Friday, June 10, 2011

Less is More in Elgin Park, and in Writing

Heather Cox Richardson

Michael Paul Smith has been described as the “Mayor of Elgin Park,” a town he has created entirely through photographs posted on the internet. Elgin Park is a town in the American Midwest, constructed as if it were the 1950s, without any inhabitants. In the photographs visible on the web, it appears to be a real town. But Elgin Park exists only in pixels.

My first reaction to the models created by Mr. Smith was to be a bit creeped out. The recreation of a “perfect” model of an imaginary idyllic past, documented in photographs, seems too close for comfort to the world of History as Fantasy that historians so abhor.

But looking at Mr. Smith as an artist rather than looking at his art as historical representation offers an interesting perspective on writing history.

Mr. Smith explains that he works hard to make sure he does not provide too much information in his images. He leaves room for the viewer to project himself or herself into the photograph, using his or her own eyes and emotions to fill in details.
“Things visually ‘read’ better when the amount of information is kept in check,” Mr. Smith notes. “The brain / eye / emotions will fill in the details, even when there is minimum amount of data available. On the other hand, there can be too much information. When that happens, you end up with a literal representation of something and very little room for personal interpretation. The more the viewer can project themselves into something, the more powerful it becomes.”

This struck a chord with me because it is precisely what my wonderful editor hammered home when we worked together on a recent project. She insisted on chopping all my sentences in half. While I worried the resulting simplicity would insult readers by suggesting I thought they were stupid, she held her ground and told me the book itself read better with very simple prose. I came—eventually—to see that long complicated sentences and drawn out paragraphs commandeer all a reader’s attention, making him or her work at deciphering the mechanics of the prose. This can be useful if the writer’s idea is to focus, as certain theoreticians do, on words and their meaning. But for historians exploring other aspects of our field, it serves no real purpose. With complicated writing, a story never comes to life. Instead, it sits stubbornly on the page, imprisoned in a tangle of words.

Simple sentences, like Mr. Smith’s uncluttered images, free a reader’s mind to fill in the ideas and the emotions of a story.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House books, was a master of creating evocative scenes with very simple sentences. Here, for example, she describes a department store in Dakota Territory:

The inside of the store was all new, and still smelled of pine shavings. It had, too, the faint starchy smell of bolts of new cloth. Behind two long counters, all along both walls ran long shelves, stacked to the ceiling with bolts of muslin and calicoes and lawns, challis and cashmeres and flannels and even silks.

There were no groceries, and no hardware, no shoes or tools. In the whole store there was nothing but dry goods. Laura had never before seen a store where nothing was sold but dry goods.

At her right hand was a short counter-top of glass, and inside it were cards of all kinds of buttons, and papers of needles and pins. On the counter beside it, a rack was full of spools of thread of every color. Those colored threads were beautiful in the light from the windows. (Little Town on the Prairie, 1941, p. 48).

In ten sentences, she suggests the look and feel of a brand new store, the excitement it generates, and the isolation and poverty in which Laura has always lived. Wilder has left room for her readers to imagine the scene, rather than forcing us to use all our mental energy on her prose.

While a simple style is certainly not the only way to write evocatively, it is one that historians, especially beginning historians, should not shun in the fear that they will look stupid if they don’t write in tangles. As Mr. Smith says, less can often be more.


M said...

What a great post and comparison! Your thoughts reminded me of a theory presented by art historian/critic Michael Ann Holly. She discuss how works of art dictate their own art historical writing. In other words, a complex artistic composition prompts art historians to write about that artistic piece with more complex sentence structures and language. I wonder if the same thing could be said for historical writing in general (i.e. complex historical events and ideas encourage complex historical writing structure)? It's a really interesting idea. I think any art historian who writes about Smith's work would be prompted to write in a more simple format.

Overall, I completely agree with you in regards to historical writing. Less is often more.

dan allosso said...

I recently found a photo of one of the brothers of one of the principal characters in a story I'm writing now. My first reaction was, "dang! So close. Why couldn't it have been..." Then I noticed that the image came alongside a comment that this guy looked very much like his father. So I've got a photo I can use to describe a familial face in detail, and still leave the reader to imaging what the main character looked like.

Jill Lepore said something at a talk recently, about how when she was planning Blindspot, it struck her how as a historian she had often been blind to faces. But I don't think that means our readers are, if we write for the public. They've probably been filling in the details for generations, even when historians were leaving them out inadvertently, rather than on purpose.

Yvonne Perkins said...

I like how you describe complicated writing, "it sits stubbornly on the page, imprisoned in a tangle of words". While simple sentences might look exactly that, it takes great skill to communicate deep and perhaps complex ideas in this way. There are times when complex sentences are needed. There are also different types of audiences who need to be communicated to in different ways. But I feel that at times some academic writing is poor because the style of writing is a needless barrier to understanding the idea the writer is trying to convey.

It is one thing to write simply but another to raise the simple writing to beautiful prose. Writing theses or journal articles does not seem to give the historian this opportunity as the focus is on developing argument, persuading the reader and then hammering the point home in a concise manner. In my mind the ideal in historical writing is to make the prose sing at the same time as developing a persuasive argument. But I don't see how this type of writing can be churned out when facing tight deadlines.