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Picturing a World

Descriptive world building

For our town's movie club, I've begun James Monaco's How to Read a Film. It bristles with ideas, and here's one that set me thinking: "Since the days of Daniel Defoe, one of the primary functions of the novel, as of painting, was to communicate a sense of other places and people. By the time of Sir Walter Scott, this travelogue service had reached its zenith. After that, as first still, then motional picture photography began to perform this function, the scenic and descriptive character of the novel declined" (p. 57).

Twenty years ago, my husband I had the good fortune to be shown through an exhibition, Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown by art historian, Janice Simon. As I remember, this painting by Church was the first item on display, and it's enormous—4 feet wide, 7 feet high. You could stand all day in front of it looking at detail after detail. And that, said Prof. Simon, was exactly the point in the 19th C. People wanted to move through it slowly, bit by bit, as a way of traveling to the Holy Land imaginatively. (Click on the image above to get a bigger view or go to Wikipedia Commons for an even larger zoom version.)
Abridged editions of the classics often cut out description as a way of shortening novels and bringing them closer to modern taste. Writing classes routinely warn against describing too much. And yet, in a way, a tolerance for description—no, an appetite for it—hangs on in the community for speculative and historical fiction. World building may not appeal to everyone, but it appeals strongly to those who love to be transported to alternative universes, magical adventures, or the real past as a living place.

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