Max J Friedländer

I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).

Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”.  Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”.  The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.

The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon,  amongst other guides:

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”

It wasn’t always thus.  Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories  to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of  dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field.  You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).

Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.

Or maybe not.  You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves.  Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall.  The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.

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