For me, if the description of a setting doesn't paint a vibrant picture of the place, and if the word choice doesn't also convey the feeling a person gets by being in that place, the description is dead weight. Yes, a reader needs to understand the layout of the scene, but in my mind, there's so much more one can do than explain where the tables and chairs sit relative to the stairs and the nearest exit. I love rich descriptions of textures and smells and the color of the light in any given space.
But I begin to wonder if that makes me a lover of purple prose. So many books I have read lately subscribe to the "layout" version of setting, and wanting to be a good student of what makes books marketable, I worry that my love affair with intricacies of the world around me is causing other folks to roll their eyes.
For example, and excerpt from a novella I currently have out to one of my publishers for their consideration:
Does it paint the picture, or does it load the reader with meaningless detail? I,obviously, believe the former, since I wrote the thing, but the trouble with writing is in its solitude, it is so easy to develop an obsessive love affair with one's own imaginings, and lose perspective on where good storytelling becomes indulgent prattling. (An accusation most of the detractors of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time make.)
Major Telenius eased his horse beside that of his liege, King Aeleronde of the Vareinor. Side by side, they crested a grassy rise, the chicory and the candytuft a mottled canvas of pink and periwinkle all around them. The road wended before them, riding the rise and fall of the land like a ship on high seas, to lead them to a pinnacled fortress in the distance. The castle’s walls gleamed in the sunlight, a pearl that crowned a hillock of green.
And so, I ask you, friends...when you are reading, what do you look for in terms of setting? Does it matter much to you at all? Is the descriptive prose common at the turn of the 20th century now stylistically too "purple" to work for today's audience? I certainly hope not, but if I want to write for anyone but myself, these are the dance steps I must learn.