Because my husband, Mark, worked as an IT specialist for many years, he is extremely tech savvy. I have sometimes remarked that he likes computers more than people. Therefore, he reads things on his Kindle while I sit with my books, turning pages and marking interesting passages. He is also notoriously frugal.

            That brings us to the point of this story. Several years ago while perusing Kindle’s list of “free” books, he came upon Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Aware of the author’s notoriety, he downloaded it in spite of the fact that the novel was more than 1500 pages long. He recently finished it after taking several lengthy hiatuses from the book to read something a little more contemporary. He entertained me with a running commentary while he read it.

            Everyone knows the basic premise of this story. The peasant, Jean Valjean, is released from prison after serving nineteen years for stealing bread for his family. He is given a second chance at life by the benevolent Bishop Myriel and goes on to live as a moral and righteous man.  He encounters various trials and tribulations as he is relentlessly pursued by Javert, the police inspector. It’s a gripping and exciting story.

            However, anyone who sees the movie or the play would never know that Hugo engages in what Wikipedia calls, “digressions”. Mark calls them frustrating, stupefying, 50 to 75 page tangents that have nothing—not one thing—to do with the characters or plot or even the subplots, of the novel. It absolutely drove him crazy! There were detailed descriptions and histories of things like nunneries and sewage systems, the plight of the poverty stricken street urchins, even an agonizingly long essay about the Battle of Waterloo. Characters received a 25 page build up and were never mentioned again.

I decided to research this novel and found, to my astonishment, that Les Misérables is considered by some to be one of the six best books ever written. I was stunned by that. Understanding that social commentary is important, it seems contrary to the tenets of authorship that a writer would inject his own expansive opinions or observations into a book of fiction.

Since this novel has been a steady conversation in this house for several years, it often intersected with my own periods of writing. It instilled in me the desire to write in a style that is the opposite from Hugo. I have been told that my descriptions of things are good, perhaps because I gave myself certain boundaries or rules in my writing. I never describe people too much. There’s a few adjectives to give the reader the general idea but I let them use their own imaginations to fill in the blanks. The settings of the plot are described but never more than a few lines, and I try to make the paragraphs short with more dialogue than narration. Early on, one of my teachers taught me to SHOW, not TELL.

While I will certainly never be a great, renowned  author like Victor Hugo, I am grateful to him for showing me the importance of straightforward, concise adverbs and adjectives. It is my hope that it will never be said that Sharon Traner wrote long-winded, boring descriptions of anything!

Thank you, Mr. Hugo.

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