On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org
Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?

22 thoughts on “On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes”

  1. That’s disappointing to hear about Jamaica Inn; like yourself, I’m a great Daphne du Maurier fan. I read the novel in my teens during the family holiday in Cornwall, and we made a point of going to the real Jamaica Inn, which still stands (or still stood then, anyway). I was looking for to the BBC series coming across here to the US in due course.

    Oh, well. I guess I’d better dig out my dusty copy of the 1939 Hitchcock movie. (If by any chance you don’t know it, there’s a copy on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/Jamaica_Inn.)

    1. I remember watching the Hitchcock version as a child – I don’t think it’s a very faithful adaptation, but he did seem to have an innate understanding of the darker side of du Maurier, didn’t he? (He filmed quite a lot of her work).

  2. Marina Sofia – Oh, that’s an interesting question! Does atmosphere and beautiful prose make up for a very slow pace? Honestly, I don’t think so. Like you, I believe that an excellent story is much more than just a series of events. But the real interest in a story (for me anyway) is the interactions among characters as well as a the setting, context and so on. A book with too much self-gazing just doesn’t hold my interest.

    1. Exactly – I can suspend disbelief and put up with some implausibility or even silliness if the characters and the story grab me, or if there is a distinctive voice at work there.

  3. “Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary” Very good point 🙂 This is something Eleanor Catton spoke about when she was here on campus. She said one of her objectives with The Luminaries was to create a piece of literary fiction that was plot and action-based. She spoke about how, in her opinion, most literary fiction nowadays takes place in the lull after something dramatic has happened or before it’s meant to happen, rather than dealing with the drama itself. I’m not sure I entirely agree with her, but it’s an interesting point.

    1. I haven’t read The Luminaries yet, so I can’t tell how well she has succeeded in this, but I think that’s a fair point – and a praiseworthy undertaking.

  4. I also abandoned Jamaica Inn after the first episode and for similar reasons – shooting something in the pitch dark and having the actors mumble incomprehensibly while gazing moodily at each other might create atmosphere, but doesn’t create enjoyment – at least not in this viewer! As far as books go, I can take a reasonable amount of ‘literary’ writing amidst the action, but there must be action and characterisation too. Your point about the greats is well-taken – so many of the lengthy books that come out now are compared to Dickens, but don’t have his contrasts of light and shade, comedy and tragedy, to hold the interest for the length.

    1. Oh, good, not just me being pernickety then… I still feel guilty when I abandon a TV series or a book half-way through. But I’m getting better at it in my old age – maybe because I feel I no longer have the time to waste on things I don’t enjoy!

  5. These days I watch pretty zilch on TV, not even the News, although I occasionally indulge in watching some films on Arte, German or French; however I have been wondering for some time on the effect of the visual “arts” on writing. What you suggest about the Nordic crime wave and its influence is probably true: all gloom and little real action! So we have either outrageous US productions such as The Wolf of Wall street, or “smoke and mirrors”? What a fate!

    1. Goodness, I hope not – but you are right about the visual opulence and over-the-top nature of productions such as The Wolf of Wall Street (or the most recent incarnation of The Great Gatsby for that matter).

  6. I really want it all, good writing, mood and plot. Dust, reminds me of this poem:

    The Invasion

    A milky way of dust
    makes morning constellations
    on a nebula of light
    beamed from my bedroom window

    Like thousands of parachutes
    abandoning ship
    they spin down in torrential orbits
    landing on dressers
    the bookcase and chair
    setting up colonies
    to plague me

  7. Thanks so much for linking my post! 🙂

    You managed to explain what it was about the BBC mini series that I couldn’t put my finger on! All atmosphere but no content.

    1. You had a much more nuanced review of it – I lost patience and didn’t want to watch the remaining episodes, but yes, it was not the Jamaica Inn I knew and loved from the book.

  8. Atmosphere is good, only if it is driving the story forward. Staring vaguely does not tend to drive the story forward. I tend to skip over sections like this with tiny details. I prefer these things be told in broad brushstrokes as the driving conflict pushes the story on.

    1. Spot on, thank you so much for your comment. I’ve noticed that difference in atmosphere between ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ writers. For instance, when describing Paris, a foreign writer will use lots of French phrases, spend ages describing the streets, the boulangerie, the cafes and so on. A native writer just takes these things for granted and manages to create the atmosphere with minimal description, and still moving the story forward.

  9. The story and characters have to be engaging, or I just can’t read it. No matter how beautiful the writing is, or how moody the environment 😀

    1. I just saw the start to another TV series last night, which also was in danger of falling into this category. This time it wasn’t moodiness, but too much family stuff and backstory going on… it seemed like an awfully long time to get the story going. I have nothing against a gentler start (both in books and in films), but at times I do lose patience.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.