Friday, November 02, 2012
In which I gripe about writing styles...
As a writer myself, there are just some things about other writers' styles that bug the crap out of me (that's a technical term, by the way). One of those things is when an entire novel is written in the first person, present tense. It just irritates me. I don't write in that style, and I don't really want to read it.
I bring this up because I recently finished reading The Bone Bed (2012, Putnam; 463 pages), Patricia Cornwell's latest Kay Scarpetta novel, which is written in that style. It is a tribute to Cornwell's ability to tell a story that I stuck with the book to the end. I really wanted to know whodunit, and so I hung in there and finished. It was a good book. I have some quibbles with it, but they are insignificant beside the huge problem I have with the first person, present tense in fiction.
Actually, I should say "in novels", because I've read a few short stories over the years that are written in that style, and they don't bother me nearly as much. Not sure why.
I have finally figured out why it does bother me so much in novels, after thinking about it quite a lot. It's just awkward to read. It is also awkward to write. I've tried, and it just doesn't work for me. There are too many problems to deal with in keeping the story always in the present.
Also, there is the fact that it imitates the real world a little too closely for my taste. Really. We live our lives in the present tense. When I'm reading a novel, part of my reason for doing that, always, is to escape the real world and go live in some other world for awhile. And, in truth, even if a novel purports to take place in the everyday world, it really is creating an alternative universe. That universe might be almost exactly like the one we live in, but it isn't.
An example: I read a piece somewhere the other day...I can't remember if it was a comment on a forum, a blog post, or an article of some kind...that was complaining about the new television series "Elementary", which modernizes Sherlock Holmes and plops him down in modern-day New York City. Good show. I had reservations about it going in, but I like it a lot. The complaint of the writer in question was that no one in the series ever wonders why this modern-day consulting detective has the same name as the consulting detective in the novels and short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They figured that someone, at some point, would think this was strange and comment on it.
What the writer did not account for is that in the universe of the television series, those books were never written. In the series, Sherlock Holmes lives in the 21st century and is a real consulting detective; he is not a character that Doyle made up over a century ago.
So...when I read a novel, I want to feel like I've gone somewhere else, am looking in on a world, a universe, that might be very much like the one I live in (or not very much at all like the one I live in). By writing in the past tense, the author gives me a clue that this is the case. It comforts me to have that clue, and it disturbs me to a greater or lesser degree when I don't have it.
Ah, well. It's probably just me. Maybe because I do write, this sort of thing has the capacity to bother me more than it bothers someone who doesn't write.
This brings up a question, however: As a reader, and as a writer if you are one, what bothers you when writers do it in a piece of writing?