Are we stripping modern books bare?

by | Jul 9, 2012 | Books | 72 comments

Reader Drew Turney wrote to me recently with an interesting question. There’s so much advice, commentary, and opinion about stripping away anything unessential to a book’s plot. Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated.

Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?

My opinion: Yes to both.

Yes, I do think it’s a modern phenomenon. I also think that stripping the unessential is a reflection of the fact that people are getting better at writing books.

But it’s complicated.

We’re living in a golden era

We tend to view the present in a negative light, especially when it comes to books and literature. Today’s books can’t hold a candle to Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s, today’s readers aren’t as noble and patient as readers in the 1950s, social media and distraction and e-books are killing literature (even though studies have shown people with e-readers read more).

We always think things are getting worse relative to some golden era in the past.

Partly this is because the only books we read from past eras are the good ones. All the pulp, all the duds, all the forgettable ones have largely been forgotten and have been lost to history. We tend to forget that the classics we read were very rarely the most popular books of their time. Every era had its pulp, its celebrity books, and its, well, crap.

And because we elevate whole eras above our own, we also tend to treat classics as sacred and perfect. We don’t spend much time thinking about how the books from the canon could have been improved upon or how, say, Dickens could been that much better if he had just reined himself in a little.

When you compare a writer like Marcel Proust to a writer like Jonathan Franzen, you can see the way literature has progressed. Both have incredible insight into human nature and a compellingly unique worldview, but Proust’s insights are buried in a tangled mess of digressions, false starts, and drudgery where Franzen’s are delivered in the context of a compelling plot.

We think of books like vegetables. If they don’t taste good they must be good for you. But does consuming good literature really have to be wholly difficult?

Stripping away the unessential is, I would argue, both a product of how books are now written (it’s way easier to strip when you’re writing on a computer or typewriter than when you’re writing by hand), but also because it makes the books better. The modern era has proven that books can be both great and readable.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Can’t meals be both healthy and delicious?

And yet…

But even still, I have mixed feelings. After all, my favorite book is Moby-Dick precisely because of its scope and its digressions and the sheer insanity of its vision.

Moby-Dick stripped down just to the plot would be about a hundred pages of a crazy captain chasing a white whale. But it’s so much more than that. In Moby-Dick, the unessential is the essential.

There are modern writers who embrace Melvillian levels of digressions and detail (David Foster Wallace springs to mind), but it’s extremely hard to imagine Moby-Dick making it through the modern day editorial process.

As much as I believe we don’t give modern readers enough credit, I do think we’re ultimately less patient with digressions. We’re so bombarded by polish and economic storytelling in books, TV and movies that it can be jarring to sit through something that meanders and takes a while to get to the entertaining bits. I find it really difficult to focus while reading older books.

So in our drive to making things polished and entertaining are we losing moments that are otherwise great on their own? Can economy of storytelling be taken too far?

The power of choice

I still believe that people will look at the beginning of the self-publishing era as the start of a golden period.

For one, there’s now a whole lot more competition. For most of the history of publishing, the vast majority the books were written by a privileged few in small circles. If you weren’t rich, white and knew the right people, good luck. I fail to see how those really can be considered golden eras. Now the process is opening up to everyone, which means more competition and more choice.

There’s also now room in the market for things that the publishing industry wouldn’t have published in earlier eras, which, sure, means a lot of subpar books out there, but it also means that books that are quirky and strange and digressive will also be out there too.

The pressure to sell books and get a publisher drove a lot of literary writers to strive for both literary appeal and readability, and I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. But now the freedom of self-publishing will allow people with a non-mainstream vision to have their work out there too. Books won’t have to be readable in order to find their audience.

So while the modern era of books drove us all to focus on economy and kill our darlings, things may well be changing. Writers won’t have to sacrifice their vision in order to find their readers.

Maybe digressions will make a comeback.

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Art: Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick


  1. Steven J. Wangsness

    Life itself is full of little digressions. Stripping away the "unessential" leaves half the story untold. At least for some kinds of books. In a mystery, such as I wrote, or some other genre sort of fiction, I'd agree about stripping away the useless junk. But if all books become commodities, I can't help thinking we're losing something important.

  2. Terry Odell

    My current WIP has my crit partners asking whether I'm digressing too much from the mystery plot. However, I'm a reader who enjoys watching characters develop, and learning new things along the way, so I hope there are others out there.

    I do try to make sure that my digressions still touch upon the forward progress of the story.

    And, interestingly, I've been reading a lot of blog posts lately about adding depth to stories by NOT sticking too tightly to the main plot points.

    Terry's Place

  3. Mira

    I don't have anything to add other than to completely agree with you. I thought about listing everything you said that I thought was spot-on, but I'd basically be summarizing it, which seems redundant. 🙂

    Excellent post.

  4. Chris Lunda

    The earth around J. D. Salinger's grave is trembling…

  5. Emily Carpenter

    Oh no, Moby Dick is your favorite? And I was liking you sooo much…..

    Kidding. It nearly killed me in high school and I've never had the guts to revisit it. Sorta like that mean girl I hope I never run into again.

  6. Annalise Green

    I think that "stripping away the unnecessary stuff" is like most writing advice – a good rule of thumb but when applied mechanically and rigorously without insight to the why, it can be abused. People's definitions of unnecessary stuff can vary. People's definitions of digressions can vary.

  7. Carmen Webster Buxton

    It always seemed to me that books changed as the world changed. Readers of Victorian novels who read for entertainment WANTED long passages about the setting or the characters' feelings because they had no movies, TV, or Internet as alternate distractions. They expected a book to take days to read. If they read MOBY DICK, it was partly because they wanted to know what life was like on a whaling ship. Modern books are (for the most part) written for modern times and compete with video games and HBO. That's not to say we can't still enjoy older books, but it does mean we will notice the difference when we read them.

  8. Doug

    To bring together a couple of points made in the article: even in its time, Moby-Dick was scorned for its digressions.

    According to Wikipedia (fount of all knowledge on the Web), Melville "was shocked and bewildered at the scathing reviews [Moby-Dick] received. Instead of bringing him the literary acclaim which he sought, this master-work started a slide toward literary obscurity in his lifetime."

    Wikipedia cites one of the reviews, "The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition."

    • Anonymous

      Actually…in reality….Wikipedia is a corporate evil. And takes off very important truths from its site when they don't want that power getting in the hands of the masses. I wont even choose to click on it anymore since I know now what their up to.

  9. Michael A. Lewis

    Self-publishing is re-opening the door to unique self-expression.

    With corporate publishing, content and style is controlled by those who seek the greatest profit through quantity rather than quality. Get it in, get it out on the shelves, move on to the next. Keep those titles moving, slap a new cover on a proven title, get it back on the shelves.

    Now the author is in control, as much as the author desires. Content and style are a function of the author's vision. "Readability" depends on the audience, which need not be large for the author to be "successful." Success is measured in the writer/reader contact, not advances and royalties.

    Writers can be freed once again from the necessity to become authors; we can write what we want, in a length and complexity appropriate to the story and the storyteller, and still reach an appreciative audience.

    The medium is irrelevant; it’s the words, sentences and paragraphs that are paramount.

  10. D.G. Hudson

    Digressions tend to make people think..and some readers don't want to do that. They want to be entertained. 'Don't make me think, just serve it up!' It's one of the reasons that literary writing only appeals to a certain type of reader. I love Dickens stories, but find his run-on sentences ponderous at times.

    I'm reading 'Tender is the Night' by F.S. Fitzgerald and it does digress but to useful purpose. Not all classics are enjoyable, but MANY written in the 20th century have staying power.

    I'm not sure with our flooded book market (of trad, indie and selfpubs) if that can be said of most current books.

    My faves – scifi and mystery also have their forms of digressions, but much less so in the new books. With digression you can get layers, without it, you skim on the top.

    I say yes, we are stripping our modern books, and not always to good purpose.

  11. Ellen Etc

    There's so much content coming down the pipestream, readers need "curators" of one kind or another. Editors, publishers, and bookstores used to hold that role. The question is, who are the curators that people turn to now for advice on what to read? How does one discover a new writer that one enjoys?

    The evil downside of self-publishing is that so many people sink so much money into self-publishing outfits. Many of those companies make their profits from the unedited writer's naive dreams, misleading them about the effectiveness of such package deals as "an email campaign" that promises to send 5,000 marketing emails. I know one writer who sold exactly 2 copies of his book from the vanity press's 5,000 emails.

    The editor/publisher/bookstore route used to assure a minimum competence and saleability for a book. When people insist on "creative control," too often it means "my self-indulgence."

  12. Anonymous

    Interesting post. I think traditional publishing is so focused on being cost-effective that the word count seems VERY important, and that means that many digressions are axed. I think you are allowed to digress if you are an established, best-selling author, but otherwise–no.

    You raise a good point that self-publishing may allow people more leeway. Done well, digressions can make a book richer. Obviously, done badly, they can make it a hot mess.

  13. Matthew J. Beier

    When writing books now, this is at the forefront of my mind. If I'm not addicted to my story on every page, I feel as if it isn't good enough. I end up slaving away to make it both comfortably paced (i.e. fast, in this day and age) and true to my vision, which can be extremely frustrating. Just last week, I had one of those "doubting my entire future in publishing" nights, because my current project just wasn't grabbing me the way I wanted it to. Much of it ended up having to do with cutting some unnecessary stuff, and this week, the book looks better. So, in this case, cutting was a blessing.

    Still, I don't think this is a black and white issue. It depends on the writing, the story, the characters, and the overall vision. Amazing writers can make every word feel necessary. Thus, While I can love short and sweet books like The Hunger Games, some of my favorite reading experiences have been on the longer side: Many books by Stephen King, Atlas Shrugged, Harry Potter, The Poisonwood Bible, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc.

    Like Carmen said above, books change as the world changes. It will be interesting to observe the progression, especially now that playing fields have evened out a bit!

  14. Katie

    Nathan, sometimes your blog is just what I need to make me feel better about the state of things. Thanks.

  15. Kathy

    "Digression is the soul of wit." Ray Bradbury

  16. Alexa O

    I love this post, and I think about this question a lot.

    Books that are ONLY plot are sadly lacking. To further your food metaphor, they're like icing without cake–the icing may be your favorite part, but without the cake, it's just going to leave you feeling sick.

    On the other hand, self-indulgent diversions simply aren't a benefit to fiction.

    Maybe the trick is that the "diversions" have to not really be diversions at all. True character-building and world-building are essential to a plot. A reader has to know a character in order to care that he might die, or to believe that he would dive off a bridge to avoid the police and that he's a strong enough swimmer to survive. Such elements can be introduced through darling diversions. I think.

    Either that, or a writer has to be so damn good that readers fall in love with the diversions.

    So it goes.

  17. daniel t. radke

    I recently waded into the self-publishing pool, so this has been on my mind a lot lately.

    I'm against completely eliminating all non-plot-essential items. I think it takes realism out of the work, and it can make the story formulaic.

    For instance, if you see a romantic comedy at the theater, not only do you know that male character will do something heroic at the end to win the female's heart, depending on what happens in the first twenty minutes, you might even be able to guess the fashion in which he'll do it (if the male lead has cold feet about marriage and he's self absorbed, he'll sacrifice a beloved part of himself, like his job, and propose marriage).

    I agree that if you show a gun then it needs to be shot, but what if you show ten guns? Do they all need to be fired by plot's end?

  18. Huntress

    In my distant past (youth), I read Tom Jones, loved it, and thought it was the best book ever.

    But now, when I started re-reading it, I lost interest after the first five pages. Impatience and the age of the sound bite took its toll.

  19. SLC

    I love the part where you take down Dickens (who got paid by the word – and it shows) and then laud Melville. While a stripped-down Moby Dick might well suit audiences better – after all, the nonessential stuff gets scrapped in every film/tv version – the book would lack a certain something without those extra parts, and not just heft.

  20. Kathryn Rose

    It's interesting to see what grabs you about Moby Dick because it's the exact same thing that turned me off that book: I loved the story, but the extra prose felt like a text book to me (I'm not terribly interested in how to properly tie a knot or the science of catching a whale). Art is subjective, which is a great thing. As for whether stripping away the unessential is good, I remember reading one author (Vonnegut? Can't remember) who argued that everything we write should reveal character or further the plot. I think there's some truth to that.

  21. janesadek

    I'm a fan of old school. Life is not texting. It's the "digressions" that make you love the characters and get caught up in the world. Just being carried along with a bunch of characters I barely know in a wild ride to "the end" is unsatisfying to me. I keep reading what supposed to the latest and greatest, but I'm left feeling like someone who was only invited to the wedding, while everyone else has been to the rehearsal dinner and will attend the reception.

  22. Andrew Leon

    I love Moby Dick. It's the only book I've ever taken the time to sit down with and mark up. I mean, I grew up believing not to mark up books, but I decided that I was going to do that with Moby Dick and highlighted and made notes and all kinds of things.

    I don't think it's an improvement that people don't write that way anymore. It's different, but it's not an improvement. Per se.

  23. Mr. D

    Imo, digressions are cool if they're well written and entertaining. Even better if they're very well written and very entertaining.

  24. Backfence

    I like a little meat in a story. A book shouldn't be judged by word count, but whether each word COUNTS!

  25. Liam, Head Phil

    I dearly hope digressions become more commonplace. At least, I hope there are more important scenes disguised as digressions. A conversation in which an idea is planted in a character's head could be viewed as irrelevant, though that idea sparks one of the most important plot twists in the story. In the quest to destroy the irrelevant, some writers have instead gone to the bare minimum: when they don't have enough information to work with, they just reference a scene that wasn't part of the book. That sort of thing gets irksome. "Suddenly it all became clear to Bob. Two years ago, when he had been driving home, a stray cat with ears and whiskers shaped respectively like cancerous rodents and low-budget fireworks had appeared in front of his car– then abruptly disappeared into thin air. And Dr. Evil was standing right where the cat had vanished!" When the author has to say "Oh, and that works because…" it's annoying. The reader should have all of the information already, even if it means digressing slightly.

  26. Tracy

    Books, analogous with film, have different audiences for different experiences. There is resurgence in the “slow burn” film category that was the hallmark of ‘60s and ‘70s. The same can be said of new novels today, where just getting into the plot takes a little effort and the plot itself may be fairly elusive.

    This slow style leaves much more room for imagination and for picking out the details that make the experience interesting and worthwhile. A few extra pages of character study, a few more pages to paint the scene, a few pages of author musings that add thought-provoking nuance to the story. Using the film example, you could cut both 2001 and the Godfather down to less than 90 minutes and keep the pace. However, think of all you would lose, the texture, the emotion, the buildup.

  27. Mirka Breen

    You could be called No Nostalgia Nathan. Good for you. ‘Life isn’t what it used to be and never was’ is a good motto, because we can’t go back.
    But I’m not quite there with you. The efficient writing/story telling, while a must in commercial writing, isn’t that absolute when it comes to the truly literary. Think of Jeffrey Eugenides’ books, or even the HP volumes. Riveting but not every point stripped to bare essentials.
    Leisurely prose was perfect for an age of fewer discretionary distractions. We gained, but we have lost also.

  28. Elisa Nuckle

    I think some meandering isn't a bad thing, but nowadays that character development looks a little different. It seems like characters need to be developed in the motion of the plot, that readers want both at once without slowing the pace. At least that's what I've noticed in fantasy and science fiction, though fantasy does tend to meander more than other genres. Science fiction can, too.

  29. Thomas Pluck

    I disagree. I feel like most of my favorite books were written almost twenty years ago, and many of today's feel rushed and empty.
    There have been some very spare masterpieces like James Sallis's DRIVE, but I'm loving James Lee Burke's 450+ page Feast Day of Fools so far. He'd have a lot of fun shopping that around as a new writer today.

  30. Dearth of Reason

    What you say also applies to music. Our Mozart-level symphonies are sneaking past us today as scores for films. Listen closely to the music for Dances With Wolves, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter and you will see what I mean. Today our audiences value smaller bites, but even in wider varieties they taste no less sweet.

    And, as a teardrop of hope to all, there are many writers today who are still telling the whole story to delight their readers. George RR Martin, Neal Stephenson, and Rowling (the final four HP books) are good examples. The HP movies missed out on a lot of depth because many funny and poignant subplots could not be condensed onto the screen.

  31. s.r.sheldon

    The notion that people read authors like Dickens and Proust as a kind of vegetable that's good for you is so, i don't know, tiresome, I guess. Maybe just ignorant. People who read Dickens and Proust's books love them, they experience overwhelming pleasure reading them (with their huge works they can wallow in pleasure), they read them slowly for each word and image (and the insanity of their visions. Who is more insane than Dickens and Proust?).

    (And this notion is particularly hysterical coming from a writer's blog, from people ostensibly interested in character, and yet without the imagination to imagine someone who loves to read something dense, and crazy, and wildly excessive. Is it that hard? You probably meet people like that every day.) (Hey, how about poetry? Do we have a condescending theory about all those nutty people who love poetry? Often there is no plot or characters. Poetry must really, really, really suck! I mean, can't we try to understand the other people we share this planet with even a little bit?)

    I happen to love the excess of Dickens and Proust's visions. Their worlds teem uncontrollably with people, places, feeling, stories, ideas, smells, visions, energy, food, humor, meaning, and on and on. In other words: Life. And when I put the book down, I see clearer this world in all it's teeming craziness. My vision opens up. (And if you don't like excess, if you want to strip everything down to only what's absolutely essential, why do you read at all? Reading isn't 'essential', millions of people do fine without it. You can live on bread and water. We can 'live' without Love or music or Joy or Meaning. Edit everything unessential out!)

    (By the way, I'm sure there's some people who see Proust's digressions and false-starts not as bad writing but as the exotic architecture of a building to get lost in. Or some crazy exotic garden. To some people 'mysteries' that are immediately solved aren't interesting at all, they are boring. Yes, some people prefer to preserve the mystery.)

  32. Ruth Harris

    What I miss in much new fiction—and perhaps what you call digression—is the social/cultural/historical context in which the characters act & react. I don't mean large chunks of "background" bulldozed in but people, after all, reflect their time & place.
    The 60's were different from the 80's. The Lehman collapse era was different from the internet bubble years. Good, readable, entertaining fiction should include the mood, texture and tenor of time & place in characters' lives. Just steering characters thru the "plot" isn't really very interesting. At least not to me.

  33. Heather Hawke

    I too have mixed feelings. Those digressions often contain the truly individual and creative parts. I am reminded of a book published recently, a real page-turner – I stayed up 'till 3 AM to finish. Must be a great book, right? Now a couple of months later, I can't for the life of me remember much about it.

  34. Nathan Bransford


    I never said I don't love Dickens and Proust. Ignorant is a strong word to throw around.

  35. Sarah Stegall

    "…books that are quirky and strange and digressive will also be out there too."

    Received opinion in literary circles (aka Academia) is that editor Maxwell Perkins created a masterpiece out of a mass of rambling prose that was Thomas Wolfe's original manuscript for "Look Homeward, Angel". A few years ago, some scholars pieced together Wolfe's original submission, and re-issued it as "O Lost" (Wolfe's original title). As it turns out, "O Lost" is a helluva lot better read than "Look Homeward", which is itself widely hailed as superb. So what does that tell us? That traditional editing, especially during those "golden years", was actually focused on weeding out all that extra prose, those digressions, those distractions. Yet the very appeal of Wolfe's writing is that flood of poetry that is his narrative style. Plot? Who needs a plot when we can wallow in the fabulous description, the stream-of-consciousness narration, the evocative characterization? What Perkins did was turn an original and creative work into a standard work that matched other works in the field. Maybe that was good for sales, but it wasn't very good for Wolfe, his reputation, or the generations to come who will possibly be confused by his very different works.

    Wolfe is often wild, out of control, drowned in "excess". He's an acquired taste, but once acquired, an unforgettable, unshakeable one. And how much would we have lost, if he had been persuaded to strip everything down to "plot"?

    There are many writers out there with many visions, and readers who will now, thanks to the Internet, be able to find that writer who speaks to them. And may not give a damn about plot.

  36. Nathan Bransford


    I don't know that Perkins was necessarily wrong though either. It's easy to look back on choices like that and infer that Wolfe would have been better off without Perkins' meddling, but who's to say Wolfe would have enjoyed the reputation he has today if he were left to his own devices?

    We grant writers a whole lot of leeway once they've established a reputation, and we're more patient with them. Even if we might see the greater genius in the original work, we're viewing it through the prism of years distant where we will afford Wolfe greater latitude because of his reputation.

    This is partially why just about every literary writer out there started off with a relatively mainstream work stylistically to establish themselves before branching off into uncharted waters. See also this post:

  37. s.r.sheldon


    I agree, sorry. I guess I was reading, and responding to, your post in the light of an overall attitude I always get, which drives me crazy! That I'm really reading them out of serious, dour, academic, no-fun motivations. Like I like taking bitter medicine or something! I just want people to understand (sniff)! I'll be more careful next time!

  38. Nathan Bransford


    No worries, I agree that people should definitely still read those works and there's so much to love in them. I find it difficult to do so with my Internet-molded brain, but I still really enjoy them. I hope people will continue to challenge themselves.

  39. Anonymous

    I keep hearing how self-publishing will open up the world to the quirky and strange and digressive. But I see many (not all) self-publishers urging each other to just write fast, write a lot, get it out there. The self-published books that are doing well seem to be the same kinds of books that do well in the Big 6 world: action and romance.

    It's true that a self-publisher can put out a quirky, digressive work now with a lower upfront investment of money. On the other hand, it might not get even the championing that today's traditionally-published literary fiction gets from places like NPR, book clubs, etc., and it might not find many readers.

    I can't help thinking that just as there is no Golden Era in the past, there isn't one in the future either. Every era has its pluses and minuses. A high-concept page-turner will always have a bigger audience than a thoughtful, slower-paced story, but when the latter catches on it might be more long-lasting. In any era.

    Some classics of the past hold up remarkably well (Jane Austen springs to mind). On the other hand, I find D.H. Lawrence unreadable now.

  40. Naja Tau

    Nathan! I am soooo happy/thankful that someone is also thinking about these things.

    Please forgive my snobbery- I recognize it all too well, but as a fellow Moby Dick fan who can't get enough of Ahab and was willing to hear all kinds of information about why a whale needs to be classified scientifically as a fish in order to get to Ahab and Queequeg, I have been sooooo miserably disappointed with most contemporary bestsellers. Ugh!!!

    Although it's so easy to digest books like Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, Dexter, etc… and those are all books I love obsessively (Harry Potter 2 is in my backpack right now) those bestsellers are all, literally, on a 12-year-old reading level.

    On my SAT's, I was in the 97th percentile. That upsets me very much- because I am a total airhead. I did not even remember what a percentile is, so I had to Google the definition. That tells me that most people can't understand and enjoy serious literature and absorb complex ideas in writing.

    Reading a book like Hunger Games is like mind-popcorn. Fun! I loved the book. It was great. Very inventive. But man. I feel so hollow and shallow by the end of it.

    Give me Ahab. I'm so sick of speedy plots. I want to pick up a book and get to know someone, like Mrs. Dalloway or Blanche DuBois. When I read, I want to feel spiritually renewed- feel intimate. I want to feel like I had a conversation with an adult. You can do that with a spare writer like Hemingway, but dang… I'm getting so disappointed so consistently with the new books I've been picking up. And I'm also super disappointed with the lack of deep conversation about contemporary literature.

    *gets off soap box*

    Man. This post's turned me into one of those internet ranters. *closes ears in oven door like Dobby the House Elf, in order to punish herself*

  41. neal

    This is a really interesting idea, the idea of "digression" coming back with self-publishing.

    But, while I also cite Moby-Dick as one of my all-time favorite books (and I use it as a benchmark against which I rate other books on my blog), we should also remember that IT barely got published. Doug touches on this. It's not like people recognized Melville for the genius he was…in fact, American critics thought Moby-Dick was one of the most self-indulgent, uninteresting pieces of crap they'd ever read. It only got published because Melville had written a few other popular conventional novels first.

    It's also worth noting that a lot of Melville's other stories, many of them short stories, (Benito Cereno, Bartleby the Scrivener, Billy Budd) were very different structurally than Moby-Dick. Melville did what he did in Moby-Dick because it fit a specific effort at a specific moment in literary life. But he was both fighting the publishing industry with the effort, and he was also doing something out of the ordinary for his own oeuvre.

    I hardly think Rowling, Stephenson, or Martin compare with Melville. But I'd suggest that Salman Rushdie writes with a richness and breadth that verges on Melville's discursiveness. I've not read Wallace, but I'd believe that. Perhaps Pynchon as well. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange is nowhere near as insightful as the rest of these, but I think it offers and interesting level of digressiveness (a word?) that people seemed to really latch on to.

    It strikes me that there are still novels that try to do what Moby-Dick did…it's just that you'd rarely see that sort of stuff on the best-sellers lists.

  42. Caleb

    "Books won't have to be readable in order to find their audience."

    That, my friends, is the greatest Nathan quote ever (but only because I've decided to take it wildly out of context in my mind.)

  43. Robert Treskillard

    One advantage of the internet is that you can post that "digressive, cut material" as freebies for your fans, without costing a dime. Sure, it might not be edited fully, but I would think the fans would like it anyway.

    My first novel, which is coming out next February has a lot of material like that (I cut 50,000 words before finding a publisher), and I'll be giving the best parts away on my website.

  44. Unknown

    As a screenwriting student, I got so used to stripping everything down that Stephen King's "Salem's Lot" was a delicious shock to the system. Digressions galore!

  45. Susan Kaye Quinn

    I can't possibly cheer this post loudly enough via blog comment! Have you read Midnight's Tale (the literary short story from the POV of a goat, which is utterly charming and currently at #704 on Paid Kindle)? It's a fantastic example of literature I probably would never have heard up, much less read, prior to self-publishing enabling it's worldwide distribution at the touch of a button.

  46. Taylor Napolsky

    There is too much general emphasis on stripping down novels and yet modern audiences seem to value all types of books.

    Plenty of aforementioned authors are more prolix and many popular authors are also sparse.

    50 Shades is a perfect example of cut-cut-cut. Like two pages into that book you are in an office with Christian.

    I think audiences have a wide variety of tastes, and authors of all styles get more-or-less represented, though the NYT bestsellers list does tend to favor the plot-oriented stuff.

    But Stieg sure gave us an example of how long-winded books can be hits, didn't he? With his grocery lists of items the characters bought.

    I suppose the real key is to be excellent at the style you choose. Get good at what you do, and I'm a firm believer that you will get your work out there.

  47. P J O'Leary

    My biggest argument against this is Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. Those books are filled with pointless asides, anecdotes and digressions on his imaginary world and it's history. But those are often some of the funniest parts of the books. And he's able to do them without detracting from the main story.

    Of course, Sir Terry is a great writer and even he has improved as the series has progressed. So I'd avoid the N=1 fallacy, and say it is possible, but not easy. So use them sparingly and only where they actually improve the book. Because there are plenty of examples of it failing.

  48. Susanna Calkins

    Great post! I've thought about a lot of these things too. Not so much about digression–but I think I see a similar quality in those oft-repeated admonitions not to use adverbs, or words for 'said' other than said. But the arbiter of 'good' writing seems to be changing as the publishing community continues to change.

  49. Anonymous

    I went from writing super sparse to adding more details. These things enrich the reading experience. Books that are too slimmed down read almost like screen plays.

  50. Shannon

    Thanks for this post! I love how you weighed both sides of the conflict. To me, I think there's room for both. I like to read my intense, deep, dark reads and break them up with quick-paced, easily-digestible fiction. If I read too much of one or the other, I get bored and irritated. I'm not a person who enjoys reading series straight through or one book after another by the same author. At the moment I'm reading four books (well three, since I finished one yesterday): A Lovely, Indecent Departure by Steven Gilbert (stripped-down, contemplative debut of a child custody dispute), The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize), The Night Eternal by Guillero del Toro and Chuck Hogan (the third and final in a vampire thriller trilogy), and Of Moths and Butterflies by V.R. Christensen (a Jane Austen-esque historical romance). So really, I love to read all over the map. It keeps me on my toes, keeps me learning from everywhere and everything.

  51. Ti Perihelion

    It boils down to the question, "What is the point of a novel?" A mystery novel serves a different purpose than a literary novel. Some novels exist to entertain; some to enlighten; some to educate; some to transport. The spectrum is as broad as the population of readers, and as diverse. What qualifies as a digression in one novel may be indispensible to another. As Umberto Eco wrote in the Postscript to The Name of the Rose:

    "After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore, those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill."

    I'm a firm believer that the form should fit the function. There is no pace that is one-size-fits-all. Novels are immersive experiences, and like all experiences, some are fast and some are slow. There is nothing to be gained by slashing the slow parts. That would be like trying to watch a movie on fast-forward. Pointless.

    If your reader has the attention span of a gnat, so be it. He can stay at the foot of the hill.

    One modern author who is both very digressive and very popular is Haruki Murakami. For long-winded writers looking to see how its done, check him out.

  52. Whirlochre

    Certainly, much of what people view as 'rules' will turn out to be 'trends'.

  53. Ian Crown

    I look to authors like David Mitchell, who have blended commercial success with quality.

    Cloud Atlas is my favorite book and it's quite long–not Moby Dick long by any means, but longer than most books these days.

    The most skilled writers can use digression as a tool for character advancement and even plot advancement as well. In Cloud Atlas, sometimes you think three paragraphs were a digression but actually were a critical piece to the story.

    As others have said, you have to make the digressions compelling and entertaining, otherwise they kill the pace of the story.

    I have no patience for books that are completely processed and stripped down, and that lack any character development. Books like The Da Vinci Code and throw away thrillers never leave you satisfied, except for maybe a cheap thrill here and there.

    It's my belief that authors are better off erring on the side of character development even if it means occasionally digressing.

    Especially if your in this for a career and not just a get in, get out, make a buck stint.

    Ultimately, I think as readers, the authors we repeatedly buy and worship all focus on characters and creating a truly memorable reading experience, and that means having at least a small amount of digression.

    There is a segment of mindless people out there that just want to read whatever trash is put in front of them, but I can't in good conscience write for them.

    Not to sound like a snob, but we all know what happens when you consume a diet of only candy and junk. I'd rather be Elton John than N Sync.

  54. Linda Austin

    Yeah, and some of us like those slow foreign films, too. You know, the ones that give us the richer, more thoughtful experiences.

  55. John Stanton

    This post reminded me of a website where you can paste a sample of your writing into a window and a computer algorithm grades your writing on a scale of "Fit" to "Flabby". It turns out my narratives seem pretty athletic. I couldn't resist testing some of "The Great Gatsby" which received a strong "Flabby" rating.

  56. WordNerdGuy

    Very nice post and one that made me think. Details are the spices you add to the mix to heighten flavor. I've read a few authors who are too stingy with the deets and are all about plot. That's simply too dull, in my mind.

    I like to linger, to take my time, to enjoy the moment (sounds like I might be talking about something else and you wouldn't be far off).

    However, there are some classics, like Moby Dick (Herman Melville was my senior seminar thesis in college as an English major), that are rife with details that do add a great deal of flavor, but which nonetheless, feel a bit too nitty-gritty. I know that's a personal taste, so I understand the disagreement.

    In the end, I much prefer some digression to none at all — it's what makes life all the more interesting.


  57. Terra Mar

    I love that this post somehow, how shall I say this… digresses. You look both backward and forward and take into account changing times and appetites, socio-economic issues past and current and societal norms.
    And yet not a word wasted. Good model when it comes down to it.

  58. Chris Phillips

    I had a hard time finishing this post. Way too much digression, far too little vampire love.

  59. Anonymous

    No one can say the first chapter of Franzen's Freedom or the whole railroad digression in The Corrections is anything else but drudgery. We've come far, but not that far.

  60. Cynthia Washburn

    I remember watching a program on a similar topic but in regards to movies. Particularly, the movie, North by Northwest from 1959 was discussed and this aspect stuck with me. Shown was a segment wherein Cary Grant stood on the side of a road looking/waiting for someone and minutes went by as several cars went by. Modern shows and movies leap from frame to frame until we are exhausted. I remember thinking, along a similar line, that the parts of the newer Star Wars movies that were cut were the ones that slowed down and added depth to the characters and their relationships. They were cut in favour of 20 minute action sequences it seemed.

  61. Anonymous

    @Chris Phillips – Lol.

  62. Jen

    Stripping away 'unessentials' is … essential. However, shortening the prose for the sake of simplifying the story, or in an attempt to stick more closely to the plot, without any deviation or embelishment seems to be the popular take on things.

    Personally, I'm a little bored with being told our attention spans are minimal, and there's simply no time to wander a little off the beaten track. If the writing style is compelling and enriched with meaning, give me more!

  63. Ted Cross

    Funny you mentioned David Foster Wallace, since I was thinking about him during the earlier part of your post. I'm about a quarter of the way through Infinite Jest right now, and I feel if you stripped away all the unessential parts, there would be nothing at all left!

  64. A. M. Perkins

    My only problem with rules – the people who go nuts enforcing them.

    Do I think bloated, neverending sentences are enjoyable? No.

    Do I writers should be verbally eviscerated if they try to use an adverb or adjective? No.

    In all things, balance is key.

  65. Ann Best

    I was a teenager in the 1950s. I'm now 72. So I have what I think is a great perspective of this excellent topic. Yes to people are less patient today, and yes to commenter #1, Steven, who says "I can't helping thinking we're losing something important." Lately I've been going back to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner (yes, Faulkner makes you REALLY think). Those earlier great works of literature do force one to sit back, relax, and go with what today's in-general reader thinks is a slow narrative flow. But there is so much beauty, so much of human nature in that flow.

  66. neocelt

    I agree with the premise that prose generally benefits from being concise; clarity should be our watchword. However, this "rule" is not carved in stone, and good prose is predicated on quality, not quantity!

    I blogged on this topic using Moby Dick as context–you might find it interesting (even if you disagree): If links are not allowed here, please delete the url. I hope you'll at least give it a read and let me know your thoughts.


  67. Katherine Traylor

    It's definitely possible to strip away the unnecessary while still writing with scope and vision. I'm reading (savoring) Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and it's the most incredible experience: over 900 pages long, complex as a spider's web, taking place in four or five or more different eras– and yet it's one of the most engrossing page-turners I've ever read. Not a single thing in it is nonessential. Everything I've read so far (and I'm about a third of the way through) comes back into the plot later on; all of the characters are important, and ever new viewpoint is fresh and timely. (If the next two thirds of this book hold up, I'm going to be raving about it for years.) Cutting away extraneous matter doesn't mean shaving down the book to nothing– it means making room for all the important things you want to put into it.

  68. Matthew MacNish

    Basically, I have to completely disagree. Are MOST books better shorter and right to the point? Hell yes.

    Would LOTR be the phenomenon it is and the greatest story ever told if it was published today? Hell no.

    Love ya, NB, but longer is better when it comes to greatness, in my book.


    I agree and disagree. There are digressions today in traditionally published books in the form of elongations of the plot and sometimes unnecessary suspence that leads to nothing. These tend to be moulded by selection and anything that doesn't fit simply doesn't get selected. However digressions of the kind of Moby Dick's might be digging their way through to the readers again slowly but steadily. Self-publishing is the bliss of today's reading industry and although it comes with a lot of disadvantages eventually it will evolve to something more systematic and maybe less hazy.

  70. K. C. Blake

    I have often wondered if someone like Stephen King would be able to get published today if he wasn't… well, Stephen King. Some of his books go on and on before he gets to the point. His books feel like he is telling you the story instead of 'showing' you. I grew up on his writing, loved his writing, but when I tried to get published I was told not to do those things that he does so freely.

    I agree, books like Moby Dick in today's world would be cut to bare nothing. I partly blame it on our high-tech society where kids are used to texting, playing video games with awesome graphics, and doing things that are fast and keep their attention. Not many people want a slow read that you ease into anymore. Kind of sad.

  71. SolariC

    Yay! I'm so glad you're a Moby Dick fan. The wonderful thing about his digressions is how utterly essential they are!

    Anyway, I agree that the modern world is impatient with digressions, but at the same time, very long books can succeed. Perhaps the publishing industry is actually more impatient with long, digressive stories than readers are. Still, I completely agree that a story should be clean, not lost in floundering descriptions and tangents. It's part of the writer's craft to tell the story he wants to tell and not get distracted from it by his own ideas.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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