Tangents and Pedantic Tendencies in Classic Literature

I’ve noticed that in many pieces of classic literature, the authors tend to go off on long tangents and/or repeat things far too often.

Moby Dick has entire chapters that go off on tangents, i.e. chapter 24, “The Advocate” (Ishmael makes his very long case for being a whale-hunter) and chapter 25, “Postscript” (Ishmael continues to make his case for being a whale-hunter). None of this really forwards the story, although it provides insight into his choice of profession, and it could be done in a much shorter amount of time. This is only one (short) example of a pedantic tangent. Chapter 9, “The Sermon”, is far worse.

Atlas Shrugged has long, repetitive speeches from characters which explain their philosophies three times over, just in case you didn’t get it in the first sentence…or paragraph…or chapter. It also has long, boring descriptions which tend to repeat what has already been said.

Dracula has too many repetitive mentions of people crossing themselves and bad omens, and I’ve only read up to page 20.

While I am massively in favor of descriptions which lend themselves to symbolism, in-depth analysis, and greater, deeper understanding of the work as a whole (or even the author), sometimes there’s simply too much unnecessary description.

Do you think that in most cases, the author is too caught up in trying to make the reader understand his/her point and drive it home? Or do you think this type of description is indeed necessary so that every type of person can grasp the author’s intentions?

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5 comments on “Tangents and Pedantic Tendencies in Classic Literature

  1. 00frog says:

    I feel this way whenever I try reading a Renaissance era piece, whether fiction or not. Some scholars, in rediscovering ancient philosophical texts, attempted to mimic the syntax of ancient Latin while writing in English. This resulted in UNNECESSARILY long sentences with upwards of a dozen commas, all looping around on itself several times. For example, in Utopia…

    “While I was there, among many that visited me, there was one that was more acceptable to me than any other, Peter Giles, born at Antwerp, who is a man of great honour, and of a good rank in his town, though less than he deserves; for I do not know if there be anywhere to be found a more learned and a better bred young man; for as he is both a very worthy and a very knowing person, so he is so civil to all men, so particularly kind to his friends, and so full of candour and affection, that there is not, perhaps, above one or two anywhere to be found, that is in all respects so perfect a friend: he is extraordinarily modest, there is no artifice in him, and yet no man has more of a prudent simplicity.”

    That is ONE sentence describing that someone is very nice. He then spends a few more ‘sentences’ highlight specific moments that he was nice. So much detail and so many run-ons went into explaining how awesome a guy Peter Giles is that I began to hate the man.

    • That’s so extreme, and definitely takes away from the reading experience and story as a whole. It must have been a fairly common writing practice back then, but I really don’t see why…

  2. Now this is a great topic! I wonder that myself when reading classic literature and even some modern pieces.

    I have read that long ago writers were paid by the page. That would be one way to explain some of the more lengthy painstakingly long passages. In particular I read this in the biography of Anais Nin.

    Modern day editors would most likely require the author to trim a piece down to its essentials and discard the fluff. However, and I find this particularly with male writers–the logistical descriptions can go on and on. It saps my interest every time.

    I am not involved in the publishing world in any way, but I would think this is all about the editor or lack of editing. I wonder if some of these authors, so caught up in their philosophy and need to explain themselves so clearly, paid to have their books published and skipped the editing…because nothing, absolutely nothing should be changed. All must be published intact, as the author intended.

    There is an publisher’s note in an edition of “Wuthering Heights” I keep by my bedside. The author’s sister made over 100 editing changes two years after her sister’s death and had the book reprinted, to correct perceived errors. My version is the original text, and Bronte does go on…but I like to think she was “in the zone” wanting to fully describe the pictures in her mind.

    Uh-oh, I may be on a tangent myself? 🙂

    • That’s so interesting! I didn’t know that writers were paid by the page in the past – that makes a lot of sense why they would go on and on unnecessarily. Today, like you say, it’s just poor editing, or self-publishing by the author. I understand this more when an author is trying to get a particular emotion or philosophy across, but even so, it can be a bit overdone.

      I do like to read classics – like Wuthering Heights – in their original form, just as you do, because I feel if I read a condensed or posthumously edited version, I’m not getting to know the author him/herself and his/her writing style as I’d like to. And I think that’s a huge part of literature: the author’s voice and perspective.

      I think I also went on a tangent 🙂

  3. […] for more than a second. And it’s not just unpolished writers that do this, this happens in a lot of different classical literature, as well. It happens in other media forms too, this is something […]

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