“Tangential dialogue” are two of the “editorial buzzwords” of today.
Big publishers insist upon it. Keep it purposeful. Move the action. Stay focused. Often, however, these “digressions” are more interesting than the bare bones action and dialogue because they make you “think” deeply about what the author is saying. In fact, in J. D. Salinger’s novel Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenters, and Seymour an Introduction, the author, Buddy Glass, the writer in the family, spends most of his time “digressing” and even using many parentheses () to do it. Of course, later, guys like David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) perfected “digression” down to the proverbial “gnat’s ass.” LOL!
I always like to point to J. D. Salinger when he makes fun of this phenomenon by saying, in Catcher in the Rye that:
“They had this course you had to take, Oral Expression. That I flunked.
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I didn’t feel much like going into it. I was still feeling sort of dizzy or something, and I had a helluva headache all of a sudden. I really did. But you could tell he was interested, so I told him a little bit about it. ‘It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell “Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don’t know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.’
‘You don’t care to have somebody stick to the point when he tells you something?’
‘Oh, sure! I like somebody to stick to the point and all. But I don’t like them to stick too much to the point. I don’t know. I guess I don’t like it when somebody sticks to the point all the time. The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time—I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much, and they were always yelling “Digression!” at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy—I mean he was a very nervous guy—and his lips were always shaking whenever it was his time to make a speech, and you could hardly hear him if you were sitting way in the back of the room. When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. He practically flunked the course, though, too. He got a D plus because they kept yelling “Digression!” at him all the time. For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling “Digression!” at him the whole time he was making it, and this teacher, Mr. Vinson, gave him an F on it because he hadn’t told what kind of animals and vegetables and stuff grew on the farm and all. What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff—then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm—I admit it—but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling “Digression!” at him when he’s all nice and excited… I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.’ I didn’t feel too much like trying, either. For one thing, I had this terrific headache all of a sudden. I wished to God old Mrs. Antolini would come in with the coffee. That’s something that annoys hell out of me—I mean if somebody says the coffee’s all ready and it isn’t.”