The devil’s in the detail 2: overdoing it

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, but I’ve been reading a book recently that is one of those set partially in the modern day and partially in a historical period and it was the historical bit that got me reading it in the first place. I often can’t see what the modern sections of such books add – Birdsong is a case in point, I felt it would have worked equally well without the sections set in 1978. This is perhaps less true of the book I’ve been reading, but what I’ve found irritates me about it is that it’s so damn referential. It’s set in 2004, which is presumably when the author was writing it, and it’s full of references to celebrities, to television programmes, what was going on in Iraq at the time, the US presidential election etc etc, and in ten years time no one’s going to get half of it, and will probably skip through most of it. It almost seems as if the author has been desperately trying to squeeze as much detail about modern life into it as possible, and I can’t help but feel that we’re supposed to sit there in admiration thinking, gosh how clever.

But you can have too much detail; it can get in the way of the story. And if, in ten years time a reader is going to need to google (or equivalent) several times a paragraph to understand what all the references mean, or who the people are, the book’s in trouble. But it’ll be a stalwart of English lit classes.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use detail as a metaphor for something else – If I were saying that I’d be a bit of hypocrite, and when it comes to writing, I’m a great believer that nothing is wrong. But if the detail becomes the point, then where’s the plot?

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