My local library is, while very good, somewhat small, and doesn’t cycle books as quickly as I can read them. (Few people do; that can hardly be a criticism.) As a result, I’ve taken to wandering about areas I don’t normally read, desperately looking for something without a picture of some shoes or a frilly dress on the cover. Such things make excellent “DO NOT READ” signs! In any case, I found myself a variety of potentially interesting books, including a crime novel by someone who by the account of the back had won much praise from various vaguely reputable sources (assorted newspapers, mainly) for a previous book.
The plot was interesting enough, and sufficiently convoluted that I didn’t see all the twists coming, but that’s not what I’m really going to remember and it’s not what I intend to discuss – because my oh my, the style. I appreciate that this really shouldn’t surprise me after Twilight (which I’ve skim-read just to find out if it was as terrible as I’d heard, which it was) and 50SoG (which I haven’t because all my FFN filters say NO NO NO, which is the correct response to bad fanfic), but it still does. Not a single member of my family has written like that since well before their age hit double digits. (I’d have to check if the old notebooks have dates in to be any more accurate than that.) It was on the level of one of my favourite pieces of sibling literature, which chronicled the exploits of Action Man in the format “Action Man did this. Action Man did that. Then there was an enemy coming along the corridor so Action Man did this. Then Action Man did something else.” and included what may just be the best line ever: “Action Man did a splits-kick”, which amuses me unreasonably to this very day. (Which of us was responsible for this will just have to remain a mystery, as I’m not sure the author would want to be identified. Personally, I’d be proud of it, but that’s just me.)
What I probably wouldn’t do would be to approach a publisher with Action Man’s splits-kick, and what I really wouldn’t do is then expect them to say “Good, yes, more of this please.” There was a paragraph of six sentences, four of which began with the word “He”. Each sentence is a single statement, neither embellished nor illustrated. Occasionally two statements will be linked with an “and” or “but”. Punctuation is minimal as the short sentences do not require it. Contractions appear MIA. Incomprehensible references to brand names are scattered through the text. This may be an artefact of the lack of evocative description. For example, a Hollywood sign is mentioned and its history listed. However the history is irrelevant and the sign itself is never described. In one place, an entirely incorrect word is used: the text says “accent on” instead of “emphasis on” a word. Writing like this is actually growing slightly mentally painful, so I’ll stop.
Now, maybe this chap was having a year off. Maybe s/he got bored. Maybe s/he wanted to see what s/he could get away with. I’ve not read any of the apparently-many other books (although I now will read at least one so as to avoid being unfair) and really can’t comment. But I digress, because really, I don’t want to talk about one person, but rather an illustration, and this is the one I happen to have in front of me. See, reading out of my normal zone (sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction) and into the loose clutter of the uncategorised fiction area, I’m currently finding that this seems to be an effect. That the quality is a step or two lower than I’ve come to expect, that prose is poor or that questions are sidestepped. Another book, which I don’t currently have to hand as it’s back at the library, went for a semi-unreal, dreamlike effect, but neglected to consider any possible sensible actions that real people would probably take under those circumstances, rather negating any ability to sympathise with the main character. (It also didn’t help that said MC came across as completely passive and unable to take any action besides looking at the scenery without some form of direct order to do so. Any action.)
Now, perhaps that’s simply a bias stemming from my limited sample size. Further adventures in the uncategorised section will likely change my viewpoint. But I’m wondering, is this a thing? Am I going to learn to expect this? And if so, why? There’s certainly enough technically excellent writing out there that it doesn’t need to be the case. Personally, I still think publishers do a lot of useful things, but if this does prove to be a general trend, they aren’t making a very good case for their gatekeeping.
What do you think? Have my last few grab-a-book-almost-at-random choices just been unlucky? Or is this section actually, on average, of lower literary standard?
(P.S. Action Man did a splits-kick. You just can’t beat this. Action Man wins at life.)