Recently I read an article called Let’s Get Specific by Beth Johnson (not against my will in any way, shape, or form). Throughout the article, the author provides two different paragraphs/ excerpts and asks the reader to choose their favorite. The first was always dry, providing little to no evidence to back any claims. They told the reader what happened in the simplest way possible. The second example always went into detail, providing examples, anecdotes, and other concrete details. She concluded that the reader would choose the second one, as it always provided the reader with all the details they needed. The reader doesn’t have to fill in the gaps his or herself, making it a more relaxing and informative experience.
However, upon reading chapters 1-4 of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, I realized that there was another end of the spectrum. Sometimes a writer can go too into detail or inundate the reader with vague imagery that forces them to focus even harder on the text.
“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.” (Page 1)
This description helps the reader see what Steinbeck wanted them to, but it is an extremely painful read and unnecessarily confusing terminology to paint the picture. Terms like ‘red country’ and ‘grey country’ are vague and force the reader to imagine what Steinbeck is referring to. Other lines aren’t as bad like “a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet,” but it still forces the reader to go back and search for the word ‘corn’ before continuing. This normally wouldn’t be an immense task, but the entire paragraph is a maze of nonessential description that you have to sort through.
If it is extremely important to paint a vivid picture, using lines like this are useful, fully explaining what exactly was going on. However, this line is found in a relatively unimportant paragraph. It doesn’t describe the dust bowl, the focus of the story, and it doesn’t have a significant impact on it. As a reader, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking ,”Ok, Steinbeck, that’s great. But why am I supposed to care?” He continues to use pointlessly vague language like:
“And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward.” (Page 1)
Again, I found myself wondering the same thing. Why must I waste my time reading about erect corn that slowly weakened? I can visualize it better, but is it truly worth it? This is the beginning of the story, a time where I’ll either be hooked or want to pick up a different book. Displaying a weird corn fetish isn’t something I’m going to stick around for.
I personally love description, don’t get me wrong. Reading about beautiful landscapes, elaborate mansions, and a glowing sunset can set the mood and provide interesting insight. There is a time and place for vivid details, and a cornfield isn’t one of them. I know what a cornfield looks like. I know what a sunset looks like. I know how clouds can act. That information is neither relevant nor impactful.