There are good details and bad details. The bad ones distract the reader and make the wrong things seem important. But good details reveal something that deepens the experience for the reader.
So those who say details don't matter, only the plot matters, well, a plot without details? That's a skeleton, and skeletons can't live. As John Gardner points out, it's details that flesh out the "fictive dream" and make it live in the imagination of the reader.
Story is more than plot. Character is more than plot. Stephen King says, "Plot is the good writer's last resort, and the dullard's first choice."
But of course, details can be wrong, or too generic, or too blatant, or too numerous. That's where "details" gets the bad rep, because too many writers resort to describing the world or the character by throwing a bunch of details out and hoping they stick to something. Don't do that. Choose details that reveal, and -- this is important-- present those details with the right terms, the right emphasis.
From News from Lake Wobegon:
But George takes himself too seriously. (Assertion.)
He earns too much money. You can tell by the way his hair is cut, the tweeds he wears, the wool scarves. That's okay. He's successful, and more power to him. But he talks about things you're not supposed to talk about. He talks about trips he's taken that cost more than the people he's hunting with earn in a year. And that's not good form in Lake Wobegon. He's just out of place somehow. He shouldn't have told them about going to that spa in India and the steambaths and the women who bathe you every day, and breakfast on the veranda.
And he wants to talk about big things that Clint just doesn't want to talk about. He wants to talk about Obama, and he wants to talk about Wall Street, and he wants to talk about health care reform. And he wants to talk about the vote in the Lutheran church back in August about ordaining gay pastors. And Clint just doesn't want to talk about that. You don't talk about that when you're hunting, don't you see. You want to get away from the dry life of paper moving across a desk and get out in the woods. The reason is not to kill deer necessarily, but to restore your primitive senses, to listen again, to be quiet, and to listen and to watch and hear the leaves rustle and to hear the squirrels dash across the ground, and to hear the sound of the porcupine as he moves towards you, and the fisher moving through the weeds, and the nuthatch and the chickadee. And to hear rain falling, little drops of rain on the leaves on the trees-- to hear all of this. The hunter is focused on the real world around him. And George somehow wants to talk about the ELCA, and Clint does not.
He does tell that one good story about the trip to Antarctica. It was an expensive trip, but it involved seasickness and rough seas and diarrhea, so it was a good story. Then they got down to Antarctica, and the blizzard came, so they had to dig a hole in the snow to get out of the wind. When you have to dig a hole down into the snow and you have diarrhea, you have the makings of a good story. The smell that they gave off attracted the elephant seals, the male seals who took them as rivals for the hands of female seals. In order to defend themselves, the men had to sing in falsetto. They sang in high tremulous voices, "All You Need Is Love," and they had to sing it over and over again. That was a good story. But there weren't many stories. There were mostly just opinions.
What is particularly cool, actually, is that a bit after this, Clint saves George's life, and George, weeping, "wants to talk," but Clint still wishes he'd shut up: This is just what you do, that's all, in Lake Wobegon. You don't see somebody who is in trouble and pretend you don't see him. You do what you're supposed to do. He saved his life, but never mind. You know, you know, there's only so much you can do, but you do have to do that much.
The details are part of the voice of the author-- he's caring about nature and quiet, but also he's enough of a curmudgeon to grump about the specific topics George brings up (and notice how precisely this sets the time-- late fall, 2009). He has a pre-pubescent boy's fascination with the scatological, and he remembers certain things very exactly-- "elephant seals," and the title of the Beatle song. (This is Clint's point of view, of course.) He knows also what birds are there in the woods, and their names and habits.
But this plenitude of detail, of complaint, contrasts with the spareness of the big "plot event": "He saved his life, but never mind." Wow. (That is such a great sentence, btw.) See how the detail of the woods, of George's conversational topics, sets up the realization in the end. You do what you have to do. No need to blather about it or demand acknowledgment for it. That is, we know this is not someone who can't tell us more if he wants too. He can-- we see he can tell us all about the annoyance of George ("that spa in India"-- doesn't it just matter so much that he added "in India," so much more exotic than "in Sarasota?"). So when he backs off and telegraphs the big event, we know-- it's not because this is a writer or character who doesn't notice detail, who doesn't care. It's because he just did what he had to do, save a life, and therein is the point, isn't it? The details set up the theme by providing the contrast between the full description and the spare facts at the end.
So-- well, anyway, details can do a lot. :) And Garrison Keillor is a storyteller we can all learn from, because he goes deep and not broad. He uses details to make you believe this is a real place and these are real people. And he uses details to make you trust him, because he knows so completely this world-- it must exist.
Here's a link to podcasts of The News from Lake Wobegon.