This is a topic that Lori Lewis asked me to address at her webzine Everyday Opera, trying to help people appreciate all the different literary styles:
“I can’t stand all of those flowery descriptions in classic literature. Why don’t the authors just get to the action?” “I don’t like opera with all of that over-the-top emotion.” “Those old writers are just not realistic!” Those are common complaints, but they deserve an answer.
First of all, literature is an art form that consists of language. Whereas a painter uses daubs of paint, an author uses daubs of words. Whereas a musical composer works with individual musical notes, working them together into complex harmonies, rhythms, and melodies, an author creates the effects of a novel or a poem with individual words.This is to say, an author can’t just “get to the action” because a story is not just a matter of action. It’s words. Plays, including the dramatic production that is a movie, do consist of action. But even a visualized story generally depends on the language of dialogue, which actors use to create their characters. Purists who want only action might restrict themselves to silent movies. But even silent movies—as with all dramatic scripts—have to be written.
Words are multi-dimensional and can create an infinite number of effects–including the illusion that the words are doing nothing. Those who are impatient with “style” often don’t realize that “realism” is also a style.