Back a few months ago when, at the insistence of a friend, I took up (for a second attempt) a decent scifi book called Red Mars, I checked a review on amazon which criticized the book for having too much detail and not enough dialogue. The reviewer said that “You’re gonna be subjected to miles of dialog-free prose, more than I’ve ever seen in any book that proports to be a novel.” And, of course, I failed to finish this book for a second time not because there was too much detail, but because there wasn’t enough in the slightest—despite my friend’s insistence, I still felt that the author’s style was flaccid, and that he wrote about Mars like a surveyor, constantly mentioning the long Latin names of unknown places to the north or the south and seeming to feel that this was enough to ground me in that reality, although if I were to do the same for a book that takes place in America I would probably bore everyone to tears.
“At the northeastern part of the island was Bar Harbor, the largest town; while slightly to the south was the Jackson Laboratory, famous for its genetic experiments on mice; beyond that the small town of Otter Creek, surrounded by mountains, forests, and oceans, although there were no otters to be found, and possibly not even a creek; and still further yet Seal Harbor, his own home, where he had lived for many years without ever seeing a seal, divided into two parts: one in the north for the somewhat wealthy and the other in the south for the incredibly wealthy; and then further down you got to Northeast Harbor, which in spite of its name was in the southern part of the island, and this town was really just like a smaller quieter version of Bar Harbor, with a per-capita income in the summertime equal to the Principality of Monaco, but with the stoic restraint of the puritanical New England rather than the extravagance of those states further to the south which were influenced by the cavalier culture of 17th century southern England, at least according to David Hackett Fischer…”
I mean, you can just supply a map, and cut all of this crap out, but I’m not sure there was even a map in Red Mars. I will say that the book had a lot of interesting ideas, but ideas alone aren’t enough to keep a story going.
Nabokov also purported to complain about people who just want their books to be full of fast dialogue—for me, reading one of these potboilers is like watching a two-hour film where every shot is zoomed in on the speakers’ lips—and so, when I write, there tends to be a lot of detail.
When I first started out on my lucrative career as a creator (around fourteen years and nary a sixpence fer me troubles!), I wanted to make movies, and only stopped because I could never get the actors (the kids in my neighborhood) and the sets (our yards) to line up with the images in my head (blockbuster action films), and switched to writing because you can create an entire city from scratch in the time it takes to pound out a sentence, while similar endeavors on film would cost millions of dollars. Still, most of the details I put into my books are visual ones, I’ve filled the book I’m hoping to publish very soon with photographs, and I like hanging around with my baby son because he notices a lot of things most of the rest of us would miss—poking at genre paintings left on the floor, picking up discarded metal parts that may have once belonged to my father’s extensive collection of musical equipment. I’m also jealous of another friend, one who edited this rather famous video, who is on the path of filmmaking and will have a blockbuster of his own out in a few years.
Right now I’m working on a lengthy digression, hopefully akin to the long desert digression in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or the talking-catfish-eating-out-a-princess in Uncle Boonmee digression, and the trouble with all this detail is that when you go back in time (Korea in the 60s, 70s, and 80s), the amount of description explodes, because people are dressed differently, they live in different kinds of homes with all kinds of strange things inside, they behave and think differently—everything is different, and to draw the right picture (or manufacture the proper bottlecap, to use a less obvious metaphor), things need to slow down, and the reader has to smell the roses for a couple of minutes before he or she can move on to the next explosion. My worry is that people won’t have the patience for this, or that they’ll notice a big hiccup in the pace of the novel, because while Korea is very different from America, much of the story still takes place in the present day—although I’ve also noticed Korea changing so quickly that some of the details I wrote in for the year 2009 are already no longer so applicable to 2012, such as the profusion of PC Bangs, which really seem to be a lot less noticeable as most Korean families now have the cash they need to get the computers they want. Maybe it’s just me.