Detail-Obsessed Authors

Morgan Meis spotlights them, from Pliny the Elder to the recently deceased Tom Clancy:

[David Foster Wallace] considered [The Sum of All Fears] by Tom Clancy serious enough reading put it on a top ten list of all-time favorites. We’re challenged to figure out why. The writer D.T. Max recently wrote a biography of DFW called Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Max has claimed (in a New Yorker article) that DFW “admired the novels of Tom Clancy for their ability to pack in facts.” It is not, on the face of it, a very revealing comment. What exactly does it mean to “pack in facts,” anyway?

But on second thought, it is revealing. DFW loved to pack in facts with his own writing. He had real trouble deciding just how many facts to include. Hundreds of pages were ultimately cut from his first novel The Broom of the System, and from his magnum opus Infinite Jest. It was a desire to include many facts that led to one of DFW’s most loved (and most criticized) formal inventions, the footnote (or endnote). DFW could put a footnote in anything: a casual essay, a novel, a short story. DFW’s footnotes and endnotes sometimes take up more space than the main body of the text. …

DFW looked to the writing of Tom Clancy and found a similar obsession with information. Clancy also had a lot of things to say. He loved technical manuals and he loved to find out how things work — guns and big machines like aircraft carriers, yes, but also people and organizations. Here, for example, is a passage from a climatic scene at the end of Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger.

“Uh-oh,” the flight engineer said. “I think we have a P3 leak here. Possible pressure bleed leak, maybe a bad valve, number-two engine. I’m losing some Nf speed and some Ng, sir. T5 is coming up a little.” Ten feet over the engineer’s head, a spring had broken, opening a valve wider than it was supposed to be. It released bleed air supposed to recirculate within the turboshaft engine. That reduced combustion in the engine, and was manifested in reduced Nf or free-power turbine speed, also in Ng power from the gas-producer turbine, and finally the loss of air volume resulted in increased tailpipe temperature, called T5.

Now, most thriller writers would have taken care of this passage with the phrase, “the plane was in trouble.” But not Clancy. He loved all the details and he was damned if he was going to cut anything out. Clancy wrote like this all the time, in all of his books. Right in the middle of the action he would simply break off into laborious and overly technical explanations of the mechanical workings of a plane or the Byzantine hierarchical structure of the NSA.