I recently finished reading Moby Dick. I hadn’t read it back in high school, so I decided to challenge myself with Herman Mellville’s classic. Now I am glad it is done–it was a tough read, and in places not too entertaining. But I did learn a lot about how not to write a novel, besides all I could ever want to know about 19th century whaling.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this was a good book. The story of mad Captain Ahab and his doomed quest to kill the White Whale is phenomenal. The writing is beautiful and there are times that the work feels almost like a horror novel, with all the signs and portents and strange things that happen. There are some hints of humor as well, although I’m sure if I lived in the 19th century rather than the 21st I’d find them that much funnier.
But those strengths do not make up for the fact that the book could have easily been half its 521 page length. There were vast sections about all the minutia of 19th century whaling, from the tools to the process of stripping whale blubber to the scientific classification of whales (where the author argued that they are indeed fish). There really was no need for ALL of that detail. A modern author would have probably injected these sections into the narrative itself, rather than devoting entire chapters to them, seemingly separate from the plot itself. It occurred to me that this style might have been the intent of the author; namely, that you were to imagine yourself sitting in some smoky tavern, nursing a beerstein and listening to Ishmael unravel his tale in person. It certainly took the meandering path that characterizes a verbal narration, as if the reader interjected questions and got old Ishmael off on a tangent that lasted about fifty pages.
While that sort of thing might have worked back in the day, I don’t think that leisurely approach to writing works very well in the modern world. Modern readers have a lot of things vying for their attention, and if you’re going to go on a twenty-five page tangent about how trade routes brought tobacco to such and such a fantasy land from another fantasy land, I’m pretty certain that your reader is going to opt for something slightly less painful. Books these days, especially in genre fiction, have to be lean and mean.
It isn’t that you CAN’T include a tangent about tobacco or whale classifications, but that it damned well better be directly relevant to the plot. If your character is involved in that industry, it’s perfectly okay to include those details. But keep in mind that most modern stories are told from the character’s perspective, not as the character narrating to the reader directly. So if they are a part of the industry, they’re not going to be thinking as they work: “Well okay this is step by step how to skin a whale”. You might get away with something like that if the character is new to the job, but again that has to be somehow relevant to the plot. If it doesn’t move the plot forward, it has no business being there. That is this writer’s opinion, at least.