The literary detail is a fuzzy-edged thing. It’s easy to name individual details in works of literature. But try naming a literary element that’s almost but not quite a detail, or one that’s just barely a detail. That’s a lot tougher. And it’s no easier to point to the absence of detail, because the boundaries of the detail shift with our attention. Focusing intently on a passage you’re convinced is undetailed reveals the semantic and grammatical particulars by which it creates the impression of being a detail-free zone, and soon you’re staring at a world of details. Attention bestows detail transitively—it details an object. And no wonder: the English word detail descends from a twelfth-century transitive verb, the French détailler, “to cut in pieces, retail, deal with or relate circumstantially” (OED). Detail is less an intrinsic property of a thing than a quality we cut into it...

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