Everybody's a Critic

Nothing Can Kill a Show Like Too Much Exposition

The problem for the reader is that — well — it’s text.  It’s not writing.  It’s expository, dense, informational, texty, text.  There is no narrative.  No story.  No drama or conflict.  No characters, no dialogue, no scenes, no setting, no action, no sense of time passing, no beginning, no middle, no end. Just chunks of information-dumping by some poor soul who had to sit down, probably late at night after a long day in the garden, and crank out another 500 words, whether they felt like it or not.

And my guess is that they didn’t feel like it. Because many–not all–of these books are written by people who are very, very good at something other than writing.  Something to do with plants or design.  And it seems that they should have a book, and a publisher agrees, and so they do have a book.

But really, what purpose does all that text serve?  It serves as a frame for the photos; it glues everything together.  It does express something–somewhere, somehow–that the author/expert feels is new and important and interesting.  But if there is a message in there, where is it?  And do you really expect me to wade through 200 pages of exposition to get it?  When there are so many great novels to read?

Here’s what I think.  First, admit that people don’t actually read all that text, and don’t make the poor garden expert write it in the first place. Assemble little chunks of interesting writing instead. Funny stories that involve people saying and doing things.  Q&As with great, off-the-cuff answers.  Interesting observations.  Useful captions.  Top ten lists. Arrows.  Diagrams.  SHORT plant lists that don’t go on for pages and pages.

And if this seems too hard to pull off, design-wise, it isn’t.  Magazines do it every month. I suspect there are some process problems going on behind the scenes with these books–the writing and the photography can happen separately and have to be magically mushed together later in production–but processes can be changed.  Publishers can create ways of helping creative people be creative together.  At least, I think they can.

Second, leap into new media.  I know–it’s scary and weird and nobody can figure out how to make it pay.  Ads?  A subscription service?   I don’t have the answers.  But these kind of books are just made for a digital format.  Can I click on a plant name and see every photo in the book that includes that plant?  Can I click a photo and watch a video that shows me a 360-degree view from that spot, or see the same spot at different times of the year?  Can I hear an audio clip of the designer and homeowner talking about the new water feature?  Can several books be integrated in this magical digital format so that I can leap from one to the next, comparing plants, designs, different approaches? 

Hey!  Can I get a subscription from a publisher that will give me my choice of six books a year, PLUS a password to the digital wonderland where I can romp through this sort of enriched environment?  (I know–where does that leave our beloved bookstores?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers.)

I offer all this up not to beat up on big pretty picture books.  I LOVE big pretty picture books.  I just can’t wade through all that flat, boring writing, and I suspect that most of you don’t bother with it, either.

So why keep doing it? Why not be brave and acknowledge what isn’t working and try something different?

Ideas, anyone?  Brilliant exceptions that disprove my point?  (I have a few, but I’ll save them for another day)

And seriously, do you read all that text or do you just look at the pictures?  Be honest, now.

Posted by on September 29, 2008 at 5:23 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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26 Responses to “Nothing Can Kill a Show Like Too Much Exposition”

  1. Kim says:

    I guess I don’t have any of those coffee table books, but I couldn’t believe those three paragraphs you posted. Are those for real? Who writes that gibberish? I DO read the books I have – right now I’m reading Time Tested Plants – Thirty Years in a Four-Season Garden by Pamela J. Harper. I’m READING it, and yeah, I’m looking at the pretty pictures, too.

    I like your ideas. I’d love to be able to see alternate season views of things, and if I could get a real reference digitally (that would be periodically updated), I’d buy a subscription. But it would have to be a good reference. So far, there aren’t many I would consider close to “complete.” I know the technology exists and is very mature – if our totally dinosaur government can do it (I know from firsthand knowledge), then the publishing-for-money world can do it. What I don’t know is whether or not the GARDEN world is ready for it or would embrace it.

  2. Michele Owens says:

    Penelope Hobhouse’s picture books–always stuffed to the gills with photos of gardens so beautiful they almost defy belief–are actually readable. I learned loads from reading them.

  3. As a gardener and garden writer, I must say those were pretty appalling examples. But while I love the Web I still like a good book. Maybe it’s an age issue — I think in lists etc. I remember the days when I would make big lists and cross reference them trying to find who had which daylily at the best price etc.

    I think some of the solution is for readers/garden consumers to read the first page or chapter or whatever in the bookstore. Say no with your pocketbook and maybe publishers will get the message. There are so many great writers out there: Mirabel Osler, Ken Druse, Gordon Hayward, Sydney Eddison — real gardeners and true wordsmiths.

    I agree it’s a big problem but I don’t want to see the baby (big baby in this case) thrown out with the bathwater. Maybe those of us who write well need to team with up with the picture people to produce something valuable and not just pretty.

  4. John says:

    Change is good.

    Change will happen.

    Change is not always pretty or painless.

    The day will come when some new way to present information will pop up and become the “new thing”. Readers will flock to it and the old school publishers will be left scratching their heads and wondering, “where’d they all go?”

    It’s happening already with film and music. I doubt gardeners will settle for inspiration via ipod but somebody somewhere will come up with a new way to transmit information.

    I like the chatter of forums and list serves – but I remember when they started and a lot of people just recited what they’d read or had been taught. But we’ve advanced to a place where more people share their personal views much more freely – thank gawd.

  5. Gloria says:

    There are numerous books with pretty pictures and good text. It may just be a sign of my age but I am still gratful for the likes of Rick Darke
    “American Woodland Garden” and
    “The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses Sedges, Rushes, Restios, Cat-tails, and Selected Bamboos”
    or
    Ken Druse with his pictures so beautiful they are works of art individually.
    “The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation”
    “The Natural Habitat Garden”
    Even Page Dickey and photographer Erica Lennard capture a feel for what a natural garden is with their book “Breaking Ground” and its short bio’s on 10 chosen designers of the style.
    But my favorite books of pictures are from Sally Wasowski and her photographer spouse Andy. The pictures of prairies and prairie style gardens are incredible.
    She is a good read always. The first book of the Wasowski’s I remember reading was “Requiem For A Lawnmower” not a picture to be seen and geared toward Texas natives but worth reading for every gardener wishing to explore natural or habitat gardening.
    “For pictures and text try “Gardening With Prairie Plants”
    …Gloria

  6. Depends. If I know the author to be a good plantsman/plantswoman, I will read it all.

  7. Eliz says:

    I also receive these books and I think what many of them need is a really creative editing job–

    I like information to be organized in the ways you suggest. That’s why I enjoy reading–for fun–the big encyclopedias of plants. I know where they’re going and how the knowledge they import will help me personally. With books like you mention, you wonder sometimes–”This is all well and good, but how will it help ME?” Particularly when the gardens shown are so impossibly beautiful.

  8. Yolana says:

    I agree with Gloria about Ken Druses books, I’ve read the text many many times of “Making More Plants”, I also like the the way “a Garden Gallery” by Lewis and Little was set up. I’ve read it several times. However I do admit that I often buy garden books as eye candy(unless they’re reference).

  9. rainymountain says:

    Give me books over computers anyday, you can take them into the garden, sit in bed with them, read them while you eat dinner, they are to be enjoyed in silence. And yes, I too love Ken Druse’s books, beautiful photographs and intelligent, knowledgable writing, and with his own garden he doesn’t always show it at its best.

    I love to see seasonal pictures of the same bed. It is all very well showing a bed of solid flowers at its peak, but what happens the rest of the year?
    I would like to see gardens first planted and then approaching maturity. I would like to know more about the thinking behind plantings, what worked and what didn’t and how ideas might have changed. I would like pictures of gardeners working in their gardens and people using them.
    Also all garden writers should state where they are writing from, a disclaimer that what they say refers to North Carolina or Ontario or the southern UK; I am reading an informative book on ground covers but so much of what the author says refers to a particular region although no where is that stated.

  10. Terri says:

    I can’t think of a more perfect topic – there aren’t two things I love more than gardening and books – but certainly not “garden books”. I completely agree, I hardly ever read the text in most of the books.
    Its the “experts can’t teach” thing.
    One example that comes to mind for me is Piet Oudolf’s book Designing with Plants. I am NOT saying its poorly written, but it is not an easy read. And that is because the man is a complete genius and the way he turns tries to communicate his remarkable process of designing with plants is complicated. It is not an easy feat to communicate something that is so intangible and different from mainstream thought. Most of the time I recommend the book, people comment on the photographs. Although, actually now that I think of it I have lent it out and not had it returned for several months…thats a good sign!

  11. Lisa Albert says:

    “And seriously, do you read all that text or do you just look at the pictures?”

    It depends.

    If I’m looking for visual inspiration, I grab my photo-heavy books. My goal is not to mimic the planting down to the last seed but to tease my inner eye with color, form, and texture, hoping to spark my creativity.

    If I’m on the knowledge trail, I prefer text-dense books, even encyclopedic books with choppy, expository language sans plot. That said, poor writing is always a turn-off. I wrinkle my nose, purse my lips, wonder “What the ?” and slam the book closed quickly as if I’ll be infected by its disease (Bulwer-Lyttonitis?).

    New technology has its place but I hope it will never replace books. A book is ever so much more fun and easy to read in a hammock than a computer screen.

  12. susan harris says:

    I’ll just say that basic details about a plant’s appearance and behavior are best written in a straightforward style that’s quick and easy to read. The second example above seems awfully thick.

  13. I went through hundreds of gardening books while researching mine, “Sustainable Gardening for Florida.” I was looking for authoritative information on organic gardening, gardening in Florida, and sustainability ideas. I was also looking for books that were informative while entertaining that I could use as examples. Some were pretty with the filler text as you described, but others were “I books.” “I teach a gardening class; I own a nursery; I create incredibly beautiful gardens with only a dozen volunteers to do all the work; I, I, I…” While these books have more of a narrative, they often seem to be sales brochures for their authors’ businesses and the authors are setting themselves up to be more perfect than the rest of us. Many of the organic gardening books were unusable with their trite, but often repeated rumors of organic methods. I ended up doing a huge amount of research online and found Linda Calker-Scott’s website and book, http://www.informedgarden.com to be tremendously useful.

    My book is being published by University Press of Florida, and because it’s associated with The University of Florida, it was thoroughly reviewed by three experts and required several rewrites. It’s more like a textbook, but I tried hard to make it readable and the resources at the end of each chapter are mostly online. I’ll maintain a website where readers can hook up to the resources.

    I enjoy the writings of Michael Pollan, even though he’s slipped out of the gardener’s mode with his “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I just finished one of his older works, “Second Nature, A Gardener’s Education,” and found useful insights I can use in my own gardening.

  14. TC says:

    If it were possible, I’d edit all the above comments into one, and that one would be mine (along with the one below).

    I would agree with Ms. Stibolt to a degree; I don’t think Pollan has so much “slipped out of the gardener’s mode,” I just think he views it through a modern day transcendentalist’s eye and that comes out in his writing.

    It’s nice to have university publishing support. But there are a lot of us who’re not so fortunate. I think self-publishing might be a viable alternative, although there’s a negative connotation attached to it (would someone please help me understand why?).

    I don’t read “big, pretty books about gardening.” I wrote the foreword for “Tough Plants for Northern Gardens,” by Felder Rushing, and his style of writing is much like story telling. And yet, I’ve still not read it from cover to cover.

    I use all types of gardening books/magazine articles/online articles/etc., as a resource for my columns in a local newspaper. Readership is mostly aged, retired folks, with a mix of boomers and gen-x-ers tossed in. They want to know basic how-to stuff, but I’ve discovered through feedback that they enjoy reading it when it’s presented comically, sensibly, and in 500 words (more or less).

    I am stumbling as I try to find a publisher for a book proposal. Even though I’m a member of the Garden Writers, I can’t seem to find much help there. I hope GR’s forum for Garden Writers will provide a few tips. And possibly more?

    Anyway, I’m apologetically through with this rather long rant.

  15. Carolyn Craig says:

    When I want paragraphs on gardening, I read about real gardener experiences in blogs and in back issues of *certain* gardening periodicals.
    I knit. Books on knitting are great because you can choose your skill level, open the book, pick up your needles, and away you go. I can make mistakes quite well on my own, but I do appreciate some forewarning about the things that can and do go wrong in knitting or gardening, written by experienced knitters and gardeners.
    And, then, there is that “editorial” copy to support magazine advertising, wink-wink. When I was a freshman in college (I’m now age 51) one of my English 101 compositions was a rant about the inane articles in women’s magazines telling you how to apply lipstick (it goes on the lips) or put on pantyhose (start at the foot, I’m not kidding), all to make their advertisers feel more secure about who will be reading their ads, because you know we are way too dumb to find our lips otherwise. What about the bathroom tissue ads in magazines? Where are the articles telling me how and which end to wipe, and is it front to back? See how silly?
    Back to gardening, which really is to pull the point together about what I look for in garden writing. Helpful lists, honest reviews, real gardeners’ useful experiences (I can read whole dissertations on that), and regional topics, for starters. Amy knows the gardening climates in Eureka and Napa are not the same.
    Oh, yeah, bring on the garden eye candy, also known as real pretty pictures of other people’s gardens. Being primitive, I’m visual.

  16. Lisa Albert says:

    “…inane articles in women’s magazines telling you how to apply lipstick (it goes on the lips) … because you know we are way too dumb to find our lips otherwise.”

    What, no instructions for putting lipstick on a pig?!

    …I tried but I couldn’t resist. Scuttling away to my corner now.

  17. Oops, I meant Linda Chalker-Scott and her website is http://www.informedgardener.com and her book is on the list to the right. Where is a copy editor when I need one??

  18. Carolyn Craig says:

    Lisa, you made me laugh out loud. I needed that.
    Lipstick on a pig:
    Open lipstick, place before pig, pig eats lipstick.
    Ta-dah!

  19. Mark Turner says:

    Garden porn, eye-candy, photography, whatever you want to call it is the grabber, but no text should be as uninspired as the examples you cite. Writing well is hard, but worth the effort to the reader. A book shouldn’t be dashed off like my blog entries.

    I use the web as much as anyone, but I also savor ink on paper and doubt I’ll ever give it up. I’ve got a book in print, encyclopedic and not narrative, and have embraced the web by putting the content online even though I only get money when physical books are sold. You can indeed click on a plant name and see a whole bunch of pictures of it, as well as search and browse in ways that are harder on the printed page. Poke around at http://www.pnwflowers.com if you’re curious.

  20. Aunt Ida says:

    I agree with rainymountain – I’d like to see more four season pictures of gardens. A lot is written about “winter interest” so let’s see how summer beauty translates into winter interest. I’m also a sucker for before and after pictures of garden makeovers. What did they do and why did they do it that way? And what does the makeover look like in Year Two and Year Seven, etc.

    Mark Turner, I’ve seen your website and had to sop up the drool from my desk! I plan to put a link to your site in my column this winter so my readers can get some much needed floral input during the dark days.

  21. Lisa Albert says:

    Glad to give you a giggle or two, Carolyn. Laughter is good medicine, especially these days.

  22. Carolyn Craig says:

    Aunt Ida, oh, yes to the garden makeover before/after, yes, yesss, yeeesssssss; (breathless), I’ll have what they’re having

  23. I agree with the comment that the quoted portions of the books would benefit from good editing. {The passive voice is not to be used extensively if one wishes to communicate effectively with the readers of a book written by oneself.} That sentence is an example of what’s wrong with the writing. Books don’t need to be copies of magazine articles with diagrams & lists in the margin to capture a reader’s attention. I end up laughing out loud just reading Armitage’s or Dirr’s take on some plant. Clear, concise, honest, practical writing is a pleasure to read. I will miss books when they go the way of 8-track tapes.

  24. Barry Prince says:

    I like the eye candy. Gardening is a sensual experience that can be reduced to pictures since most of the other senses are hard to render in media (smell?).

    With the explosion of all these media sources (cable, blogs, websites, magazines, etc.) there was not a vast increase in the quality of the content…the writing lends itself the least to the actual nature of gardening experience and is often the most likely to come up short.

  25. One more thought on descriptions of plants that are truly useful for gardeners. I love the plant descriptions and the real-life photos on the plant encyclopedia http://www.floridata.com . Try it to see what I mean–it’s not just for Florida.

  26. Barbara says:

    The pictures hold the inspiration for the big coffee table books.

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