Monday, 26 April 2010

Too Much Information?


A work colleague once startled me by saying that he judged a novel by how much he learned from it, in terms of information that he hadn’t previously known. He felt that he didn’t have much time to invest in reading fiction, and so he wanted an extra dividend, apart from the pleasure of the narrative. This way of looking at reading fiction had never occurred to me before, but I’ve thought of it many times since.

Lately, I’ve been reminded of it while reading a new book by Stephen Booth, Lost River. This is the latest entry in a highly successful series set in Derbyshire’s Peak District, and I shall review it another day. But what struck me very forcibly when reading it – especially the first half of the book – was how much factual information was crammed into it.

So, among many other things, I learned the name of the man who invented custard, tit-bits about Ozzy Osbourne’s early days in Birmingham, and quite a lot of information about present day computer games.

I found this interesting, partly because some of the detail was fascinating, but also because there is an authorial judgment to be made about how much trivia to include in a novel. Some writers hardly bother with it all, others take a different approach. The exact balance inevitably varies, depending on the type of story - for instance, Kate Ellis's novels, although contemporary, offer a good deal of insight into history and archaeology. In my own books, I do include quite a bit of background information (for instance, about second hand bookselling in The Serpent Pool), but I tend to be anxious about the need to keep the narrative pace going and so I restrict the supplementary material to stuff that is directly relevant to the story-line.

Judging by my colleague’s comment, though, some writers may be missing a trick. Perhaps there is an increasing demand among some readers for information as well as narrative in a novel. Is this the case? Or can there sometimes be too much information? I would be glad to learn the views of those visit this blog.

19 comments:

seana said...

I had a very related conversation just a few days ago with one of my coworkers about this very subject. She was complaining about a book she'd recently read by a favorite author, but she was disappointed by how much information she tried to pack into it. We then got on to talking about Linda Fairstein's mysteries and turned out to have diametrically opposed views. She was very much of the Too Much Information view, while I personally find her historical researchings on New York to be one of her strengths. In general I don't tend to require a lot of info from fiction, I do enjoy it when it's written well.

Jerry House said...

Story first. Background is very important but should not overwhelm either the story or the characters.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - That's a very interesting question, and one that I think many authors face. I know I do. I've heard from some folks that they enjoy learning a lot of new information as they read. I've heard from others that they're much more interested in the plot of the story. My personal experience is that there is such a thing as too much information. I confess I can't quantify what "too much" is, but when the amount of information given distracts readers from the plot, that's too much.

Lourdes said...

I wouldn't say I judge a book by how much I learn, but I do like to be transported somewhere else, and love to learn about other places or other eras through fiction. On the other hand, I'm reading a book now that has a lot of medical information. A lot. I could do without some of it!

lyn said...

I enjoy background information as long as it doesn't slow up the pace, especially in crime novels. I love the archaeology & history in Kate Ellis's books & I always like reading about bookselling, arsenic or cipher gardens in your books. I read quite a bit of non-fiction too so I'm used to gathering information from my reading. I don't stop learning just because I'm reading a novel.

Minnie said...

Very interesting question, Martin. And - again, albeit at the risk of sounding like a cop-out (sic!) - it's a matter of taste. My predilection is much as your colleague's: plenty of info plus telling me a good story. It could be an intro. to a new world/ethnic community(ies), as in the late & Shiva Naipaul's superb 'Fireflies' & 'The Chip Chip Gatherers' or it could be about England's tussles with post-revolutionary France, mutinies and armaments deployed plus some legal history, as in Rose Melikan's excellent series. And, yes, I loved the bookselling details in your own more recent work ...
Some readers get impatient with the detail, preferring pace, plot & people. I love all those done well - but I want lots of background, too.
However, the more copious the detail the more likely are contentions & criticisms. And get one or two points wrong, & you've lost this type of questing reader.
Minefield!

Fiona said...

Another here who thinks it's a question of balance. I dislike reading a novel with a theme that the author has clearly mugged up and feels s/he has to include everything learned, probably because it will never be used again - or even remembered - once the book has been published! I do like books with a background unfamiliar to me, as long as I don't get information overload. Perhaps the balance is best handled when an author knows the subject well enough not to require research from scratch.

Dorte H said...

Fine questions.

I have read the four first Booth novels and enjoyed them very much. Besides, he has never seemed to me as someone who wants to show off his knowledge about this and that. The Danish writer Peter Høgh is regarded as supercilious by many readers because he seems to try to impress them by cramming too much special knowledge into his books.

In fact I struggled with this problem yesterday. I am revising a Danish novel, and in one of the scenes I wondered whether my readers really wanted to know all this about Småland and genealogy. I thought about it for some time and made up my mind that all the readers who praise series like yours for their strong sense of setting etc would probably also like these few pages about Anna´s search for her own roots.

Linda P said...

It depends, as a reader, what I want from a particular genre. With a contemporary crime novel I want to know about police procedure, the political subtleties of the police and law professions and something about the wider culture in which it is set. However, for me, the psychology of the characters through inner thoughts, speech and actions is more important than too much information which can get in the way of pace. If I come across certain new information I usually go and research this some more after I have read the novel. It's good to have some extra notes from the author if certain aspects are vital to the novel. (With an historical novel I expect quite a lot of notes from the writer's research).
I recently read a much anticipated novel by a past favourite, respected writer, but got bogged down by the vast amount of information that I felt had a didactic tone).
I am enjoying your writing style, Martin! Thank you.

Jilly said...

For me any background information gained from fiction is a bonus but I wouldn't say it was essential. It is interesting to learn things from reading fiction - for example Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins eries and the Church of England; Susan Howatch's Starbridge novels and the same institution; Kate Ellis's archaeology and history as you mentioned

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

But I always wonder what's truth and what's fiction in these books! I guess I should just assume that whatever's not directly wound up in the story narrative is a truth (when it mentions something like a well-known person, etc.), but I don't....I'm kind of suspicious of the info because it's in a novel.

Interesting question, Martin! I'm tweeting this.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

Paul Beech said...

Martin – I recently read and enjoyed Robert Barnard’s ‘A Fall From Grace,’ and it was nice to see that it’s still possible to publish a perfectly crafted crime novel of little more than 200 pages despite the trend – discussed in your blog a little while ago – towards greater and greater bulk. My feeling is that a novel should be as long as it needs to be for a satisfying read and no longer.

We live in the so-called ‘Information Age’ with instant access to knowledge through the web and many good readable books on every subject. So do we really need great slabs of info’ cramming and clogging the pages of fiction? Literary obesity is surely no more appealing than other forms and larding a novel with unnecessary verbiage, factual or fictional, is plain bad writing.

My view is that the only factual material included should be that which genuinely serves or enriches the story in some way, and this should be integrated with the narrative so deftly as to be almost subliminal and certainly without loss of pace. Of course accuracy is vital too as nothing ruins a novel like some horrendous howler.

In your Lake District mysteries, I think you’ve got it about right.

Regards, Paul

Patti said...

What I like is learning about a new place. So I am very attracted to books set in other countries. I will admit that reading about the making of gloves in Philip Roth's American Pastoral did hold my interest. And the skill of a writer in weaving it in is essential.

Maxine said...

I find this a fascinating question, but very hard to answer in a general sense.
I like books that don't pack in information in an obvious sense, but convey it in passing, as it were. For example, I enjoy reading fiction written by authors from different countries to where I live, and I learn a lot about those countries in the process. However, I don't feel that the books have to be packed with info in order for an authentic sense of place and atmosphere to be conveyed. A reader can pick up a lot from an understated novel, and yet be overwhelmed by too many details in another one.

Martin Edwards said...

I've found all your comments very thought-provoking and helpful. Rather than respond with a further comment, I shall write another blog post on this subject quite soon. In the meantime, thanks very much, and any additional observations will again be gratefully received!

Michael Walters said...

I've found this a fascinating discussion. It's a question that vexes me a lot, given that I write about a location and culture that's likely to be unfamiliar to the vast majority of readers. As others have said, it's a question of balance. I suppose my (attempted) solution is to try to incorporate the background into the plot as much as possible - that is, to have a good reason for giving the reader the information at that point, rather than just offloading my research. I also find that my initial draft contains a lot more background which I tend to trim as I revise (as I work out what the reader will want to know, as opposed to what I feel like telling them!). Look forward to your next post on the subject, Martin.

sue rosly said...

In Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein where the New York Public Library is the background,I switched off when some of the characters started speaking like guide/history books. It was unconvincing and irritating. Whole slabs of text were devoted to the history of Library and it was too much ... I do think that while Ms Fairstein's research is very interesting it overwhelms the book. (And this isn't the first of her books where this happens.) On the other hand, Linda Fairstein's love of New York shines through every book she writes and she makes me long to see New York. Trouble is I am not reading her books to find out about New York, I can do that elsewhere.

I guess it's all a question of balance.

Sue

Martin Edwards said...

Michael and Sue, many thanks - I'm delighted by the responses to this post.

bookwitch said...

You don't want to feel that the writer is showing off.

I once went to an author event in a bookshop where the author went so far as to lecture us on how to read books and how to analyse them! I wonder if he thought he was talking to Year 7 in a school. Never read his books, so don't know if he preaches there, too.