Miss Jane Austen And the Differently-Seeing Eye

When I posted about having sold our – storytelling – birthright for a mess of pottage, a few people rightly said that we still have a great storytelling tradition, which is historically relevant and available (mostly for free on Gutenberg [fixed spelling.  I MUST remember.  FIRST drink coffee, then put on glasses THEN write blog.  Sigh]) in electronic as well as in traditional formats.

They are, of course, right.  When I reference an historical tradition and the fact that we can’t throw away our culture, I’m implicitly if not explicitly admitting the existence of those books and even their availability.

The problem is this: while I despise people who say that Heinlein is not “accessible” for today’s kids, and while I think a thousand deaths (slow, employing a foam hammer, so I get to enjoy it) should be visited on the utter idiots who have gone around modernizing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series –there is an “aesthetic language” of story telling – there is a way to say and do things so that they fit with the time.

Look, this is very easy to understand with painting.  Let’s forget the impressionists or heaven help us the cubists.  My taste froze sometime during the baroque era (Yes, of course I was alive then sonny.  Prove otherwise) so cubist, abstract, it’s all funny shapes to me.  Let’s look at a retrospective of medieval painting through the baroque era.  Some of the medieval painting is incomprehensible to us right now, and I suspect so would a lot of baroque be to them.  There are codes and ways to make the eye accept that the shapes on the canvas are tri-dimensional objects.  Or not.  At its worse, we end up staring at the canvas and wondering what the funny blob of color is, when it’s supposed to be a cape or something, and its essential cape-ness would be obvious to contemporaries.

There is a reason that, at some point I was scouring the nets for a good annotated version of the Torah – I still am.  I have a decent/middling one – because not being a Hebrew scholar myself (I have trouble learning languages with different alphabets.  Ancient Greek is giving me issues as is) I want to know where the translator made a judgement call.  And I want to know what story and word-of-mouth tradition, what interpretation and what philosophy attaches to this or that verse.

My younger son at one point had four annotated versions of the Odyssey, one of them scored for the nose flute… er… I mean, one of them very odd.  On our trip to NYC… three?  Four? Years ago he spent his time on the plane comparing three of them and making notes.  I think his seat mates thought he was a very odd child.  (Which is of course wrong.  For THIS FAMILY he’s perfectly normal.)

What I mean by this is that any ancient text needs anotation and explanation.  No?  Well, let’s forget Chaucer.  Try La Mort D’Arthur.  Or Shakespeare, even (which is modern, by any definition) without some modicum of learning about the time, you’ll miss a whole level of meaning.

But let’s look beyond that: Jane Austen.  I love Pride and Prejudice.  I love Pride and Prejudice like I love chocolate.  I like Sense and Sensibility.  I’m moderately fond of the rest though Mansfield’s Park morality appears twisted to modern eyes.

HOWEVER I like all sorts of “difficult” genres and I grew up reading really odd stuff.  Most people reading Pride and Prejudice grow bewildered.  For one, they have no clue what the character looks like.  For another, Jane wasn’t – of course – writing historical fiction.  She’ll call something a “well appointed drawing room” and doesn’t describe.  Part of this is because her readers would have a mental image of what a well-appointed drawing room looks like.  Part of it is because her narration is not that visual.  Go look if you don’t believe me.  I’ll wait.  Back?  See?  She describes what is inside people, as it were, not their external appearance.  Which is wonderful in many ways.  It’s also a fail for modern readers,w ho want to know what they’re “looking” at.

I don’t know if it’s the influence of movies and television, or the fact that we have greater variety in our culture, but we seem to need more PHYSICAL description of setting and people to stay with a story.  I’d say it’s probably a variety of both, plus the fact we’re simply used to more description.

There are a dozen of these little things, that are culture/time sensitive.  That was what I was referring to in terms of needing to reinvent a tradition, because story telling has been rendered into a flat ground in the last fifty years.  Not that there aren’t people practicing good traditional story telling.  There are.  But they’re only a few, and a whole tradition remains to be reinvented.

Will we be more or less description?  Longer or shorter?  More or less internal character development?

Well, we live in a scientific age, don’t we?  At least our time owes much of its prosperity to science.  And look we can submit things directly to the public via the internet.  So… How’s about we experiment and learn?

Write a better story, and the world will beat a path to your internet account…  It’s worth a try, isn’t it?

100 responses to “Miss Jane Austen And the Differently-Seeing Eye

  1. “I’m moderately fond of the rest though Mansfield’s Park morality appears twisted to modern eyes.”
    A couple of days ago I read that some left wing research group pronounced the days of the aspirational marriage were dead.

    I laughed until I stopped. What don’t they understand about aspiration, and what does this imply for social mobility if true (which I am grateful not to believe)

    • Actually, the feminists’ dream is that women will stop marrying up and start marrying down. I.e. women having the upper hand. It’s JUST a dream (and not a particularly interesting one.) They see it everywhere, but ten thousand years of evolution isn’t undone by dreams. The blogs I read of women in the twenties (Yeah, I do. Research.) are ALL about marrying up, to a much bigger extent than my friends and I thought about it. (Though it could be argued I wanted to marry up to, just in intelligence, not money. Achieved it too — buffs nails.)

  2. The other thing that has always struck me about Austen was — well, a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Mansfield Park:

    It could also be argued that Jane Austen was sublimely indifferent (at least in her novels) to the outside world. Mansfield Park was written at the height of the Napoleonic War, yet the war is barely even mentioned in this or any other of her novels. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the country was in turmoil as a result, again barely a mention—her novels contain not a single mention of the steam engine, the growth of the manufacturing cities or even the turnip (which had a much more profound effect on the British economy than any plant with the exception of cotton—also not mentioned). She even manages to omit any mention of the abolition of the slave trade of 1808, four years before she started the novel and the culmination of a huge, controversial public campaign.

    Austen not only didn’t do any worldbuilding, she didn’t use 99% of the world that had actually been built…

    • ppaulshoward

      Ric, it might be said that she was writing for readers who wanted to “escape” all of those events.

    • Does anyone recall why Sir Thomas Bertram was not present at Mansfield Park to oversee the welfare of the young folk? I have only read Mansfield Park once, but believe he had left England to oversee his properties in the Caribbean, which were in trouble, in part, because of the effects of abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

      I have to laugh. Turnips, really? Austen fails to mention the turnip? Next we will be told that Faulkner cannot be serious literature because it fails to include the issues of the tenements and of the street children in New York, and fails to mention one thing about the state of the American Indian on the reservations in the Southwest.

      • I think it was a slave revolt — I could be wrong. It’s been a while.

        • Stop it, I am reading your books right now, and if you continue I will have to stop that and reread my way to Mansfield Park…

      • Actually I once wrote a paper (Hey, I studied literature in college, for my sins) where I maintained that Jane Austen’s themes are deadly serious — marrying or not for someone of Lizzy’s class was very, very serious. It affected all her future endeavors in the world. It was, after all, a CAREER at that time. (And apparently again, if what I read of young girls’ blogs is true — but at least these days it’s not almost the only career.)

      • Passing over the question of Faulkner — it’s relevant to SF writers and wannabees.

        We are told continually that our worldbuilding must be as complete and consistent as possible. Most especially, we are told that influences that are pervasive in the society we are depicting must be noted and allowed for, in the interest of realism.

        Yet here we have stories in which the writer barely acknowledged, or failed to acknowledge, things that we now know were pervasive in the society and which influenced it to a great degree. Turnips may seem amusing, but a new food source is not a laughing matter in an agrarian society. More along the lines of what we recognize, Captain Wentworth has made his fortune in what was, in fact, State-sanctioned piracy, and was in continual danger to life and limb in doing so. There is no even glancing mention of the possible ethical and moral questions arising therefrom, nor even of the dangers attending — instead we find that the more-successful of such folk took their wives and children along!

        It can be argued that Austen didn’t do description or mention those pervasive societal influences because all those things were familiar to her readers, and to repeat them would be tiringly redundant. Yet we discover that the books are quite readable to us, today, although we totally lack the background Austen skimmed over. How much of the advice to “get the background into the story, for realism” turns out to just be an overly-sophisticated version of “As You Know, Bob”?

        • yeah — well… I was explaining to the kids last night, that even in a society riven by revolution and counter revolution, life goes on pretty much as usual MOST of the time — with startling disruptions and maybe failures in supply. So you adapt — you sit with your back to the wall, and your eye on a window, in case someone decides to shoot up the establishment you’re in. And you learn to stock on staples for a month. The end of the world, it turns out, is moments of great excitement in a sea of boredom. Austen’s society had been at war seemingly forever. It was background and, save for the scarcity of males, unimportant.

          • Well, sure, but that’s another elaboration of why she did it that way. I’m more interested in a different question: why does it work for us, now, two centuries later and utterly lacking in background knowledge she took for granted?

            If I were writing a story in which women’s competition for mates was more intense because men were relatively scarce, a critiquer would tell me I needed to justify the scarcity of men; if I were to do so by invoking a war going on elsewhere, I would be told that sure, that’s OK, but I also have to support that with, i.e., relatively large numbers of amputees being visible. Austen does nothing of the sort. She depicts the competition, and doesn’t even mention the scarcity of males directly, much less the reasons for that or any supporting evidence. Why does it work?

            • Part of it is that we know the past happened. The burden of “proof” in SF is higher than in historical

            • Why does it work?

              There is a million dollar question. You might as well say magic.

              Truly brilliant story telling is an art which includes an element of inspiration. It just cannot be reduced to a formula.

            • Maybe you should listen to more than one critiquer? I.e., maybe “it doesn’t work” is in the eye of the reader. (Not to say that the reader is a know-nothing; the reader always brings something to the story, or not, and the enjoyment derived is based on that. But there should be a way to amicably say, “I don’t think you’re my target audience” without loading it with “you Philistine!” subtexts.)

              Example: A Brother’s Price posits a world where males are vitally scarce, prevented from coming into danger ’cause they’re so rare. Doesn’t explain why. They just are. (So scarce, that all marriages are large groups of (half)sisters and one guy!) Do I nitpick? NO! It’s a role-reversal kind of thing, with intrigue and exciting escapes, and it made me giggle.

              Of course, the key then becomes to telegraph what audience you’re looking for, who’ll be most likely to enjoy it. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

        • Am unfamiliar with ‘As You Know, Bob?’

          It probably behooves the author to have a clear idea of the world in which the story is set. Particularly if they are planning a series which will eventually expand the setting.

          Truth is that even in this information age most of us are highly ignorant of large portions of the rest of our own world. Even parts of the world that is pretty near by. If verisimilitude is desired why beat your reader over the head with the ‘everything’ of a world? While it might matter in your formation of a particular world, Lord knows most of us would not be interested in learning the full karmic reasoning of tertiary characters back through eight incarnations.

          What is told should be dictated by the needs of the story itself.

          • Do you know, it took me fifteen years to figure this out?
            <is slow.

          • ppaulshoward

            “As you know Bob” is short-hand for “telling the reader about the story world” that takes the form of a character explaining something to another character that the other character knows about.

            Sort of like a character explaining how a “six shooter gun” is used to another character who knows how to use a “six shooter gun”.

            • Oh, in other words, a form of exposition.

              • ppaulshoward

                Yep and it is “exposition” strikes people as strange because it is exposition to a person who should know this.

                The reader may need to know the info but it is IMO an awkward way of providing the info.

                While infodumps can “interupt” the story if done wrong, they can be better than having two characters discuss something that they should already know.

              • A form of stupid exposition. Google it and also “Maid and buttler dialogue.” That said, sometimes some of it is inevitable. But it’s best to minimize it and Heinlein stuff.

              • Ted and Bob get in the car to go somewhere, Ted taking the wheel.

                TED: As you know, Bob, this vehicle is driven by an internal combustion engine, and must be brought to operating speed by an electric motor before functioning properly. This control actuates the motor.
                BOB: [wordlessly belabors Ted about the head and shoulders with a blunt instrument]

            • This is something that constantly grates on my nerves in the modern cop shows and the various incarnations of CSI. They do the exposition in such a blatant, in-your-face fashion that I sometimes want to pull my hair out, screaming, “Why are you explaining this to him? And why isn’t he beating you with that weapon he was testing because you’re insulting his intelligence?”

          • “Am unfamiliar with ‘As You Know, Bob?’ ”


            • Susan Shepherd

              Careful — TV Tropes is a trap. A lovely, entertaining trap, but it bleeds you of your time at the rate of one second per second, and what you lose there you cannot ever get back.

    • People don’t recognize gigantic historical events as such while they’re happening. The Napoleonic Wars were just another damned war with France, just like the ones the British had waged every generation since 1701. The Industrial Revolution was a lot of crackpot artisans messing about with machinery, which Swift satirized so hilariously in his description of Laputa. And turnips? I don’t think Austen’s set ate turnips.

      Consider the present day. We’re much more attuned to the idea that large-scale social and economic change may be affecting us, but we still miss the big shifts right under our noses.

      • COMPUTERS. How many people equated computers with a revolution in publishing? Or in news reporting? Heck, we were on the net in the early nineties, and we didn’t.

        • There are butterflies flapping their wings on the African plains even as we type. Which ones will matter, eh?

  3. May I kibbitz? Austen describes, but not excessively. (I am not going back to the books, for while I would love the excuse, it would be more than three day before I surface and the family might well object.)

    I’ll take just one, Pride and Prejudice.

    In P&P we learn that Jane has what is considered very desirable facial features for the time and is considered the true beauty of the family. Lizzie is attractive in her own right, more because of her spirit which shows in her eyes, for her features are not of the style and not entirely regular. Mary is plain, lacking spark, the least attractive of the Bennett girls, her appearance and her character are quite unfortunate. Kitty is all right, but for the most part what we see of her is as an addendum to the younger and shinier Lydia. Lydia is a bit plump and probably falls into the class that would now be called very cute, as opposed to beautiful.

    I also suggest that you look at the tour of Pemberley. But then that was a tour.

    But the greatest part of Jane Austen’s work is inner. (Elizabeth’s walk while reading Mr. Darcey’s letter of not-quite apology for his first proposal…) This is what gives it a long life. While the rules and views of the time are not ours, it remains that we all have negotiate relationships.

  4. Persuasion probably has the most descriptions of landscape of any of the novels. It amounts to about half a page of trees, hills, and such as they enter Lyme on an overnighter. I always got caught up in the fact the ladies rode together in a traveling coach. Close confinement for three hours with Mary Musgrove should have been worth a word or two!

    I’m enjoying your posts on the Human Wave. And yes, Sarah, learning about tagging would be very helpful.

    Please check out our blog, Jane Started It!, and consider allowing us to host when you do your blog tour. Our numbers are few, but the snark is cheap and there is plenty of it to be had.

    • Okay — I will post both here and on FB, probably in summer, asking for places to guest blog. If I write your blog down now, I’ll just lose it by then. (Oh, okay, fine. you carry three worlds in your head at any given time. Sometimes six.) Snark is good. 😛

    • Oh, and I forgot persuasion. Idiot me. It might be the best Austen. Or at least the best now that I’m older…

      • I agree about Persuasion. I am a Frederick Fangirl so in the minority in every Austen community, but that’s life in the moderately mobile, middle-aged lane.

  5. Hi, first time commenter. I know nothing of Austin, but Heinlein wasn’t exactly noted for his description either. He could write an entire novel without once describing the protagonist or large chunks of the environment.

    I could be wrong but I think the ‘need’ to have more description comes from the ‘need’ (which I refute — it’s a tool not a rule) to Show not Tell. Showing takes more words, showing is more obvious, showing is more…showy. It’s also easier to do compared to a well-designed bit of telling.

    A ‘well-appointed drawing room’ is all the reader actually needs to read. ‘Well appointed’ equals taste, ‘drawing room’ equals house big enough to have a drawing room. Both together equals wealth.

    What else does a reader actually need?

    The more description you put into a story, purely for the purposes of describing stuff for the reader so they can’t imagine them for themselves, then the ‘less-accessible’ you are making that story for people without your cultural referents. “A well appointed drawing room” no doubt translates into ‘a tasteful room in a wealthy household’ in any number of languages, whereas a detailed description of the room would force people in other cultures (who don’t what an overstuffed armchair — yeah, i know nothing about the design tastes of Austin’s time — looks like) to go comparing translations to gain some knowledge of what they are looking at, which will always be a minority sport 🙂

    By culture, I refer to both time and place. I live in a different culture to Austin, Dickens, and Wells. Even though I live in the UK.

    And what idiots think Heinlein isn’t accessible to modern-day teenagers? Have they actually asked a teenager?

    • Believe it or not, Heinlein if virtually wordy in description, compared to Austen. 🙂

      As for the idiots — I’ve heard TEENS claim this. I think they’re not readers and looking for an excuse. Both my kids took to Heinlein like ducks to water, though the younger one has a suspicious tendency to check the calculations and redesign the engineering. Sigh. May it serve him well. He’s finishing highschool and headed to uni in Aerospace Engineering.

      • Is he..? Wasn’t sure that was possible. His sketched descriptions which give the reader the flavour of something are a delight.

        Is Heinlein taught in US schools these days? If I had been forced to read and analyse “Stranger in a Strange land” at thirteen years old then Ii might never have read any other Heinlein either 🙂

        Just seems strange, I read the Juveniles, Star Beast, Have spacesuit, and so forth (including Starship Troopers — maybe that’s why. Watch that appalling film and you might have a few problems with the book) when I was a teenager and lapped them up.

        Oh and thanks for the welcome.

        • actually no, Heinlein isn’t taught in the schools. They do their best to bury him. Dangerous thoughts, you know? My kids read him because my kids got books thrown at them with “you’ll like this” at regular intervals. . I don’t think younger boy –17 — has read any of the “grownup” books yet. Older boy (20)might have. But I was talking about the juveniles. They can discuss the philosophical underpinnings of red planet till you’re blue in the face.
          And of course you’re welcome. Don’t let the zanies scare you. (Innocent face) I have NO idea why I attract highly intelligent misfits. I just seem to.

        • Funny .Stranger In A Strange Land was all the rage when I was 13. Of course, it wasn’t being taught in school, which would have been the kiss of death at the time.

          Which is probably why I didn’t take to Heinlein until The Spouse read me The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

          • Interesting. I devoured all the juveniles from my Da’s collection before I got to his later stuff (this would be during the 1970s). ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ always felt a bit weird to me. I’d say ‘Friday’ is my favourite later Heinlein novel. Which probably says a lot about me 🙂

            On exposition. I think less is more is best. The writer needs to know the world well enough so the reader can learn about it by reading between the lines.

            Sometimes you have to go heavy on the description, like describing a space habitat being destroyed in a battle. You need to show that if you can. But cultural stuff should be kept for character dynamics if you can. .

            He wrapped his hands around hers and pulled her close “I claim you.”
            She twisted her thumbs against his and broke his grip. “I refuse.” She stepped back.
            Her mother sighed and raised an apologetic smile for the suitor’s family. “Did you come far?”

    • I know nothing of Austin, but Heinlein wasn’t exactly noted for his description either. He could write an entire novel without once describing the protagonist or large chunks of the environment.

      I’m almost certain that Heinlein did this deliberately, at least regarding characters, because he liked to have a character who everyone would assume was white turn out to be black, and you have to pay attention to details to figure it out. For example, the cover of “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” shows Colonel Campbell as White, but in at least two places, though it’s not explicitly stated, he is clearly Black. Given the era of his writing, I imagine he did this to stick it to the bigots of the time, at least to the ones who caught it in the implied details.

      • Aye, there’s the Jonny Rico thing too, which is another reason to loathe than one-note film.

        • I’ve heard that Rod Walker of Tunnel in the Sky and his Amazon (literally) sister are Black, though I missed the details.

          • I’m not sure what story it was (it’s been a long while) I think it was a kinda sequel to ‘Moon is a harsh mistress’ though I may be wrong. But a character comes down to Earth and everything is going fine until he shows his hosts a picture of his line family, when all hell breaks loose because of the mix of ethnicities.

            Of course all this rather makes me wonder, once again, What the hell was he thinking when he wrote ‘Farnham’s Freehold’? Because I really cannot find anyway to defend that book. Astonishing misjudgement, and the moment I read the end of that was the moment when I ceased to have writing heroes. Everybody has feet of clay. Such a shock reading that book.

            • Taht scene was actually in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” Manny’s family.

            • Susan Shepherd

              I remember being embarrassed by Farnham’s Freehold because … what if someone saw me reading it? And of course I was uncomfortable with black / Muslim antagonists who were barbaric in some ways.

              Later, after I had read enough history and taken a class on Islamic Architecture which covered, as part of the background, a summary of the many, many wars that had happened in the Middle East over the years, I became more comfortable with the idea that even blacks and Muslims were allowed to be portrayed in a negative light.

              I basically concluded that the dominant culture of the “future history” of that book holds views radically different from Western values, but the internal logic makes enough sense that I can hardly point fingers without admitting that some of the fantasy books I love are far, far worse in terms of having the culture make any bloody sense at all.

              • I was going to point out that he has some deeply human portraits in that book. Joseph is a man deeply scarred by segregation, which explains (if it doesn’t justify) his “shoe in the other foot” attitude. It’s a “which of us would be better?” Hugh too, quite willing to have his daughter marry the black servant in this new world, but confessing that back home he’d be afraid of “what would the neighbors say?” Are they good people? To an extent. BUT most of all they’re both human and fallible.

                And the culture post apocalypse is actually the depiction of a shell shocked HUMAN culture, and the assuming there must be something very bad about the dead and twisting religion (any religion) to justify it is just human too. If anything it’s an example of “if we destroy our part of the world, we will be at the bottom of the pile in what comes after.” and attempting to show there’s nothing inherently superior about whites. It’s not that different from Bradbury’s And The Rock Cried Out. NEVER confuse the internal logic of a story with the author’s opinion. EVER. (And I did that myself, assuming that They Walked like Men — by Simak was some utopian no-money novel, when now I realize it was just anti-fiat-currency.) I’ll admit I don’t like that book as much as some of his others — the perspective is too bleak, the setting too dystopian. BUT as world building, and questioning of racial superiority, it’s spot on. Sorry. (And please, remember, any culture or religion can go bad. Just because someone is the “other” it doesn’t make them better. And it doesn’t make them worse. And if a cataclysm wiping out the economic engines of the modern world DOESN’T bring about a severe regression and perhaps a severely sick society, what will? The race of people is immaterial, except insofar most of the wiped out were white, so the white were powerless in the new world. [If anything, the book is a cry against racism] Consider it with the races reversed. Would you find it exceptionable? Why not? Remember, Heinlein’s MAIN aim was getting you to think.)

              • Sorry for the late reply. For some reason I wasn’t notified there had been a reply.

                There be a spoiler here>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>.

                I was utterly unfazed by the reversal of roles. There is no god-given reason why Europeans should be the people to subjugate the other peoples of the earth; it was just a quirk of history that they developed the technology to be so dominant. Any group could have achieved that dominance given the same technological advantage and many have in the past.

                So the slavery aspect didn’t bother me. I was quite happily reading until the end, when (and I entirely understand the writing reasons for doing so, he had to give the protagonist a big enough reason to go back to live in a post apocalypse world — and he certainly did that) he made them cannibals. I don’t remember many slave cultures where the masters ate the slaves. That was the step too far. IMHO.

                Cannibal and African has overtones that really should be avoided. Sorry, but that is just the way it is. I grew up at a time where cartoons of Africans cooking missionaries in big pots were commonplace. It was a mistake to put that in the novel.

                I love Heinlein’s writing style. He can grab you by the throat with his writing and not let you down until the end of the story. He was my first (and only) writing hero. There are plenty of writers I admire, but none I idolise and that is all laid at the feet of Farnham’s Freehold. I simply can’t defend it. I know he wasn’t racist, because his other books prove that he consider the human race to be the only race, something I agree with. Tribes, ethnicities, whatever, but there is only one race on Earth. That is the message of SF, when push comes to shove and the aliens are at the gate, we are all Human.

                I cannot tell you how upset I was when I read the ending of that book. My hero had feet of clay.

                • You know, I think you were projecting on Heinlein. Honestly, I think it might be a failure of racism on his part. He didn’t think African=cannibal or associate it at all — what he thought (stated in Stranger) is that we’re all descended from cannibals, and they’re not that far off — what he was thinking was “Shell shocked culture that went through deep deprivation period. Of course cannibalism would come back.” That’s all. It didn’t shock me, because of course I’ve read of the cannibalism in the engineered famines of the USSR (terrible stuff) and the rumors of it in Ireland and Scotland in same periods. I think you did Heinlein an injustice in assuming that’s what he meant. He was doing logical worldbuilding, is all. And to him humans were humans were humans.

                  Yes, I understand he should have anticipated our prejudices, but … why should he? And maybe he wanted you to think “all humans are cannibals” and didn’t express it quite well. He was the man who said what we don’t dare think.

                  • Yeah, keep in mind too he specifically said he was out gore as many sacred oxes as he could with that book. Everything from incest taboos to reversing the racial stereotypes went into that book.

                  • Is cannibalism particularly associated with Africans????? I learned of it as a Caribbean practice, also engaged in by some of the Pacific Islanders (Filipinos? Morays? Been a heck of a long time.) For that matter, eating the heart (and various other organs) of an enemy killed in battle is pretty much universal, en’ it?

                    • I’ve always read that cannibalism arises mostly where there are very low food supplies for some period of time. The practice may remain after, and become ritualized, however. Regarding Caribbean cannibals, though – yeah, Robinson Crusoe was always on guard against running into Cannibals, which Friday had been before he was brought to the island and Crusoe rescued him.

                    • Again, in all the food-shocked communities in the twentieth century– often state engineered famine — there was cannibalism. Heck, I was just reading about the black hole of Calcutta thing, and English OFFICERS slit the throats of their dead to drink their blood. Okay, eighteenth century, but this was yesterday by our lights, and these were relatively disciplined people. And if drinking someone’s blood is not akin to Cannibalism…

                  • For many Americans cannibalism is first associated with the Donner party. No racism. Just isolation and starvation.

                    • well, I think in that sense, Heinlein wanted to show how desperate things would get after a nuclear Holocaust. The possibility of such a terminal exchange was one of his perennial worries.

                    • For Heinlein the Donner expedition would have been relatively recent history, no? Sort of like the Titanic to Baby Boomers?

                    • Not just that. He lived in Colorado. We get Donner pushed in our face at least once a year. Stuff like “the donner party memorial cafeteria” setup at a party, or the kids dressed up as the Donner party at Halloween, or… I mean, it’s all over.

                    • Mmmmmhmmmm … and growing up male in America, that was the sort of thing greatly amusing to the kind of adolescents likely to read SF in the 60s.

                  • Actually all this makes me feel a lot more optimistic about the world 🙂 I’m not sure how old everybody else is, I was born in 64, and it may well be a British thing, cultural stereotypes and so forth. I grew up with them. I’m pretty sure it was Science Fiction (plus enlightened parents) that inoculated me against it, but the stuff was everywhere when I were a lad..

                    I never actually said Heinlein was racist, I said it was a mistake, a misstep, something that should have been changed. If he had been a racist trying to hide his racism, which would be the only possible explanation for the ethnicity of a lot of his other characters, then he would have spotted it himself. It probably shows that he, as a person, was pretty much colour-blind. But it was still a mistake. IMHO.

                    Cannibalism may well have an historical basis (though I have never heard that about the Black Hole of Calcutta — the prisoners were only actually in there for one night so that seems a little short for such a breakdown in cultural norms) but it is still something that causes revulsion in the modern world.

                    It doesn’t alter the joy of reading pretty much everything else he wrote, but I really wish he hadn’t written that. All this may well change my opinion, but I’ll need to process it first. I’m unsure if I agree with the arguments raised, but they are good arguments 🙂

                    • I’m 62, raised in Portugal. For the record, whatever you hear over there — and I KNOW what you hear over there — the US is far LESS racist than anywhere in Europe. Probably always was. (Segregation was by law, and yes, there were idiots, but it was not universal.) Familiarity and all that. Our press is just… er… very skilled at self criticism (self meaning American, they never criticized themselves) or more appropriately “Oikophobia”.
                      It’s possible Heinlein for all his world-wiseness took Europe at its own softened portrait and that this never occurred to him. As I’ve pointed out, Americans can be startlingly naive about other cultures.

                    • It might also be noted that in the US (I was born in 1953) much of the worst racism was actually characteristic of those most devoutly wringing their hands over it … some of our worst school desegregation riots occurred in Boston and Detroit.

                      Another consideration is that the counting by race is a relatively recent phenomenon. Go back to 1905 and mention of The White Race would provoke stares. Spaniards would have been offended at being lumped in with Portugee, or Italians or Greeks or heaven forfend, the Irish. The concept of a common European racial identity was absurd. Of course, the many various African tribes would also have found being lumped into a common race nonsensical.

          • All of which makes it really weird to see people calling him racist (not to mention Fascist, but that’s a different issue).

          • Actually, they’re Persian Aryans, which is to say, about two Munsell chips darker than the average US black.
            The Zoroastrian dinner prayer should have been a Clew.

          • I always thought that Robert Guillaume would have made a great Manny.

    • Miss Austen may have just been lazy about descriptions — or she may have been shrewd enough to know that “telling details” about clothing and furnishings become dated and meaningless. That’s a problem Tom Wolfe has: he’s very good at describing bizarre fashions in clothing, decor, art, etc. — but you have to live in late 20th century America to understand what these fashions mean. (At one point he even griped about how reality kept leapfrogging him whenever he came up with a suitably over-the-top parody of contemporary styles.)

    • but Heinlein wasn’t exactly noted for his description either. He could write an entire novel without once describing the protagonist or large chunks of the environment.

      What’s interesting about Heinlein is how much he reads like a radio program.

      • Aye, his description via dialogue is absolutely outstanding. And his world-building via tiny hints. I remember rereading Starbeast quite recently and he pretty much lays out the entire world in the first few pages without a single info-dump.

  6. I’ve got to buck the current on this one. Rather than recount my own impressions in a scattershot fashion and try to turn them into something other than a rambling diatribe, I’m going to be tiresome and quote Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”.
    “I am speaking here, of course, of the primary expression of Fantasy in “pictorial” arts, not of “illustrations”; nor of the cinematograph. However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say “he ate bread,” the dramatic producer or painter can only show ”a piece of bread” according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own. If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”

    Granted, he does draw a strong distinction between the fantasy of science fiction and the fantasy of a fairy story, and makes it very clear he’s speaking about the latter. But to me, the point still rings true.
    (Not that I’m a published author, play one on TV, or slept in a Holiday Inn last night.)
    And, of course, I may just be a statistical outlier. I’m pretty sure (no matter how much I wish to deny it) that more people watched the Lord of the Rings movies than ever read the books. Anecdotal evidence implies that most people who read the books loved the movies. (“Horrified” better captures my reaction.)

    • Mind you, Tolkien had enough description to sink an ocean liner, so…

      • Sounds like Weber, master of “…as you know, Bob…”
        I am reading Honorverse and find myself having to skip large chunks of prose in the later books wishing he would stop digressing and just GET TO THE POINT! It wouldn’t be so annoying if he used Swaim’s famous “scene and sequel” method to put the infodump between scenes – but he puts it in the middle of a dialog!

        I, for one, like description. I want to know what the scenery looks like, I want to know who the characters are and why they are so prideful and prejudiced. On the other hand, I do NOT want to know their left shoe size is larger then their right (unless it is the only way to identify the body after a terrible accident. If a writer is going to give fine detail – USE it later.

        • That’s true, but Tolkein was also a master of knowing what NOT to describe. Think about it. The Elves were never described much more than being tall and beautiful. We never hear what Sauron actually looks like.

          More to the point, you also have to take into account style. Compare Tolkein to the Norse Eddas and you realize he’s writing as if performing oral history.

          • Actually Tolkein wrote about his technique (which I refer to as ‘framing’) in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. I paraphrase and say less well: but basically he said the stream and the valley you the writer can describe is less vivid than the stream and valley in the reader’s head. What the writer needs to do is set the frame of that picture (with a few evocative words) and let the reader fill in the middle part.

            It’s something I have been trying ineptly to do for years 🙂

          • Which might explain why the audio books of The Lord of the Rings work so well.

      • I would have agreed with that assessment until I went back and re-read the books with a critical eye. [shrug] He uses lots of details to set the frame, but he really doesn’t do much physical description. (Despite his reputation to the contrary.) A particularly blatant example is this description of the Last Homely House in Rivendell, “A perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

        I mean, Bag End is an important place in a couple of books, and we spend several chapters there. But the physical description of the place is pretty sparse. It has a round wood door with a knob in the middle, and is set in the side of a green hill. It’s sandy, airy, comfortable, well-lit, and extends far back into the hill. It has a kitchen, larders, and room enough to entertain 12 guests on short notice. It has a mantle above the fireplace. It has a table. It has candlesticks. It has plates and pots. Nearly everything else is us projecting into the frame.

        😉 Or put another way, if he described things in painstaking detail, we wouldn’t be still be arguing about whether or not Balrogs have wings.

    • oops. Should have read all the comments from the top instead of the bottom. Thank for quoting the whole thing properly

  7. Some authors of historical mysteries — Ellis Peters in her Brother Cadfael tales most notably — have used this aspect of storytelling to effectively hide motivations in plain sight. Thus in One Corpse Too Many the modern reader is blinded by contemporary mores to the actual forces driving the characters, a fact we are clued to by King Stephen’s reasons for assenting to the investigation to commence.

    We are often far less aware than we congratulate ourselves for being; to quote Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon: Don’t you think if I were wrong i would know it?

  8. Words count. Nowadays readers expect and publishers insist upon high word counts. Trilogies even. Description and world-building pad word counts. They give you 500-page novels as a matter of course, without regard to the story.

    I maintain Heinlein only used 300 pages for Moon and few authors these days tell tales as expansive. Instead we get sloppy, verbose, over-written graphite dumps where once we received diamonds.

    • But if you’re a new author, heaven help you if you break 100K words! (Or even an established midlister, from what I hear.) I think the “doorstop” era is over (it’s the one I cut my teeth on), and now there’s the “series of 100K-word books” era.

    • I was about to ask: How much of the “as you know, Bob” found in the modern era is the result of the Tyranny Of The 300-Page Hardcover?

      • Quite the opposite, actually. Ted can explain to Bob (and therefore to the reader) in a few words or sentences, where it might take a long drawn out conversation-plus-exposition to accomplish the same thing. Laziness (and brevity) win.

        Doorstop books begat the “infodump”, in which the author breaks the fourth wall to explain in detail to the reader. Weber is the Master of the Infodump, and (for me at least) his are quite readable the first time round. On rereading I skip them, and it’s remarkable how short the books are if you do that.

        Contrast Citizen of the Galaxy. By the time they get to the Traders’ Meeting, we imagine that we have a clear idea how Sisu works. We don’t; Heinlein made a sketchy nonexplanation feel like an engineering specification.


  9. So … a Janeite… How do you feel about Thackeray, as someone who wrote about the same time and about a much more … cosmopolitian milieu? I read Vanity Fair in HS, left me cold, read again in college and laughed my *** off, all the way through.
    For myself as a writer, Ilike to throw in just a general scene-setting, not more than a sentence or two: “dressed in rough work clothes”, or “arrayed in a bronze-silk gown made in the latest fashion,” or “poorly dressed and with the faint stink of drink about him”. Just a quick description with one or two telling details, and then on with the story.
    On the other hand, I do like to go all purple-prosy in describing the landscape, or the weather.

    • In describing costumes and room decor, the matter of fashion arises. For historical settings (or mock historical, cultures clearly intended to be derived from Terran historical cultures) detail may be useful. For contemporary cultures, exquisite detail may be appropriate (think James Bond’s & Travis McGee’s affinity for brand names.) But in projecting into the future, excessive detail might well prove very very embarrassing, because you’re extrapolating and run the risk of events overtaking you.

  10. pohjalainen

    I have a weak spot for things like descriptions of the heroine’s clothes, providing it’s not done more than occasionally in a story. But I do love these ‘shimmery green silk embroided in gold thread’ bits when they are included in something like a description of how she enters the ball room – and it does not hurt if some of the other ladies’ gowns get bit parts too. Or the gentlemens’ outfits, especially if it’s a period or world where male styles go for peacocking.

    And looks, especially if the character is supposed to be attractive, well, I do like some bits of in what way to be included. Even if it turns out that the writer (or POV character) and I have different ideas of what might make a character look stunning.

    These are not, of course, absolutely necessary or anything, I can enjoy a story with sparse description as well, but as long as the writer doesnt’ go overboard with it I do like them. But I guess I mostly just like detailed descriptions of something attractive, when it comes to ugly you can skip the details.

    I don’t know, maybe the sparse style is after all a better bet. While I’m probably not the only person who enjoys clothes, landscapes, buildings or anything else pretty -description p*rn, more people perhaps can get into a story with less of it, where they can fill in the blanks according to their personal preferences.

    • Contrast two movies:

      Gone With The Wind, when, the night before we saw Rhett carry Scarlett up the stairs and we now see her in her bed, dressed in a morning gown and singing, She wept with delight when he gave her a smile, and trembled with fear at his frown.’ Now I don’t know about you, but my mind simply tells me that she had a good time.

      The remake of The Thomas Crowne Affair which has a prolonged wild sex scene on a marble stair case. I am sorry, all I could think was marble is cold. Marble is hard. Marble is very cold and very hard.

  11. I thought it was ‘Never let them catch you acting,’ but The Spouse says it goes this way:

    Burt Reynolds: I’m an actor, sir.

    Spencer Tracey: Don’t let them catch you.

    Anyrate, Heinlein did not let you catch him info-dump.

  12. I read Pride and Prejudice before I hit puberty so it is still my all time favorite book along with Shakespeare’s Hamlet as my all time favorite stage play. I was also an odd child. My mother had all the stageplays “Oklahoma, Caurasel) that she had been in while she was young.
    I was reading stage directions and enjoyed the intricacies of imagination that many folks don’t know or understand today.

    I think the world is to visual. The other senses are ignored. … the point? I was getting there. I learned to love the written word better than movies or TVs. I do watch crime dramas nowadays so that I can get the heck with today’s storytelling, but I am not enamoured of it. I still love reading Jane Austen’s works.


    • I really did not complain when The Daughter decided she liked North by Northwest when she was three.