Beautiful prose does not make for a great story on its own. This is a personal stance of mine that I have recently been thinking a lot about.
You can see this argument elaborated on in this old-ish article from the Atlantic.
I wanted to further examine the reason why many books have very descriptive passages.
Perhaps it is because of MFA programs. A lot of professors may like the same thing and thus their students seek to emulate what their professors like without considering what effect they are going for. These writings go on to get published. Other readers read them and then go on to imitate their writing styles.
Or perhaps it is the critics’ fault. BR Meyers makes a good point about this in the article linked above:
“[Annie Proulx’s] writing, like that of so many other novelists today, is touted as ‘evocative” and “compelling.’ The reason these vague attributes have become the literary catchwords of our time, even more popular than ‘raw’ and ‘angry’ were in the 1950s, is that they allow critics to praise a writer’s prose without considering its effect on the reader. It is easier to call writing like Proulx’s lyrically evocative or poetically compelling than to figure out what it evokes, or what it compels the reader to think and feel.“
If all of your prose has the same beautiful quality, there is no variety in tone, and readers may be unable to fully reckon with what you intend for them to feel. Readers may include critics, who, overwhelmed by the prose, label it “striking” without analyzing what true effect it produces, if any. Thus, writers get lauded by critics and their books sell and win prizes, and everyone is (seemingly) happy.
Another reason for the proliferation of imagery may be the proliferation of technology. Writers now have to compete with TV and videogames. Perhaps the use of consistently vivid imagery is an attempt to keep the reader off his or her phone.
I am not saying that imagery is bad. I love imagery (one of my favorite books is Thomas Wolfe’s imagery-laden Look Homeward, Angel) but not if it’s the defining feature of a book. I personally believe books should prioritize their stories. Maybe if we writers were to implement this idea in our own prose, our stories will be empowered by beautiful language, instead of merely defined by it.
This is a very interesting subject for me, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Also, due to midterms next week, I will not post again for a short while. I will miss you all!