Less is More. Or is it?

I read a meritorious review of a novel in a national newspaper recently, which highlighted how in a single sentence the novelist describes a character’s worn trousers as containing “the urine he couldn’t cut off due to the cold, the semen from his last wet dream, cocoa spilled from the day before, snot he’d rubbed off, pus from his skin ulcers, blood from popped leeches, and homesick tears that he’d wiped away.”

Getting over my initial reaction, which was “Gross!” I pondered this passage at length, to figure out why the writer of today needs to provide so much detail, when we have been always prodded by the maxim of “less is more”.

I then tried to write the sentence the way Hemingway, that old master of the “clipped style” would have written it (and re•written it umpteen times, as he was known to do). Old Papa may have gone something like “and his soiled trousers were layered with the flotsam of life.” How would I have written it? Being a Hemingway acolyte, I may have tried, “His unwashed pants were full of crap.”

How much description does today’s average time•strapped reader with a diminishing attention span need? Does semen, pus, piss, blood and other bodily emissions shock us into paying attention? Do we need to be reminded of people we are not, in order to be curious enough to read on? Are we moving into a more sensory stage of literature, where not only dialogue, actions and narrative, but smells, sounds, discharges and other internal workings have to be turned inside out to engage us?

I was even more perplexed after reading that book review, and I tried to re•write some of my sentences in this new format. Here’s what I came up with as a sampler:
Original: “He wolfed down his breakfast and quickly exited the diner.”
Revised: “He stuffed pancakes into his cavernous mouth, syrup dripping down his lower lip; bacon bits crunched between his teeth and spewed on his neighbour as he tried talking at the same time. He choked on the last mouthful before spitting it back into his plate, where it sat in an unrecognizable gooey paste. He wiped his mouth with an already soiled napkin, smearing his face, threw his cutlery down with a loud clatter, belched into his hapless neighbour’s ear, and departed with a loud fart that filled the diner with the aroma of an undigested human mash•up of bacon, eggs, coffee, maple syrup, buckwheat, baked beans and strawberry yoghurt.”

Okay, I stopped at this point even though I could have waxed un•poetically on the description of that hurried meal, enough to fill a couple more pages, or until I had spewed out my own breakfast from being sickened by my own writing. Gross is addictive. For now, I think I am sticking to “less is more,” bland though my writing would be.

How would you have written that passage?

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