Thursday, July 24, 2008

Breaking All the Rules

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing? (Actually, we should be pilloried if we did such things. But so should the literary writer.)

I just finished reading a “critically acclaimed” novel, which was made into a “critically acclaimed” movie. I’m not giving the author’s name because the writer is still living and is pretty old. I’m also sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, and he has plenty of fans who love his work. (This book had 80 reviews on Amazon. 78 were 5 stars, 1 was 4 stars, and 1 was 2 stars.) But I want to make some points and his work is perfect to illustrate with.

1st rule of writing: Have at least one character that the reader likes and is able to identify with. This book had four primary characters. I felt some sympathy for one of the characters but couldn’t respect her. I quickly began to want the other three characters dead. Every one was a loser. And mostly they were just pathetically silly. I know there are people in the world just like these characters, but I don’t personally know or want to know any of them. All are addicts and I can’t imagine having a conversation with any of them that would go beyond drugs. How boring.

2nd rule of writing: Show don’t tell. The book is almost entirely dialogue or a kind of omniscient narrative. They did this and then this and then this. Except where drug use is described, there is a minimal amount of descriptive writing. The language felt simplistic and naked to me. The prose was just flat.

3rd and 4th rules of writing: Write as clearly as possible. Avoid pretentiousness. While the vocabulary was so simple that it wouldn’t challenge a 6th grader, the author deliberately used a bunch of silly and arbitrary expressions that upped the confusion level. For example, what possible reason can there be to leave out the apostrophes throughout. And I don’t just mean in dialogue. Over and over I read “youre,” “Im,” “theyre” and so on. It was so pretentious that I could barely restrain myself from throwing the book against the wall before the “I’m-too-good-to-use-normal-punctuation” attitude rubbed off.

5th rule of writing: Make clear during dialogue who is talking. Not only could our pretentious author not be bothered with quotation marks and dialogue tags, but he enjoyed cramming two or three speakers together in a single paragraph. And since two of the characters were constantly aping each other’s form of expression it often required calculus to figure out who was talking. Not that they were saying anything interesting anyway.

6th rule of writing: Introduce a new paragraph when the topic changes. Now, I don’t mind fiction with relatively long paragraphs, but 8 pages in one paragraph? Isn’t that either a bit careless or a bit pretentious? There were a lot of paragraphs that went on for at least 4 or 5 pages.

So there you have it. Can you explain why critics seem to love this work, why they ooh and ahh over every word that drips from the author’s pen? I don’t get it. I really, don’t get it, and I wonder if some of the Amazon reviewers who gave the book five stars had seen the movie first and were influenced by that?

Finally, though, I guarantee that you couldn’t drag me into another of this author’s books. Unless someone can explain to me why such things are permitted of some writers and not others?

49 comments:

Lisa said...

Hmm. Well, it's a pretty tough challenge to either agree or attempt an explanation without any idea what book it is.

Lots of literary fiction breaks conventional rules of writing to good effect, so I would contend there's a difference between writers who break rules intentionally and writers who arbitrarily break rules due to sloppy writing. I don't trust Amazon reviews much and I wouldn't ever consider raves on Amazon to equal critical acclaim. When I've had the same experience you did I like to Google reviews done by professional critics to see what they have to say (and obviously they don't all agree). They may be in your camp or they may have another take on what the author did or didn't accomplish.

Conformance to rules seems to be a much more rigid requirement within the confines of genre fiction. People have much more set expectations about what they're going to read in a crime fiction, romance or science fiction novel than they do with literary fiction. For example, craft books on writing genre are always much more definitive about you can't and must do. Meta-fiction and some experimental fiction use literary devices to intentionally remind the reader that he's reading, which runs counter to conventional narrative fiction and would be unacceptable in most genres. I think that may be why most people that prefer a certain genre get irritated with literary fiction. It's definitely a very broad category and there are no general expectations.

I'm dying to know what book this was. Based on your comments, particularly about the characters and about the drug use, I have to suspect you probably didn't expect to like it.

I'm really curious to know why you chose to read it. Give us a hint. The author's name rhymes with...

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, I can understand experimental techniques, and have used them myself. But to increase the reader's workload simply for the sake of the workload seems like very weak writing to me. What kind of metafictional take would say don't use apostraphes? I just don't see it.

Actually, I kind of expected to like this book. I'd been told by people who saw the movie that it was very horrific, in a naturalistic sort of way.

The critics loved it, btw, but I don't trust critics much more than I trust Amazon reviews. There are a lot of people, it seems to me, who are afraid to point out that the emperor has no clothes. If you really want to know the name, email me at kainja@hotmail.com and I'll tell you. But I didn't post it for a reason. I don't want to hurt writers' feelings, but I do feel people need to think for themselves about what they read and not allow themselves to be told what to like.

Lana Gramlich said...

Trust me...the movie's better (& it's on its way from Amazon. I couldn't resist.)

December/Stacia said...

Oh, I hate this too. Or how literary writers can write the most cliched romance elements and people love them, yet they dismiss romances as just cliches. Urgh.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Being that the topic was drugs, is it possible some of these tricks were deliberately used to confuse the reader and fully immerse them in that world(ie-more than one speaker per paragraph, loser characters, lack of apostriphes=training speech) Not excusing it, just trying to figure out why it must have been a deliberate choice on the part of the author and editor. Me? I would have thrown it at a wall long before you did.

BernardL said...

I'm with you on this one. Leaving the apostrophes out would be enough to lose me. Addicts are the singularly least interesting people on earth. It may seem harsh, but I don't care why, how, or where they're going. As to the Amazon ratings, I think there are people who like to read about train wrecks and pathos.

Bernita said...

I call it "God disease."

Heff said...

I'm just wondering what "pilloried soundly" involves. I'm somewhat aroused....

Paul R. McNamee said...

Yes, that annoys me, too.

I really liked Cormac McCarthy's The Road and I believe he is a good storyteller.

But I don't understand why he can get away without using quotation marks while the rest of us would be designated to the trash bin.

Some people think it helps the bleakness of the tale but McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks in any of his novels, not just The Road.

(I listened to the audio-book. [that'll show him!] It had a director co-credit along with the reader. I imagine because they needed to map out the dialog ahead of time as it wasn't clearly delineated by punctuation!)

jason evans said...

Amen, brother, amen. I'm okay with breaking rules, but the words must still create a dream state for the reader. A place where he or she disappears. (BTW, I just broke a rule about sentence structure there.) If the writing leaves the reader on the side of the road picking gravel out of his/her skin, it just doesn't work, rules or no.

Katie Reus said...

I don't mind when writers break rules, but if I can't connect with at least one character, I'm done with the book (and probably that author) And to hate all the characters? I won't actually throw a book away, but it's automatically given to the library (I can't give rubbish to a friend)...I'm so curious what book this is!

As a side note, it is my belief that most critics live on another planet.

Sidney said...

There does seem to be a rule unto itself in literary fiction that you don't have to have likable characters.

Angie said...

I don't mind when writers break rules deliberately and for a purpose, although they have to be ready to get slammed if their attempt to produce a certain effect fails, or even succeeds but doesn't connect with the reader. Sounds like this particular experiment didn't work for you.

Someone -- I think it was Marion Zimmer Bradley -- said (paraphrasing here) that the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is that the purpose of genre fiction is to be read and enjoyed by actual readers, whereas the purpose of literary fiction is to show off how clever the writer is, which is generally measured by how few readers actually "get" their work.

Whatever.

Personally, I'd rather have a bunch of readers reading and enjoying my stories.

I think you hit it on the head with the word "pretentious" myself.

Angie

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, I should have guessed. You are sweety.

December/stacia, that's a good example. I've seen that done. Or they throw in the most ridiculous fantasy element and everyone goes "WOW" while the same element has appeared in dozens of fantasy movies that the critics hated. It's bizarre.

L. A. Mitchell, I suspect that's the reason why the author did it, but it kept me "out" of the state I thought he was trying to put me in. Instead of speeding the pace, it slowed it down agonizingly as I tried to recognize who was talking. Instead of enjoying the "meal" of his story, I was still trying to hack through all the packaging.

Bernardl, yes, the apostraphe thing was just pretentious.

Bernita, that's a good term for it.

Heff, get Donna to show you. I bet she knows how. I think women are better at it then men.

Paul R. Macnamee, yes, McCarthy irritates me when he does that too. I just can't see a reason for it. But at least you can usually tell who is talking because the dialouge is unique to each person. And, his stories are good.

Jason Evans, I agree. Breaking rules can be a wonderful way of expressing something just right. But breaking them for the sake of breaking them, or at the cost of the story, is not good.

Katie Reus, oh I don't throw books "away" either. I donate them to a book sale or something if I don't want to keep them. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the comment.

Sidney, yep, and I wouldn't mind that particular element so much. I just wouldn't read it. But the pretentiousness is what really bugged me

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, you must have posted while I was posting. I think Bradley's quote was pretty accurate in a lot of ways. I don't mind some rule breaking on occassion either, but I like to feel that the author is doing it for a reason and not to show off.

Heff said...

After being advised by Merriam Webster, YES. Women ARE better at that, Lol !

Christina said...

The only thing I can think of is that maybe this person already has a pretty "big" name and anything goes for them. I think I would have stopped reading after the tenth "Im' or "youre."

laughingwolf said...

is it pc, from brasil?

saw the flick, it sucks, despite the 'awards' and 'kudos'!

no matter, i concur with your arguments... schlock is schlock, no matter who the author is grrrrrrrrr

Lisa said...

Ah. I agree with you on this one, although I would sub-categorize this particular type of fiction and I'd contend that you couldn't get this published today.

writtenwyrdd said...

And you actually finished it? Wow, you have cast iron...somethings, I guess!

I hear you on all points, Charles. I opened Ulysses once and rapidly closed the book. I think my brain recovered, but it took about a week, lol.

Art has it's proponents. I don't get a lot of the installations like the mile-long string of cloth fluttering in the wind and similar. I guess I don't get the art of literary pretension, either!

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; I've actually been resisting the urge to buy the movie for years now. As powerful as it was, I don't know if I have the mental stamina to withstand it again. I haven't been able to get it out of my head for 8 years so far, so I guess I'm already doomed.
After we watch it, however, we have to see the YouTube mock-up, where they make it seem like a "feel-good" movie (& perhaps also the mash-up with "Toy Story.")

writtenwyrdd said...

Jeez, I need more coffee! I meant to say that like any form of art, there are proponents for all types. And I meant that weird sheet installation as an example. Or Carhenge, which I find hilarious but not art. There's a lot of writing that seems to be considered like strange performance art or art installation pieces, and it's a rare few who can understand the so-called charm!

laughingwolf said...

ok, never mind... i fup duck, again :(

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, it's in the women's handbook. I stole a glimpse at the book once upon a time when my ex left it out. Man, you'd be surprised at the content. My retinas took years to fully recover. Fortunately for me, Lana threw hers away. Or at least she 'said she did.'

Christina, I think that's quite possible true. An earlier book by him was also highly acclaimed.

Laughingwolf, no not that one. email me at kainja@hotmail.com if you really want to know. But yes, schlock is schlock.

Lisa, you may be right about the big publishers pubbing it. It came out just after I graduated high school. But the author has published something recently. I didn't check to see if it uses the same formula or if it was a big or small press.

laughingwolf said...

but only as to the author/flick....

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, I have Ulysses on my shelves but have not had the courage to venture within. I think a lot of people let others tell them what is important instead of deciding for themselves.
I knew what sheet art you were talking about at once.

Lana, well, I'm willing to watch it with you.

Rachel said...

I'm all about breaking rules if the story is told well. But you do too much of that experimental stuff and then you end up paying more attention to that (and how annoying and pretentious it is) than you do to the story and that's no good.

J. L. Krueger said...

You sure know how to tell a good literary horror story! And you are more literarily determined than me. Must be the teacher in you and the hardening you've gotten grading papers.

If a work of fiction doesn't grab me by the second chapter, it's gone. However, I will slug through the driest histories.

Rachel said...

I have to add that I have thrown a book away. Once. I bought it from the library for a quarter. I was really excited about it. It was about dragons. My favorite beasts. It was so bad and I was pissed at the author that I couldn't even see myself donating it. I tore it in half and put it in the trash.

Shauna Roberts said...

Experiences like yours are why I rarely read literary fiction.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; I said I threw my women's handbook away? Hell, I wrote the only one worth following, as far as I'm concerned. Isn't that right...shnookums? ;) *L*

Steve Malley said...

What a coinkydink: My post tomorrow is actually about how and why this sort of thing happens!

Meantime, in art, in music, in dance and yes, in literature, I blame an increasingly self-referential subculture of iconoclasty and decadence.

Which is a fancy way of saying some folks crawled so far up their own asses something died in there...

Travis said...

When I see the kinds of things in my reading that you note about this book, it makes me think I'm being told I can't sit at the smart kids' table because I don't "get" literary fiction.

Riss said...

Wow. I have to say I agree with most everything that has been said. There are the people who are clever and smart and break rules and it works...and then there's the rest of the asshats out there who are so caught up in their own angsty, arty, schmarty-ness that they get the "outhouse" effect about their own work. You sit in an outhouse long enough and it stops stinking. They break rules just to be so avant-gaarde their publisher has to publish them because they don't understand the work enough to stay no.

It's annoying. I like literary fiction and I like pushing boundaries and I like breaking rules but there has to be some really, serious thought. I think breaking rules and all that is like using habaneros (I can't spell this apparently)...it has to be done in small doses and with the right timing or you end up really sorry.

I'm really curious what book this is? It sounds like Requiem for a Dream. You could like, telepathically tell me if I'm right. I don't even know if they wrote a book or if it was just a movie but whatever. I'll go google it now.

Greg Schwartz said...

I don't know who the author is but it doesn't sound like anyone I'd ever want to read. Stuff like that makes me frustrated too.

ivan said...

Hee.

Well, there's always Terry Pratchett.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, breaking the rules can often result in some very interesting stuff, but only if you follow the rules "most" of the time. If the rules are broken in every single case then it becomes as much of a straightjacket as is you "always" follow the rules.

J. L. Krueger. I've found in recent years that I can often get a nonfiction article out of some really bad fiction, and it helps me at times clarify my own thoughts on writing. So they can provide information, although it's a pain slogging through them.

Shauna, I think it's why I really came to detest "literary" fiction when I was in high school and was forced to read it.

Lana, you certainly have a book I'd like to read, if you know what I'm saying. ;)

Steve Malley, Irritating, for sure. I'll be looking forward to your post.

Travis, I sometimes think that's what these authors are actually saying. They want to impress you with a briliance that is so great you don't dare imagine that you can understand.

Riss, sounds like I might have already been telepathically telling you. Thanks for dropping by.

Greg Schwartz, yes, frustrating as finding out that delicious pie you're looking at is plastic.

Ivan, you know, I've never read any of his work.

Erik Donald France said...

Drug addicts, huh? That all depends on who's doing the telling, I guess.

As far as long paragraphs, I will go with Proust -- beautiful, if sometimes tortured, writing.

I'd rather keep my good health, though ;->

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; Ooh yeah...Braille, baby, BRAILLE! ;)

ivan said...

He don't follow, nor respect nuthin', including literary convention. Says all history, all religion is bunk and we all came from outer space. Kind of a latter day Charles Fort without the style.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, every character in the book is a drug addict.

Lana, I'm dreaming.

Ivan, I did not know that.

laughingwolf said...

request sent....

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't know. Look at Steven King. He hasn't had an editor do anything to his work in years. Perhaps when one is established and becomes the 300 pound gorilla, one can get away with just about anything.

As for show don't tell....I hate that phrase. I think I need to post about that on my blog.

Sam said...

It's the old 'to each his own' in book taste.
I'm still laughing about what Angie said was the definition of literary VS genre fiction according to MZB, that is funny.
Personally, I read for pleasure or in order to learn something, so a book that bores me or doesn't have a character I like, (I loved Suskine's writing, but I hated his book Perfume, for example), is a waste of time for me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, and answered.

Stewart, I'll be interested in your take on "Show don't tell."

Sam, that was a funny quote. I've got to keep it handy.

Riss said...

Yeah...I figured as much. Especially after reading Lana's post about having the mental stamina to go through it again (referring to the movie)...because I feel the same way. Essh. Good thing I have the antennae turned on and receiving. (c:

Merisi said...

Good thing I never got around to read any of the books written by this writer. I wonder how this kind of writing translates into other languages. ;-)

Sarai said...

The thing that sucks the most about that is all the aspiring authors out there who might pick up this book and think that all those rules can be broken b/c so and so did and look he's famous! Just not a good idea

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