NOVELS

Tartt endows her characters, however minor, with lavish backstories. No detail is too small. ”Not everything has to serve the plot,” Tartt says. ”Dickens digresses. I like books that are big, busy and bustling. Novels are capacious. Those casual walk-on parts create the illusion of life, which is baggy with people you never see again and get to know fleetingly.”

from an interview with Donna Tartt, Sydney Morning Herald

On-duty and Off-duty Detail

There is a conventional but modern fondness for quiet but “telling” detail: “The detective noticed that Carla’s hairband was surprisingly dirty.” If there is such a thing as a telling detail, then there must be such a thing as an untelling detail, no? A better distinction might be between what I would call “off-duty” and “on-duty” detail; the off-duty detail is part of the standing army of life, as it were–it is always ready to be activated. Literature is full of such off-duty detail.[…] Nineteenth-century realism, from Balzac on, creates such an abundance of detail that the modern reader has come to expect of narrative that it will always contain a certain superfluity, a built-in redundancy, that it will carry more detail than it needs. In other words, fiction builds into itself a lot of surplus detail just as life is full of surplus details.

— James Wood, How Fiction Works

Barthes’s Referential Illusion

Wood then goes on to explain that although all this surplus detail feels like it’s meant to denote what’s ‘real’, all it does is signify it.

Realism in general, it is implied, is just such a business of false denotation. […] Realism offers the appearance of reality but is in fact utterly fake–what [Roland] Barthes calls “the referential illusion.” […] those laurel-leaf haircuts worn by the actors in Hollywood “Roman” films signify “Romanness” in the way that Flaubert’s barometer signifies “realness”.

In the end it doesn’t really matter about any distinction between what is real and what is signified, because “realism can be an effect and still be true”. Wood describes Barthes’s attitude towards realism as “sensitive, murderous hostility” and that’s the only reason why he insisted on this “false division”.

SHORT STORIES

Detail in a short story has to carry a lot of weight. Everything means something.

In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther

Raymond Carver explains that even in a poem or a short story the language used to describe this detail does not, itself, have to be startling. Everyday words will still do the trick.

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.

— Raymond Carver, On Writing

PICTURE BOOKS

Modern picture books convey all of their detail in the illustrations and none in the text. The text is for conveying the story structure. There are few exceptions to this. Once the text starts to describe the picture, what you now have is an ‘illustrated story’.