In Praise of the Overwritten
I’ve noticed a trend in online reviews recently, in which reviewers criticize books for being “overwritten,” for having flowery prose, for being too descriptive or too lyrical. As a lover of this kind of writing, I find myself mystified, and a little perturbed, that so many people seem to treat the overwritten not as a matter of personal taste, but as an objective flaw.
There are a million ways to write a book, a thousand and more prose styles. Some people like direct, straightforward, to-the-point writing. Some people like prose that’s funny, familiar, and inviting. Some people like plot-focused prose, and others like books full of long passages that linger on characters’ inner lives. If you don’t like lyrical books, or books that are full of description, that’s just fine. To every book its reader. I’m not here to criticize anyone’s personal taste or to convince you to like something you don’t like. Beautiful writing is, by definition, subjective.
But I do take offense at this word “overwritten,” and I must push back against the notion that books with this kind of prose are somehow objectively bad.
On the one hand, I can understand where some of the criticism comes from. Literary fiction (a term and a classification I hate and would like to go away forever, but that’s another essay) has a reputation for being dry and boring. It’s the sort of writing so many of us were forced to read in school — the realm of dead white men, a genre that seems to still live in the popular consciousness as pretentious, unrelatable, and impenetrable. Of course, literary fiction, for lack of a better term, encompasses so much more than this. But I get the frustration that comes from years and years of one kind of book (i.e. classics) being valued, in certain bookish circles, over other kinds of books (i.e. romance, sci-fi). It’s exhausting and infuriating. And so it’s easy — and extremely satisfying — to use words like “overwritten” to describe books that trip over themselves in their gleeful use of language. It’s a signal, maybe, to readers who don’t want to read that kind of book, to stay away. Enter at your own risk: page-long paragraphs and sentences stacked with endless clauses of intricate detail. Okay, fair.
But where does this word, overwritten, come from? And why must we criticize books for their prose, instead of simply expressing a preference? Maybe I’m too soft. In the years since reviewing books has become part of my day job, I’ve become less and less interested in criticizing them. It’s not that I love every book I read, or that I think every book is good. And it’s not that thoughtful criticism has no place in conversations about books and art. It absolutely does. I have complicated, contradictory, critical thoughts about books all the time. When something doesn’t work for me, I’m not afraid to mention it. But I’ll be honest: these days, I find critiquing books for their prose…well, boring.
Books are not real life. They’re made of language. So what’s wrong with books that go wild with it, that revel in it, that are stylistic and purposely artful? Give me all the flowing sentences. Give me the books that go on and on about the texture of bark on a tree, the shade of blue in a winter sky, the scent of a pie your mother used to make in childhood, one that you remember every fall when the air turns crisp. Give me twisting, churning, tangled descriptions of internal turmoil, pages and pages of it, no room to breathe, characters who think and think and think, every thought inked onto the page. Give me meandering descriptions, a whole page that tumbles off into some minor character’s backstory. Give me words and words and words, sentences like music, sentences aware of themselves and their rhythm, sentences that exist because they can, because what a marvel it is to string words together like this into meaning, to surprise and unsettle with imagery, to read a book that sings.
My love for this kind of writing is a preference. I also love books that are opposite of lyrical and descriptive: funny, stark prose, prose that is anything but artful, fast-paced action-centered prose, prose that simply tells it like it is, no frills, no flowers. The kinds of books I’ve seen described as overwritten — Real Life, Cantoras, and The Goldfinch, to name a few — are not better than books I love for other reasons. They are wordy, and I love words! There’s room for all kinds of prose, and all kinds of stories. Isn’t that fabulous? Can’t we just celebrate that?
I am not asking anyone to love the books I love. I am simply asking all of us to stop using this strange word, overwritten. Let prose be grandiose and maudlin if it wants to be. Let books describe emotions and memories and landscapes in more detail than anyone in real life ever would. It’s not an inherently bad thing. It’s just one way, out of millions, to write.