Friday, December 3, 2010

Pretty and pointless?

This is an interesting article:
Though you won't find it in Webster's, there's a word to describe the kind of meticulously constructed writing that bores even its author. A "bore-geous" novel is one that is packed with gorgeous, finely wrought descriptions of places and people, with entire paragraphs extolling the slope of one character's nose, whole chapters describing another's perambulations through a city. These novels are often historical or set in foreign lands, their bore-geousness inspired by the author's anxiety about making an unfamiliar world feel convincing and true. It's not that the sentences aren't well-constructed, even lovely. They are. That's part of the problem. Bore-geousness happens when you are writing beautifully but pointlessly.
I've never read anything by Ayelet Waldman - I cannot say if she writes bore-geously or if she does a good job of staying out of that pit. Still, I have to give her props for coining a wonderful term and also for pointing out a problem that I think is really hurting literature today.

Waldman isn't entirely accurate on one count: I don't think these novels are more likely to take place in foreign lands or be historical (those are separate genres that, true, are mostly defined by this kind of writing, but the writing is not exclusive to it). On the contrary. I think that a large portion of the so-called "literary" fiction genre is filled with this kind of writing. Gorgeous, flowing, positively enchanting... until you reach the end of the 400 paged book and have no idea what it was about, no connection to the flat characters, and no idea why this book has won dozens of accolades.

If this was rare, I'd forgive it. If it was obvious, I'd be even quicker to ignore it. The fact is, though, that this phenomenon repeats itself often... and we fall for it. Readers fall into these pretty, empty stories and it doesn't matter that there's little content and meat, we eat it up because we like the way the writing sounds.

Waldman's best point is made in the last paragraph: "Good writing can and should be beautiful, but it must never be only beautiful." Well said.


  1. I love the word, and totally agree. I hate when the author forces me to leave the story to admire the prose. The great thing about her husband's writing is that his is never bore-geous, only gorgeous.

  2. Nicholson Baker, whom I'm reading with great delight at the moment, writes bore-geously, too, but in a slightly different sense. He bores into the tiniest, most unremarkable incidents and blows them up into larger proportions so that an amazed consciousness can note the unremarked.

  3. I completely agree. This is such a great new word to start using.

    I find that with bore-geous books, I'll skim the paragraphs to see if there's any useful information and if not, I'll eventually just give up on the novel.

  4. I have read most of her books -- I have not read most of the Mommy Track mysteries series she writes.

    I like her books because, for the most part, she avoids this scenario. They usually have a well paced plot and make you think about issues raised. I have read mixed reviews of her latest, Red Hook Road that are not as positive; will have to see for myself.


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