I’ve always had difficulty finding enough good stuff to read. During the last three or four years I’ve been working my way through Pulitzer, Man Booker, and other award finalist collections, treating the lists as recommendations. Now I’m trying a new compilation; Google’s list of top books for 2012. I know nothing about these books. I download them from the library so I don’t see reviews or summaries, just the title and the cover. That’s kinda nice; a little surprise each time to settle into the genre, style and topic.
There’s a wider range of writing quality than I expected.
I started with “The Last Policeman”, followed by “Gone Girl”, which I referred to in the last blog post. The third was “And When She Was Good”, by Laura Lippman. I gave up on this one. I couldn’t finish it, and I rarely give up reading a novel if I read beyond one or two pages, but it hadn’t been immediately obvious that I was going to have difficulty with this one.
“And When She Was Good” opens in a very straight-forward style. I thought maybe I was reading a modern version of Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, which would be fine by me. The central character is in a lineup at Starbucks and hears a stranger behind her talking about the suicide of a local madam. Our protagonist is unable to restrain herself and launches into an argument, sparring with the stranger. To the reader it’s obvious that she’s doing this because she is in the sex trade herself, since 1) she’s defensive about it, 2) the writer tells us more than once that no one in the neighborhood would know the protagonist as anything but a single mom, and 3) it’s an unusual thing to do, picking arguments with random strangers while waiting to order coffee.
The problem for me is that the writing and plotting are so plain that it’s cartoonish. Now, Harold Robbins’ characters might have been outlandish, stretching the boundaries of plausible, but they never reached the level of being cartoons. These are simply flat characters in unusual activities with obvious motivations solving the author’s plotting needs. Unfortunately, unlike Shaggy and Scooby Doo, there’s no humor involved.
In retrospect, that should have been my clue, but I think I was still hoping for Harold Robbins.
The first time that I noticed something bothering me was when the author switched to present tense for one sentence in the middle of a paragraph. I’m no grammarian and it might be acceptable to explain the past as if viewing it as the present, but two examples of this within pages of each other was jarring.
But what really stopped me from reading any further was the clunky writing. You know how when you get a shopping cart with one twisted wheel that keeps going bomp, bomp, bomp? That’s what reading this novel was like. Some of this clunkiness comes from telling, not showing; the cardinal sin for beginning writers. The author explains the protagonist’s business practices and her past relations with a particular client by stuffing sentences of exposition between the lines of dialogue.
Writers do need to explain, to give context, and the challenge is to do it without being obvious, but here you see the information dumps as clearly as the trail behind the horses in a parade; here you go, you need to know this, here’s some background that explains this.
I’ve since moved on to another title which I thought was from the same collection of best books, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”. I was about to type this is how you write background and context, this is how you tell. You make it interesting, you make it a story for the reader, you tell it in a way that flows naturally like Smiley does. It should do more than dump info, should contribute more than just patching up holes in the background. It should sound like a good story teller telling us a story. Then I discovered “A Thousand Acres” is not from the list of Google Best Books; it’s left over from the Pulitzer prize list that I have. Doh. Well, you can’t accuse me of list bias, though I am guilty of literary ignorance.