Fat Books & Thin Women


Stylistic Ghosts

I have been laying on my sofa a while debating what my “literary pet peeves” are. I have also been debating posting this at all, because one thing I determined to do with my blog was to make it mostly a record of what I’m reading and not a main page of meme, meme, meme. Events have conspired to make this happen, though, at least this month; in between the regional spelling bees I’ve been running (just one more semi-final day, then the final next weekend), working on a library grant, trying to pull together the winter issue of the High-Quality Peace Corps Macedonia magazine, playing Donkey Kong with my little “sister” Ava and being, now, kind of sick, I barely have the energy to read, let alone write posts about the books I have not finished reading this month.

Since I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, the first thing that popped into my head as a Literary Annoyance is authors who write thinly veiled versions of The Lord of the Rings. But I’m not a huge fantasy reader, so I can’t really rank this as a pet peeve of mine; it’s more something that I think is stupid and lazy, but that doesn’t bother me because I mostly avoid contact with these sorts of books.

Then I shifted over to Stephen King and his edict against excessive adverb use. I certainly and strongly believe that using too many -ly words is an error, but again, it’s not one that I see too often in the books I tend to read. (That I read, now, laboriously.)

But then I came to it, my Literary Pet Peeve to beat all other minor literary annoyances: stylistic laziness.

I mean a couple things by this, but mostly that I dislike it when authors take advantage of having a strong style to disguise other faults in their writing. This means those authors of the MFA bent, those who have come out of a graduate writing program able to craft admirable sentences that yet fail to reveal anything about a character or a story.* This is one of my sadder pet peeves, because I suspect that I fall into this category of writer. For this sort of stylistic laziness, I see the laziness in part as perfecting a certain style of writing, but failing to perfect a unique style; but also, in part, of writing good sentences with nothing “more” behind them.

On the other side, there are established authors who take advantage of their recognized and admired style to pen a book that people will buy, but that is a shadow, stylistically speaking, of their other work. I’d include here books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which fails to even hold a torch to Blood Meridian (should I add “excessive use of cliches” to my list of annoyances?), Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road and The Final Solution, and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. I like these authors’ other books, but all of these seemed like cheap one-offs written for a paycheck; and although each of these books may have sentences that are individually admirable, they fail to add up to anything much at end.

What I dislike, then, are those books that I buy and read, only to feel cheated at end. After paying full price for a hardcover copy of DeLillo’s Falling Man, I pretty much decided to give a little more wait time to authors coming out with new and suspiciously thin volumes. Eager as I am to read the latest works by favorite authors, I don’t like closing such a work only to feel that I’ve been ripped off, or when an admired author begins to shift, in my mind, towards hackdom because of how he has has taken advantage of his own style to sell books.

To sum this up in one sentence: I don’t like it when an author begins to copy his own style, to come up with something that occasionally echoes or matches his other works (or the works of others, in the case of some writers still finding their own style) but will never surpass them. That seems to me the worst kind of laziness.**

* I had to pause while writing this sentence to clean up the glass of water I just knocked over on my table. This, more than even the untouched beers that have been in my refrigerator all week, is the surest sign that I’m ill. Yesterday I totaled two glasses of water; we’ll see where I land today. It is, after all, only 11:30 in the morning.

** Even worse than me giving up, after five minutes, on getting the photos in this post to do what I want them to do. I think it’s time for another nap or a bucket bath. It’s time for something, anyway.

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10 Comments

Agreed. And don’t worry. You are not in danger of becoming a meme factory like so many of our blogs are. And, anyway, it’s a prompt. A prompt. Not a meme.

Here’s my post on literary pet peeves: http://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/12/pet-peeves-of-literary-sort.html

Comment by debnance at readerbuzz

right. this was a prompt. this makes me feel better :)

that said, i feel myself already slipping in terms of, i don’t know what to call it, “internet with-it-ness.” confused by tumblr, confused by people who unfollow twitterers who don’t tweet often enough (whereas i do the opposite), confused by the difference between memes and prompts…in another year, who knows what internet terms i will be behind on?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Gentlemen of the Road is the only of your examples I’ve read, (and the only of Chabon’s I’ve read as well,) but I can see how what you say would apply. I’m disappointed to hear that about The Road, though, since I’m planning on reading it soon!

Comment by Melody

to be fair, the road doesn’t really land in the same category as the other books i picked on. if it had been by anyone else i would have thought it was a good book, one of the better ones i read this year; but because it was by mccarthy and i was comparing it to his other work, it was a disappointment.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Worse still, although is writers that seem to franchise their name, or characters ( Yeah you Cussler, patterson) I don’t get the idea beyond the purely monetary why they do this.

Comment by parrish

yeah – i try to think of that sort of stuff as something so far outside the realm of writing that it doesn’t warrant thinking about. does that make sense? but like you say, the only reason for doing it can be monetary…but the idea of franchising your name as an author is so weird to me.

i’m getting way off topic here, but how about those people who write sequels to books…isn’t there a “sequel” to rebecca? this stuff drives me nuts.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great answer. I hate running out and buying a new book by a favorite author only to end up feeling cheated!

Comment by Erin

This fascinates me both as a writer and a reader. I tend to agree with you about seeing the same sort of stylistic/thematic tics in novel after novel.

And yet, the writers we celebrate the most for Voice have many of these stylistic tics. Over the course of a long career, it’s very likely an author will tackle the same themes in different stories.

Maybe the key is in execution? How would you feel if the stylistic or thematic tics are as well executed in the subsequent novels as they are in the masterpieces?

Comment by Mayowa

i like that you bring this up. Most of my favorite authors are those with very distinct styles – Nabokov, for instance (who i always bring up when “favorite authors” comes up; I can’t help it) deals with a lot of the same thematic issues in his novels. He does it well, though; his writing doesn’t weaken in later novels (if anything, it becomes stronger), and I never have the sense while reading him that he’s taking advantage of his own style to write something that may be stylistically pleasing, in comparison to other authors, but that pales in comparison to his own earlier work.

but a really interesting question…where is the line between authors that do their style well, and those who lessen it in later books? i’m not sure where i would put this line, because it seems more a matter of preference than anything. i’m sure there are people who think chabon’s slimmer, recent books are well-done, or that “the road” is mccarthy’s best, just as there are people who think that nabokov went totally off-track with the “bloated prose” of “ada.”

in some ways, that i pick on authors like mccarthy and delillo and chabon seems unfair because i think they’re among the best writers we’ve got. that’s probably why i do pick on them, though; my expectations for their work are so high that when they’re not met i feel cheated.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Good stuff, Ellen.

I think you’re right about the line between good early execution and less, later execution being an ephemeral one.

I tried starting a second novel recently and I did not feel as much in love with the story as I did with my first (which I am now rewriting, speaks volumes eh?). Maybe this lessening of enthusiasm for the writers later books is the reader’s version of a writers lessened enthusiasm after the first novel? Maybe it’s like Sade sings (“It’s never as good as the first time.”) for both sides of the divide.

Comment by Mayowa




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