13 April 2023

The Point of Description

So I took a pic of this last week during a birthday trip to the SouthWest:

For those of you not familiar with this particular formation, it is the famous Calico Hills, which form the heart of the box canyon exhibit known as Red Rocks Canyon. It’s administered by the Bureau of Land Management, not either the National Parks or Forest Service, and at a mere 15 minute drive from downtown Las Vegas, it’s one of the best kept secrets in the western hemisphere. And while there are for  many rock formations and trails worth your time at Red Rock, the Calico Hills themselves stand out for having served as the setting in countless movies. Lots of fake gun fights on those clay and sandstone hills.

Now, what I wrote above could be construed as a "description" of the Calico Hills, although it's light on physical description and heavy on associations (historical, bureaucratic, etc.). A physical description would of course have more details about what the subject matter looked like, etc., rather than who ran it, how close it is to Vegas, and so on.

Of course the requirements of good description arise from the needs of the story itself. If it's a think piece about the many iterations of the notion of "description," clinical and bureaucratic lend themselves well to it. If the writer of the piece is attempting to convey how just viewing the subject of the description  could move him to uncharacteristic tears, then obvious the esoteric, the mystical, the mythopoetic. Like this piece:

The walls of the cañon, 2,500 feet high, are of marble, of many beautiful colors, often polished below by the waves…. As this great bed forms a distinctive feature of the cañon, we call it Marble Cañon.

written in an attempt to convey the impact of this to readers back East:

The words, of course, are those of John Wesley Powell, the intrepid leader of the first government expedition to navigate the length of the Grand Canyon. The pics are mine.

As I have mulled the sheer utility of different types of opinion, how they work and why they frequently don't, I have found myself asking, now, more than ever, what is the point of description? And by point I mean, what is its role, what is its intent, what is the desired outcome of a literarily well described person place or thing?

How much do we as the readers need to know about the face of Bartleby, the Scrivener, in order to advance the plots of the stories in which he appears? The same can be (and shall be) asked of Gatsby's (in)famous East and West Egg? Arthur's Camelot? Kublai Khan's Xanadu?

The answers may surprise you. I intend to dig into several of these individual pieces of the Literary Canon (and others as well). If you have a famous literary character/setting you would like  seeing tossed in to the mix for a literary "check up," drop that name into the comments section below.

I'll also add my own "villains place," and we can pursue further discussion from there.

And that's it for me. 

As always, See you in two weeks!


  1. From Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop", one of the best descriptions of mesa country:
    "After early Mass the next morning Father Latour and his guide rode off across the low plain that lies between Laguna and Ácoma. In all his travels the Bishop had seen no country like this. From the flat red sea of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals. They were not crowded together in disorder, but placed in wide spaces, long vistas between. This plain might once have been an enormous city, all the smaller quarters destroyed by time, only the public buildings left--piles of architecture that were like mountains. The sandy soil of the plain had a light sprinkling of junipers, and was splotched with masses of blooming rabbit brush--that olive-coloured plant that grows in high waves like a tossing sea, at this season covered with a thatch of bloom, yellow as gorse, or orange like marigolds...
    Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Ácoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it, or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour, sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an Oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave."

  2. Tough question, Brian! I think I was more aware of place as a young reader. Tom Sawyer's cave felt real. I half-remember several sci-fi stories that struck me, but I'd start with the masters, Jules Verne (say 20,000 Leagues) and H.G. Wells (probably The Time Machine). I felt at home with much of Michael Crichton. I still believe everything Fritz Leiber told me.

    My parents read us a number of children's stories and my impression is they writers wrote child descriptions with a deft hand. I wanted to visit The Swiss Family Robinson island, despite them serving up a dozen (it seemed) repasts a day. They weren't about to starve.

    In the mystery genre, I feel I'd instantly recognize Sherlock Holmes' sitting room, and I enjoyed the setting of The Moonstone and any number of gothic mysteries.

    But nothing strikes me as more descriptive than the classic writers of horror. Poe, Lovecraft, Onions, Gilman… they are hard to beat.

    Commanding photos, Brian, beautifully done.


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