Why I tried to write like a Victorian novelist
By William Zinsser
September 22, 2017
I don’t enjoy descriptive writing; I was fed too much George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in school. I can take just so much heath and bracken. I also don’t like to write what I don’t like to read, so I reduce my sentences to the minimum number of facts I think a reader would want to know. Readers curious to learn more about what my people look like, or what they are wearing, or what they are eating, will remain curious. There will be no sentences like: “‘I always wanted to be an actress,’ she told me over a lunch of arugula tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, Stilton cheese, and a glass of Sancerre.”
But in 2008, when I wrote a book called Writing Places, which was about the many odd sites where my caravan has stopped, I vowed to do better. A book grounded in the working habitats of a lifelong journalist should at least try—it wouldn’t kill me—to paint a picture of what those places looked like. So I embarked on my Victorian journey.
My first job was at the New York Herald Tribune, and I dutifully described the glorious squalor of its newsroom: “Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks were shoved against each other and were scarred from cigarette burns and mottled with the stains of coffee spilled from a thousand cardboard cups.”
Venturing out into the paper’s urban neighborhood, I recalled the exquisite seediness of Times Square, where, as the paper’s movie critic,
I spent hundreds of hours in smoky screening rooms and then walked back to the Trib building past shooting galleries and X-rated movie arcades and novelty shops, past papaya juice stands and Nedick’s and Bickford’s, past strip clubs and jazz clubs and cheap hotels, past Jack Dempsey’s and the Latin Quarter and the Paramount, where legions of bobbysoxers lined up on the sidewalk for a chance to swoon over Frank Sinatra, and, finally, past the horror-crazed Rialto Theater, at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, which beckoned me with ghoulish posters of monster movies and vampire movies, their titles dripping with blood.
That paragraph left me exhausted, and, as things turned out, it would be the book’s longest chunk of description. In another chapter I recalled the flat in London where I wrote a profile for Life of the newly ascendant movie star Peter Sellers, “my Olivetti perched on a table obviously meant for teacups, my thoughts derailed every morning by a ‘daily’ who came to clean and stayed to talk in a Cockney accent too clotted to disentangle.” That was it; nothing else came to mind that would interest me or anyone else. It now occurs to me that any British novelist would devote an entire page just to the displaced teacups.
Elsewhere in the book I described the shed in Connecticut where I wrote On Writing Well during the summer of 1974,
a wooden outbuilding at the rear edge of our property, next to some woods, that the original family had built in 1916 as a garage: dirt floor, four walls, and a roof. It looked just big enough to hold a 1916-model car. I got a contractor to raise the shed onto cinderblocks, install a plywood floor and a few windows, and run an electrical line from the main house, enabling a light bulb to be suspended from a cord. I put my Underwood typewriter and its green metal table under the light bulb, along with a chair, a wire waste basket, a ream of yellow copy paper, and my Webster’s. A wooden table completed the amenities. Later I bought a large fan; the office became fiercely hot by midafternoon, often requiring me to knock off for a compensating dip in Long Island Sound, which was as cold as the office was hot. Even the jellyfish stayed away until August.
So much for the office where On Writing Well was born.
In the 1970s, moving to Yale as a teacher, I was plunged into “a landscape of fortresses, their lineage descended from the castles and country estates of England, adorned with towers and turrets and moats and gargoyles and gates—a Gothic Disneyland.” When I became master of Branford College at Yale I was not glad to find that my office was directly under Harkness Tower’s 44-bell carillon:
Probably I had heard the carillon from a distance as I walked across the campus and thought of it as mere perfume in the academic air. But that was from a distance. Now, overhead, the giant bells were less euphonious, their tone cloudy and not quite musical. They were also very loud. Nor was there much of a repertory for those bells. Occasionally one of the student carillonneurs, striving for relevance, played a Beatles song, but I don’t think John Lennon would have taken it as a favor.
Of course there was more to be said about what it was like for our family to live in that moated fortress with 400 students, but that was anecdote and social history; no further description needed.
Still, as the book grew, its manuscript pages rising impressively, I was proud of my labors; I told myself I was really writing. But when Writing Places came off the press it was a very small book—small in size and weight and only 192 pages long. It wouldn’t dent the stomach of anyone reading it in bed.
Yet it said everything I wanted to say about my lifelong journey as a writer and a teacher. I didn’t turn into Thackeray after all. I flunked description.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.