as we all know, his wife is the protagnist, he isn't. And such details seem not to make any good contribution to the characteristics of the person, much less to the plot of the story.

Same thing happens in the Chinese classical novel "Dream of A Red Mansion" that tells the story about the corrupt life of big families of high officials at feudal times. There is a chapter that deals with the medical service of a doctor to the family member of such big officials, with the medicines to be purchased from a shop listed in full that occupies half a page but reads ridiculous, because readers do not seem to care so much about the particulars. Some critics even praise the author for his specialization in medicine that his prescription in a novel can even be used in real life. But it departs from the intention of a novel, right?
I read Madame Bovary many, many years ago and I remember thinking the same thing!
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Old 08-30-2018, 10:12 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by gxnn View Post
My recent reading of "Madame Bovary" found that the first chapter gives too many details about Charles Bovary in his early school days and it might be lead the reader to believe this novel is about the life of this man, but as we all know, his wife is the protagnist, he isn't.
I think a lot of novels contain long digressions, perhaps with the idea that the digressions help set the environment or build the characters. For instance, at least a third of Moby Dick is apparently pointless, but it does -- very gradually -- build the character of the cast of sailors on the Pequod, and set a backdrop for the events later in the story.

Some novels would be novellas or short stories if the were rewritten without the long diversions.
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Old 08-30-2018, 10:22 PM   #4
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I think a lot of novels are started without a solid idea of where they are going. Not everyone plots out their story ahead of time to make sure it is told efficiently. There are plenty of very good writers here on Lit who start writing and then "see where the story takes them". It's a valid approach that produces good work for some.

I'm sure many writers' interests and ideas change over the course of writing a story, especially for novels that take many years to complete.
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Old 08-30-2018, 10:32 PM   #5
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As irrelevant as such detail might appear to a modern reader, Flaubert didn't write Madame Bovary for the modern reader. Readers of the time expected detail, the more the merrier. And they wanted an epilogue where we find out who married whom and how long the convicted criminal lasted in the penal colonies before dying with 'England' on his lips. Classic literature often contains such. Ancient Greek plays required a chorus, near-pointless to us now. Shakespeare wrote with his own set of conventions. Half the joy of reading them, IMHO, is figuring out the societal expectations.

For those who don't like it, there are lots of modern alternatives.
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Old 08-30-2018, 10:55 PM   #6
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For perhaps the ultimate in literary 'wandering', try The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
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Old 08-30-2018, 11:02 PM   #7
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When I had that incident with the ladder and my life spooled in front of my eyes, I too was kind of surprised by the amount of pointless backstory. That whole hackneyed clumsy-but-well-intentioned-parents subplot, the business in Chris's basement (which I swear I'd completely forgotten about), the seemingly endless episodes of ginning up my courage to take this stand or that one but then not having the courage to follow through, the tedious unrequited dealings with Carla and Deidre and Sonia and Pilar, the endless homework assignments and work assignments and weekend chores and half-remembered dreams. I know what they say about silk purses, but the next time I clean the gutters I'm going to at least hire an obituary writer with a little imagination.
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Old 08-30-2018, 11:49 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by NotWise View Post
I think a lot of novels contain long digressions, perhaps with the idea that the digressions help set the environment or build the characters. For instance, at least a third of Moby Dick is apparently pointless, but it does -- very gradually -- build the character of the cast of sailors on the Pequod, and set a backdrop for the events later in the story.

Some novels would be novellas or short stories if the were rewritten without the long diversions.
So the writer tried to make profits from such lengthy writing because the pay was based on word count? He might have had a reading himself of his own work before sending to a publisher, right, to prevent such low-class errors?

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I think a lot of novels are started without a solid idea of where they are going. Not everyone plots out their story ahead of time to make sure it is told efficiently. There are plenty of very good writers here on Lit who start writing and then "see where the story takes them". It's a valid approach that produces good work for some.

I'm sure many writers' interests and ideas change over the course of writing a story, especially for novels that take many years to complete.
You know what I read is an English version of a French novel, and the translator of the same should have done something to make the target readers pleasant, as in the case of modern American translator Howard Goldblatt, who made himself a celebrity, especially to Chinese scholars and general public by translating or editing in his own style and words the works of Mo Yan, the 2012 winner of Nobel Prize for Literature
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Old 08-31-2018, 12:08 AM   #9
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Rewriting an author's work substantively when rendering it in another language is asking for a lawsuit. If the original is still under copyright, it's a copyright violation. If it isn't and permission of the estate hasn't been obtained, or it can't be covered by the parody exceptions, it's unethical and the translator should, by rights, be called out on it. Rewriting and translation are not the same thing.
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Old 08-31-2018, 12:19 AM   #10
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For perhaps the ultimate in literary 'wandering', try The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
And what a splendid set of digressions they are! How many pages was it to describe the clock striking twelve? Dozens, I think.
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Old 08-31-2018, 12:27 AM   #11
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But it departs from the intention of a novel, right?
You can't apply 21st century criteria to a nineteenth century novel. Different times, different cultures, different expectations. While Madame Bovary is considered to be a classic piece of literature, that doesn't mean it "survives" a modern day reader's view of "what is good literature." Intentions of novelists change over time.
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Old 08-31-2018, 03:57 AM   #12
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So the writer tried to make profits from such lengthy writing because the pay was based on word count? He might have had a reading himself of his own work before sending to a publisher, right, to prevent such low-class errors?...
Those are some very bold statements. Despite what you call "low class errors", that story is still famous. I guess it may contain something more than you can grasp.

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You know what I read is an English version of a French novel, and the translator of the same should have done something to make the target readers pleasant, as in the case of modern American translator Howard Goldblatt, who made himself a celebrity, especially to Chinese scholars and general public by translating or editing in his own style and words the works of Mo Yan, the 2012 winner of Nobel Prize for Literature
When I read a translation of "Madame Bovary", I want to know what the original story is about; not the interpretation of someone else.

You really sound like someone from the "Fast-food generation", demanding everything in small, pre-processed and easily digestible portions. And sweet.
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Old 08-31-2018, 05:36 AM   #13
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PILOT happens. During my life plenty came along and went away. An ancestor of mine wrote a book about Illinois circa 1820, and alerts readers about important social changes that came and went.

Like where did people fuck down on the farm in the Old Days.
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Old 08-31-2018, 06:51 AM   #14
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You really sound like someone from the "Fast-food generation", demanding everything in small, pre-processed and easily digestible portions. And sweet.
Lol. What an ironic statement since Madame Bovary, like many books of the day, was serialized- meaning it was originally published in "small, pre-processed and easily digestible portions". And wasn't fast food an invention of the baby boomers? Generation Pot meet Generation Kettle.
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Old 08-31-2018, 10:59 AM   #15
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PILOT happens. During my life plenty came along and went away. An ancestor of mine wrote a book about Illinois circa 1820, and alerts readers about important social changes that came and went.

Like where did people fuck down on the farm in the Old Days.
Quite a stretch to make this about me, James. Another made-up book, I assume? Not that's related to the topic either.
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Old 08-31-2018, 01:56 PM   #16
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Haven't read the work in question, unfortunately.

But i can imagine that what we now might see as uninteresting info dump, for readers of the time might offer something out of the ordinary about the character, details important in lost context.

Attempts to build world context that is within but slightly different from expected context of that of most readers may be lost on readers that have significantly different context anyway.

Alternatively, there might be details author intended to use later, but never did in the final edition.
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Old 08-31-2018, 02:17 PM   #17
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From Wikipedia

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Long established as one of the greatest novels, the book has been described as a "perfect" work of fiction. Henry James wrote: "Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone: it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment."[11] Marcel Proust praised the "grammatical purity" of Flaubert's style, while Vladimir Nabokov said that "stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do".[12] Similarly, in his preface to his novel The Joke, Milan Kundera wrote, "[N]ot until the work of Flaubert did prose lose the stigma of aesthetic inferiority. Ever since Madame Bovary, the art of the novel has been considered equal to the art of poetry."[13] Giorgio de Chirico said that in his opinion "from the narrative point of view, the most perfect book is Madame Bovary by Flaubert".[14] Julian Barnes called it the best novel that's ever been written. [15]
Those are not just some random people, giving praise to the story, including calling it a perfect piece of work; perfect = flawless. So, apparently a number of great writers think there is nothing wrong with that story; on the contrary.
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Old 08-31-2018, 08:39 PM   #18
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So the writer tried to make profits from such lengthy writing because the pay was based on word count? He might have had a reading himself of his own work before sending to a publisher, right, to prevent such low-class errors?
The better writers weren't paid by the word, in the Victorian era at least.

It was simply a different culture. People reading literature had leisure and patience and were willing to sift though longer descriptions, more backstory and far more subtle character building. As best I can make out, all of us are severely ADHD in comparison with the well-off Victorian reader. We want the point made and the bad guys obvious, and detail that might make things complex or slow is considered annoying.

I remember one Victorian writer, pretty sure it was Lewis Carroll, complaining (via a character, and semiseriously) that the invention of the railway was forcing writing to be condensed; because people wanted to finish reading a story over the course of a train trip. Nowadays of course we consider train trips tediously slow. I know people who can't even get through a modern novel, and want the half hour youtube version - and then don't finish that.
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Old 08-31-2018, 11:54 PM   #19
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If it doesn't serve the story or plot, or define the characters to a degree that we understand their motivations as the conflict develops, it's what they call 'shoe leather' - it chews up time in a movie or pages in a novel. I'm more interested in the language of cinema, where the practice is rampant and infuriating. Just look at the self indulgence of Tarantino in 'Death Proof' - 40 minutes of people yammering about nothing - none of which fed any part of a very thin premise. There are countless examples. Why are all the movies these days so damn long?

Chekhov put it best:

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
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Old 09-01-2018, 12:30 AM   #20
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If it doesn't serve the story or plot, or define the characters to a degree that we understand their motivations as the conflict develops, it's what they call 'shoe leather' - it chews up time in a movie or pages in a novel. I'm more interested in the language of cinema, where the practice is rampant and infuriating. Just look at the self indulgence of Tarantino in 'Death Proof' - 40 minutes of people yammering about nothing - none of which fed any part of a very thin premise. There are countless examples. Why are all the movies these days so damn long?

Chekhov put it best:

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
Now, yes. Not always. Tastes in everything change.
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Old 09-01-2018, 01:24 AM   #21
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If it doesn't serve the story or plot, or define the characters to a degree that we understand their motivations as the conflict develops, it's what they call 'shoe leather' - it chews up time in a movie or pages in a novel. I'm more interested in the language of cinema, where the practice is rampant and infuriating. Just look at the self indulgence of Tarantino in 'Death Proof' - 40 minutes of people yammering about nothing - none of which fed any part of a very thin premise. There are countless examples. Why are all the movies these days so damn long?

Chekhov put it best:

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."
What you don't seem to understand is that the rifle on the wall can say a great deal about the character sitting under it. It doesn't have to go off. Just being there is all it has to do, according to the plot and arc of the story.
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Old 09-01-2018, 01:32 AM   #22
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What you don't seem to understand is that the rifle on the wall can say a great deal about the character sitting under it. It doesn't have to go off. Just being there is all it has to do, according to the plot and arc of the story.
Everybody has a different take, even if it's condescending ("What you don't seem to understand"). I'm sure Mr. Chekhov would bow to your superior wisdom. I however, do not. It's all in how you express yourself, and you have done so in a way that does not lend itself to conversation, but is rude and confrontational. I have no doubt that you are a superior writer than all of the greats, including Anton Chekhov.
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Old 09-01-2018, 01:37 AM   #23
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Old 09-01-2018, 01:57 AM   #24
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You're taking him too literally. What he is saying in an overstated way is: If you give something importance, then it better be important.

If you describe a room and it has a gun on the wall, so what? But, if you take time to focus on the gun, then there better be a reason for it.
To me, this is the problem: people accepting mediocrity. Every word, every description carries weight. That is the focus of this thread - unnecessary exposition. When you write, you create a world where you impart a very tightly controlled release of information. Anything that does not add, detracts. The gun is indicative of any superfluous piece of information, whether it's an actual gun on the wall, or a meaningless string of dialog. Many modern writers ignore this. It's just too easy to be lackadaisical and undisciplined when you could be 'flashy and cool', and the quality of the typical 'product' we are served up these days tends to prove that point.

This way of thinking is just lazy.
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Old 09-01-2018, 09:13 AM   #25
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To me, this is the problem: people accepting mediocrity. Every word, every description carries weight. That is the focus of this thread - unnecessary exposition. When you write, you create a world where you impart a very tightly controlled release of information. Anything that does not add, detracts. The gun is indicative of any superfluous piece of information, whether it's an actual gun on the wall, or a meaningless string of dialog. Many modern writers ignore this. It's just too easy to be lackadaisical and undisciplined when you could be 'flashy and cool', and the quality of the typical 'product' we are served up these days tends to prove that point.

This way of thinking is just lazy.
I agree with the proposition that every word in a story should have a role of some kind, and I also agree that fiercely editing a story with this guideline in mind usually will result in a tighter, better story, but I don't quite agree that every word must advance the story, in the sense you seem to mean by quoting Chekhov. That presupposes that the only true, ultimate thing that matters is the storyline, and that doesn't have to be the case. Words can be there to cause delight. Details may provide interest even if they don't figure into the plot. They may be there to misdirect the reader, as in a mystery.

Tarantino, whom you refer to, is a good example of this. The plot isn't the point in his scripts, so it's a mistake to ask of the dialogue and character details, how does this advance the plot? That's why Pulp Fiction is nonlinear: he doesn't want you to focus on the plot, because it's beside the point. Tarantino uses plot to set up scenes and lengthy dialogue episodes, because he wants you to enjoy them for what they are. When it doesn't work, it can be indulgent, as I think a lot of his stuff is, but when it works it's great. The best scene in True Romance is the Sicilian scene, and it doesn't advance the plot other than giving you some insight -- in a very roundabout, drawn-out way -- into who the bad guys are. It's the most memorable thing about the movie. Same thing with the extremely long opening farmhouse scene, or the bar scene, in Inglourious Basterds. You can't make sense of these scenes if you ask only how they advance the story. They don't. They bring the story to a halt so you appreciate the scenes in and of themselves. I think this is the best thing about Tarantino movies, because the storylines themselves are nearly always eye-rollingly silly.

You may not like this way of writing a story, and your taste is as legitimate as anyone else's, but it's not necessarily lazy or mediocre to write this way. It's simply writing with a different purpose in mind.
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