Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What makes bad fiction bad?

I try oh so very hard not to read book reviews--certainly not of my own stuff, but not any others, either. Every once in a while, though, I do it, usually if it's a review of a writer I like, or know personally. And usually the reviewer slights the writer in some incomprehensible, off-the-wall manner, relying on some kind of obscure personal obsession as a basis for criticizing the work, and leaving the actual substance of it unaddressed. And I grind my teeth and throw my hands in the air and ask the heavens why.

The heavens decline to respond, so here's my theory--or A theory, anyway. I think we--meaning, you know, literate culture--have a problem talking about why we dislike things. We're pretty good at praise--it's not unusual for somebody to tell me they like a book, and then tell me precisely why, and for me to read the book and like the same thing. "The characters are hilarious." "It has an exciting plot." "The prose is clear and engaging." But ask somebody why they don't like a book, often you'll get something like "It just sucks," or "It's boring." There are, of course, specific things that make the book bad, but we often just can't put our fingers on them. I believe that book reviewers, and all readers, for that matter, could use a refresher course on criticism--and I don't mean, like, literary theory, I mean simple, ordinary expressions of dissatisfaction.

FWIW, here are some of the things I don't like, if I don't like a book.

1) The characters' actions are agenda-driven, not personality-driven. Like the book reviewers cited above, some fiction writers seem to have some hidden bee in their bonnet, which is never quite obvious but causes the characters to behave in implausible ways. The otherwise-entertaining novels of Tom Wolfe are like this--the characters, while lively, never act like human beings--they act like missionaries from the church of Tom Wolfe. This would be fine, if his novels presented themselves as such (I still wouldn't like them, but they would make more sense), but they present themselves as social realism. Which leads me to:

2) The writer doesn't follow the rules she has set for herself. This is very common in crime fiction, when a book is set up like a third-limited police procedural, and a hundred pages in, you get a bunch of italicized crap from the mind of the killer, who just happens, at that particular moment, not to be thinking about his own identity. This is done in order to raise tension, or to show how awesome the writer is at understanding the criminal mind. Big whoop! More generally, this problem comes into play when a writer limits himself in some way, then discovers the limitations are too stringent. And so the goalposts get moved. Lame.

3) Prose-writing ambition outstrips prose-writing ability. In fact, this is my number one complaint about books I don't like--the prose is too fancy. I don't insist upon absolute simplicity in prose, only the degree of complexity that is necessary to achieve the goals of the book, which may be very great, or may be very small. Simple prose, of course, does not equal a lack of sophistication--but I think this is exactly what most writers believe. Florid metaphor, clever overdesription of meaningless detail, gratuitously convoluted sentence structure, and all manner of back-slapping hamminess: that's what I don't like. Unfortunately, book reviewers rarely talk about prose--they don't know how to. To read the NYTBR every week (not that I do), you'd think that novels weren't made of prose at all, but rotting dog corpses, so athletically is the topic avoided.

4) Unnecessarily elaborate chronological manipulation. Since when are all novels required to jump around wildly in time? Since when do we need flashbacks every other page, explaining the origin of every present action? If you want to be radical, do this: 200 pages of rigid linearity, then the phrase "Twenty years later," then 200 more pages of rigid linearity. I dare ya.

5) A narrow frame of reference. I don't mind reading a novel about rich socialites--no, really, I don't. But if the novel pretends that rich socialites are the only people in the entire world, forget it. Similarly, it's a disease of much contemporary bad fiction that poor rural people are off living poor rural people lives, without any particular notion of the outside world, and without the benefit of sophisticated thinking. You don't have to have Bill Gates land a helicopter in the middle of the dog run, but if you're going to write about "the poor," you should write about the things that make them human, not the things that make them different from the MFA grad with an internship at ICM who's doing the writing. Bill Kittredge, my old teacher, used to say, "You don't need to spend any time proving a cowboy's a cowboy." You do need to prove that the cowboy is real, though. Within the local must lurk the universal.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I'd love to hear your complaints--not just your pet peeves, mind you, but the things you wish you read in book reviews but never do. Perhaps, for instance, you object to phrases like "the tip of the iceberg." Perhaps you dislike poorly supported diatribes. Knives out!

34 comments:

Matt said...

Of course I would come to this post right before bedtime. Instead of staying up half the night making a list, I'll stop with just one: when an author is making a blatant attempt to convey either the hipness of characters, or of the author him/herself. The "I don't give a shit about anything, watch me smoke my cigarette" stuff. I got a book in the mail a while back, an ARC, and it fell into this category. "Edgy"? Come on. (Like Scott Esposito's recent plea to retire "explosive" as a word to describe new books.)

(Oh, and: Radiohead reference there at the end, intentional or no?)

Elizabeth said...

I have no knives to throw at the moment, but as an aside, I just finished reading "About Writing" by Samuel R. Delany, who gleefully addresses your items 2,3, and 4. He makes, for example, an airtight case against the use of flashbacks except to achieve a particular effect (which few stories aim or call for). And he explains why he believes reviewers, critics, editors, workshoppers, et al. have such a difficult time expressing what's *not* working in any given piece of prose. It's a great read.

jrlennon said...

elizabeth, I must check that out. There's an argument to be made that a good flashback is NOT a flashback; rather it shows you what a character is thinking about in the moment. But you have to have a killer grip on the narrative voice, I think, to make it really good.

matt: Radiohead: not premeditated, but acknowledged and accepted. In the future, everything will be a Radiohead reference.

5 Red Pandas said...

What I can't stand is an unnecessary prologue. The ones I hate are often written in what the author must have thought was beautifully lyrical prose, but it's actually just annoyingly obscure. Don't give me a vague, and generally pointless, puzzle at the beginning of a book when it doesn't really need to be there. Bad poetics never hook me. Just start the damned story already.

Alicia said...

Number 1 bothers me a lot. It's the reason I don't like Native Son. The character of Bigger is never allowed to become an individual and the world he lives in is not made real because Richard Wright is sacrificing it all for an agenda, a worthy agenda. Toni Morrison works in theme, history, agenda and still makes her characters real.

rmellis said...

How about humorlessness? There are certainly a few subjects out there that simply aren't funny, but for the most part, *life is funny.* I'm about half way through a lauded work of contemporary fiction, and the laughlessness is killing me.

jrlennon said...

I agree, though I think Wright was a pioneer, on whose shoulders Morrison gets to stand. I had been thinking of adding something to this effect--that a lot of early hyphenated-lit suffers from this problem, because it's clearing ground for the mainstreaming of same...so that beacuse of Wright, Morrison and Colson Whitehead get to be writers with broad appeal.

jrlennon said...

Oh hell yeah...humorlessness. Even Cormac McCarthy is occasionally slightly funny, for crying out loud.

"lauded work of contemporary fiction," heh heh. It is at this moment on the very cusp of falling behind the kitchen radiator for eternity.

gcm said...

This probably won't be met with high fives and cheering from the Ward Six crowd, but here goes:

I'm tired of the reign of realism.

Updike took the podium a few years ago, proclaiming:

"There are fads in critical fashion, but a writer at his peril strays too far from realism. Especially in this country, where realism is kind of our thing."

While I don't think he's necessarily correct - we birthed and celebrate Poe, Lovecraft, Dick, etc., and we may one day be better known for the work they inspired - he does hit on a valid point: literary fiction, or fiction deemed literary, the top of the invisible hierarchy of genres, is largely dominated by realism – so much so that the terms are pretty much used synonymously.

I don’t dislike realism – I love Cheever, I like Carver, it’s hard to dislike authors as consistently powerful as Alice Munro – but I feel that its been overplayed, and has been for years. I’m tired of it. I think others are as well. (See Chabon, Lethem?)

I have a hunch that the latest “fad” in the literary / publishing community – i.e. the hyping of realist fiction set in locales or concerning people that are (for lack of a better word) undocumented, and usually coupled with an uplifting moral message – is the best indication that the genre is nearing its Malthusian limit. Now that realism has been set as the style of choice, now that it’s been institutionalized, there’s a rush on subjects to for it to capture, package, and present. I’m talking here about books on life in Afghanistan, on the Chinese immigrant experience, on the African genocide, etc. Also about the relative banalities of daily life in [pick region of America], told from the perspective of [pick gender/social class/political bent]. The prose of each of these works is usually decent, sometimes beautiful, at worst passable, but the stories they tell – giving fictionalized accounts of subject matter that might better fit non-fiction (see Rhian’s earlier post on the topic) – are consistently similar. They present many different views of the same world, the same reality.

I’m tired of that reality.

I want inventiveness, creativity: an author who creates a fresh, brilliant world of her own. Less obsession over prose, more substance. Less feeling, more thought.

I feel like shouting: Create! Create!

Writer Not Reading said...

I'd love to read a book written with rigid linearity. I get sick and bored with flipping back and forth to remind myself who did what to whom when and where? The cuts are usually not even artful, serve no other purpose than to make the novel/memoir seem more complex than it actually is, possessing a philosophical and emotional depth that it completely lacks, fooling perhaps the author's mother, but never me. I throw them down half read and stomp on them.

jrlennon said...

gcm: go write the book you want! I think it's nonsense to say that realism is played out--representational art is, for better or worse, permanent. But I definitely agree that the particular cliches of the genre, as presently manifested, are getting very tired.

Gratuitous fancifulness is every bit as exhausting as hardcore prosaicism (word?), but there's a lot more unexplored territory in experimental fiction.

Matt said...

Good points listed.

If I may add one more. One word: solipsism. I have such a low threshold for characters (whether or not they be thinly-veiled extensions of the author's ego) or narrative voices which do nothing more than endlessly ponder vague notions without direction or reason for doing so.

rmellis said...

I dislike "realism" even as a term. Is the fiction of Nicholson Baker "realism" or not? I think The Mezzanine is extraordinarily imaginative but also absolutely realistic. Roth's Plot Against America is speculative, but totally rooted in reality, too.

And some works of purported realism are completely unbelievable and fake.

I just don't think it's a useful descriptive term. The best art takes the stuff we know from the world and transforms it via a consciousness. Sometimes it's more or less mirror-like, but that doesn't even matter.

Or, GM, are you just sick of dreary domestic dramas?

Matt said...

"I'm about half way through a lauded work of contemporary fiction, and the laughlessness is killing me."

Ditto for all too many lit mags. As a critic once said of a movie I worked on: "There is humour in this film, although you would need a lawyer to find it."

k. said...

Another vote for humorlessness. When a writer truly lacks all humor, there's something fundamentally wrong with his or her view of the world. And many great authors whom we think of as austere do actually have humor.

What is this lauded work of contemporary fiction that is too sincere for its own good? I'm so curious. The Canin book?

Here's my contribution: talented literary writers who think they're above "hooking" a reader.

k. said...

The problem with putting "realism" on this list is that "realism" (gotta use Nabokov's quotes) is more of a style or even a subgenre than a failure of the writer. You usually know what you're getting into when you open a book. It's like saying I'm tired of memoirs... okay, so I won't read them. Simple as that. No real writing lesson to be learned there.

rmellis said...

The book I'm reading is The Uses of Enchantment, not the Bruno Bettelheim one. I'm curious about amnesia right now, that's why I'm reading it, but I dont' think I'm going to finish it.

Every time I read about fiction writing these days, someone uses the term "hook." Where did that come from? I mean the term, because the idea that it's a good thing to interest the reader right away is an old one. I'm suspicious because it sounds like it comes from marketing, like "pitch" or something. It's a good thing to be interesting right off the bat, but does that mean you have to be able sum it up quick for the salespeople?

Joey said...

Every time I read about fiction writing these days, someone uses the term "hook." Where did that come from? I mean the term, because the idea that it's a good thing to interest the reader right away is an old one. I'm suspicious because it sounds like it comes from marketing, like "pitch" or something. It's a good thing to be interesting right off the bat, but does that mean you have to be able sum it up quick for the salespeople?

Of course. That's what you learn when learning how to write query letters to agents. This is the age of the non-attention span. You hear it from the honest editors too; they freely admit most stores are chucked if they don't pull the reader in by the first page--sometimes, by the first paragraph. That's why so many "literary" stories today start with dramatic sentences (Today, I killed my best friend.); the goal is to keep the reader reading. We have so little faith in the reader, or in his/her ability to spend fifteen minutes on a story, that we have to dupe him or her into continuing to read.

One of the first things you learn in MFAland.

k. said...

Wow. I guess I hit a nerve with my choice of words. How easily internet conversations can turn to vitriolic debates... so allow me to substitute the word "engaging" for "hooking." And I'm not talking about the first sentence or the first paragraph or any other measurement of ADD reading habits. I'm talking about the first twenty to fifty pages. And I'm talking about established authors who think their reputations are going to carry the dead weight. I'm talking about those who think they're immune to being boring. Even Rushdie and Roth should (and usually do) grab me by the lapels like the ancient mariner to tell me their story.

No need to be suspicious, Rhian, I'm not from the marketing department.

rmellis said...

Sorry, didn't mean to go wacko on you, k! It's actually something I've been wondering about for a while, seeing classes that claim to teach you how to "find the hook," etc. Focusing on the hook and not the rest of the book seems like a bad idea -- and I find myself feeling turned off if I suspect I'm being treated, as a reader, too much like a fish.

However, I'm a fine one to talk, having started my one published novel with something like, "First I had to get his body into the boat." Sheesh!

jrlennon said...

That is still one of my favorite first lines.

Matt said...

rmellis wrote: "However, I'm a fine one to talk[...]"

Which raises the uncomfortable question of whether these aspects which bother us so much do so because at some point (perhaps even now) we were/are guilty of such crimes as well.

rmellis said...

I think you've hit on it, Matt.

inverseroom said...

No question about it, the things that bother me the most in others' work are those things I'm personally most susceptible to.

rmellis said...

Who is this "inverseroom" character? Oh yeah, he snuck over from music land.

For those who don't know: inverseroom= john.

jrlennon said...

Sorry, signed in as wrong secret identity.

Terry Finley said...

Frame of reference: when it
changes, I change what I'm
reading.

http://theterryfinleysite.blogspot.com/

David Rochester said...

Just a thought about the "hook" -- I dislike the implied shiny-suit salesman-esqueness of the word as well, but esp. in current fiction, I think the concept is a very valid one ... and the word is a useful shorthand for "reader's reason to invest", whether that investment be time, emotion, curiosity, etc.

Reading was different a hundred years ago, when people's access to information was so limited, and probably the only way to ever "see" Wessex was to patiently suffer through the more painful parts of Thomas Hardy's novels, and for many readers, the only glimpse they'd ever have of certain types of society was the time they spent in Trollope's stultifyingly detailed drawing-rooms.

But readers nowadays have a much broader baseline knowledge of their own contemporary world, so they need a different reason to invest in a book. Ideally, you're going to tell them something they don't know, but the novelty of information is no longer a reason for most people to read. They're overinundated with useless information as it is ... so I think the concept of the "hook" is a way for the author to prove that the reader is going to get something out of the book that he doesn't already have. Personally, I think the most effective way to do this is with a character who inspires immediate emotional or intellectual interest, as it's easiest to suggest to a reader that he might enjoy getting to know an interesting stranger.

... and I don't like fiction that sacrifices readability for being "meaningful." I think storytelling is storytelling, and it should be good even if it's an excuse for the writer's philosophical worldview.

Tao Lin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tao Lin said...

"I'd love to read a book written with rigid linearity."

me too

'chilly scenes of winter' is like that by ann beattie

and 'tracer' by frederick barthelme

Todd said...

Just a comment about "hook": Unless I missed someone else defining it, "hook" has its origins in journalism--it's another term for lede or lead. It's the sentence or paragraph that "hooks" the reader into the article or story. It doesn't guarantee the rest of the story is any good or interesting, though.

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Jesse Prado said...

I love your professor's quote about the cowboy. I think another problem fiction writers have is forgetting their point. They may have wanted to write a story about jail but in the process of writing the story they forgot what they were trying to say 'about' jail.

Anonymous said...

finished reading the lottery. most bullcrap boook i have ever read. there was no humour in it whatsoever. i just felt like putting a goddamn gun to my head, just to take away the migraine it was giving me.