By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Baroque writing is like an over-sold Pakistani bus, colorful but impossibly crowded. It arrives at its destination, but could have done so with much greater speed and comfort for all.
Steven Jay Griffel
Mention the word baroque and most people will think of extravagantly ornamented architecture. Some people will identify baroque as a musical style or period.
A very few will say it refers to writing. In this context, baroque generally means excessively descriptive. Of course, prose writers cannot do without description. Description is the mortar that binds most prose writing together. Without description, writers would struggle to create background, character, and action. Description is not only important, it is essential.
So, how does a writer know when a description is excessive? Put another way, how does a writer know when he or she has written too much of a good thing? In a word: moderation.
Every good writer (and reader) owns a sense of balance. It's not an empirical thing, like a pair of weighted scales. It's a talent, natural for some and hard-won by most. Over time, good writers develop a sense of what is spot-on description and what is overkill. Naturally, opinions vary. Still, there are basic warning signs that can help identify baroque writing. If detected early, a reader can put down a baroque novel before too much time has been wasted; a writer can surgically eliminate baroque passages and rehabilitate a story. Here are some basic tell-tale signs of baroque writing:
– many adjectives or adverbs are used when one would do
– metaphors are piled on, obstructing sense
– similes are plied insistently, even when comparison is unnecessary
– rare and exotic words abound
– foreign language phrases confuse rather than clarify
– references (literary, religious, mythic, etc.) are used to the point of distraction
There are no universal standards to judge excessive. What is excessive in one culture might be spare in another. Yesteryear's baroque churches and palaces—edifices of extraordinary magnificence and grandeur—might be considered today as over-the-top bad taste.
It should be pointed out that baroque writing is not necessarily bad writing. In fact, some of it is quite good, even great. How can that be? Doesn't baroque mean excessive? Isn't excessive a bad quality? Again, there are no firm standards. Context is the great arbiter. Context defines boundaries when judging what might be excessive.
Consider the case of the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a product of the effusive Romantic era. Fueled by opium and inspired by dream to write a poem about Xanadu, Kublai Khan's exotic winter palace, he probably had little choice but to use a baroque style. Gustave Flaubert, on the other hand, one of the founders of modern realism, used his famous calculation to create a fitting style of opulence to describe the orgiastic feast that begins his novel Salambo. Regarding what is excessive, it would appear that context, not content, is king.
Of course, sometimes a writer goes for baroque because they're in the mood, even if the context of their work does not seem to demand it.
Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote prose so purple you might think it was the only ink available to him. At its best, William Faulkner's baroque style is pure grandiloquence; at its worst, it's rhetorical balderdash.
For writers who are searching for their own literary voice, I suggest moderation. When a situation or scene calls for exuberant style and detail—go for it! But as a matter of normal style, I believe less is usually more. Try to express yourself as honestly and simply and naturally as possible. If you cannot find the right word—le mot juste, asmade famous by Flaubert—then get as close as possible. Avoid what I call the buckshot approach: the spraying of many words in the general direction of a target, in the hope that a few pellets will hit their mark.
Brevity is the soul of wit. It's also a good mantra for writers to heed to avoid the sin of excess.