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?


CinnamonOpus said...

I've been reading nonfiction for the most part over the past few years. I gave up on fiction, for the most part -- there wasn't any real reason; I just stopped.

Then I joined a book club (as a social thing, to meet new people and get out of the house) and had to read fiction again. And I was miserable. But on thinking about it, I believe what made me not enjoy the books was stylistic. Things like overly-descriptive prose, for example. It's a bluebird -- don't spend 8 pages telling me EVERY. LITTLE. FACTOID. about it. If I wanted to know that much detail, I'd read something nonfiction about it.

That's hypocritical, isn't it. Oh well.

The other thing is when authors adopt an annoying narrative persona. I read "Room" and the story was engaging, but reading the narrative in a five-year-old's voice, complete with cutesy descriptive names for things and mispronunciations and all that, made me want to punt.

Whoops. This is not my blog... Sorry!

littlemissattitude said...

No worries. Long comments are more than welcome.

I have issues with overdescription, as well. Case in point: The part of "The Grapes of Wrath" where Steinbeck takes three pages or whatever it is to describe a turtle crossing the road. I was supposed to read that book fo English class in 11th grade, but those three pages made me throw the book across the room, and I never picked it up again. I feel the same way about Tolkien - I really can't read his stuff because he describes everything in such detail.

I don't enjoy reading narratives written in children's voices, but I suspect a lot of that comes from never liking most children's literature even when I was a child. Reading that sort of narrative even in books aimed at adults annoys me.

I read a lot of non-fiction, too, but I love a good science fiction or urban fantasy novel, and I have specific mystery writers that I enjoy reading. I mostly don't like mainstream fiction for the same reason I addressed in my post: I live in the real world; I don't want to read fiction about it.


littlemissattitude said...

Oh, and I almost forgot. Thanks for coming by reading, and commenting. Not used to having commenters arond here.

Kourtney said...

AGH THE TOLKIEN OVERDESCRIPTION! That bothers me. I also remember loathing Steinbeck, but I can't really recall why and I'm disinclined to try and find out.

I used to read a lot of EVERYTHING. I have less time now, and I don't read much nonfiction, as it's just not that engaging. I can't think of what else is a particular turn-off; I do know that there are authors I won't revisit, but I've never put too much energy into figuring out why.

littlemissattitude said...

Thanks for stopping by, and for reading and commenting, Kourtney.

It's interesting. I used to re-read a lot. A whole lot, in fact.

Now, there are a very few books that I will re-read on occasion, but I do much less of that now than I did previously. When I do re-read, it is usually a matter of comfort reading; I've had a bad day or a bad week, and I revisit something that I really love and can lose myself in for awhile.

As far as non-fiction goes, I've always read at least as much non-fiction as I do fiction. I'll give almost any non-fiction a try, but if it doesn't engage me pretty quickly I'll put it down and go on to something else. Also, since I've been writing seriously, more and more of my non-fiction reading time goes to things I'm reading as research rather than just reading because I'm interested in what the book is about.

I wish I had more time to read. But, even now that I'm unemployed, I don't have as much time to read as I did when I was younger. Job hunting takes up a lot of time, and I'm doing volunteer work while I'm looking. That takes up time, as well. And, ironically, the more serious I get about my writing, the more time I spend writing and the less time I have to read.