What do you hate most in a book? The Washington Post this week ran a piece on that very subject. It was a timely read for me. I had just finished one novel by a favorite female author and am several pages into another novel by another favorite female author. The first I disliked; the second I’m savoring.
First, the books: “The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy,” by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume), and “Sea of Tranquility,” by Emily St. John Mandel (author of the excellent “Station Eleven”).
In his Post essay, book critic Ron Charles posted reader responses to his request for pet peeves in writing. I was gratified to learn that the worst annoyances coincide closely with my own.
- The mother of all sins, of course, being dream sequences. Hey, I thought that was just me! But Ron’s readers seem united in their disdain for this creaky and frustrating plot device. The Vine book has at least a couple, and I realized it’s hard for me to concentrate when I’m rolling my eyes. None so far in the ESJM book, but it’s still early going.
- Another thing I really, really hate (how I love saying that) is gratuitous use of italics. Again, wide consensus on that point. Italics are sprinkled liberally through the Vine book, which closes with an entire chapter in italics. It’s not a short chapter, either.
- Timelines and points of view that get so tangled it’s like the manuscript got scattered by a toddler and the author didn’t bother to reorder the pages. In “The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy,” time and narrator often seem to change without even a line space. It took a while to finish because I had to reread so many parts of it. I suspect this may be a problem with “Sea of Tranquility” too, since it spans hundreds of years, but she made it work in “Station Eleven” so I’ll play along.
Surprisingly (to me), nobody carped about the proliferation of the present tense in modern fiction. You know: “She goes to the bathroom. It smells. She forgets to flush the toilet.” Like we’re right there with her, instead of in the comfort of our own bathrooms. I guess this is supposed to impart some edgy immediacy to quotidian events, but I do not like it. You see it everywhere.
Back to the books: I’ve enjoyed everything Ruth Rendell has ever written, and parts of this book are lovely. But it’s way too windy, with too many characters and digressions, and it revolves around a family mystery that you guess early and eventually quit caring about. Also: the dream thing.
Emily St. John Mandel, by contrast, takes you by the hand with short, evocative paragraphs that lead easily from one to another – and pretty soon you don’t need to be led. You’re not sure where you’re going, but you trust her. Maybe I’ll change my mind after reading the whole thing, but I’m encouraged so far.
John H. says
For me, it’s constant cutting from one character or storyline to another. That really bugged me in Lynn Steger Strong’s “Flight”. I was just getting comfortable with character A and then we’re in the head of character B, then character C, all of whom are at least involved in the same upcoming event. But then we go to character D who has only a tangential connection to C and I’m tired. The choppiness made it impossible for me to get absorbed in the story. I don’t mind multiple characters’ viewpoints, but for goodness’ sake stick with one of them for a while before jumping to the next.
It was disappointing because the author’s previous book, “Want” really pulled me into the mind of its narrator. (You’ll want to avoid it, though, Dave – it’s written in the present tense.)
Dave Knadler says
They are all in the present tense these days, I think. I guess it’s no longer a dealbreaker.