A bad taste

I just finished reading a novel that has left a lingering foul taste. I want to cleanse my creative palate now.

I came to this novel with great anticipation, even eagerness. It’s a debut novel by a writer who will probably have much success. I’d read an enthusiastic review of the novel online and then found a half dozen similar excited reviews for it, including one in the New York Times. The author’s next novel has already been snatched up by the publisher, and I understand the debut novel has been optioned for a movie. The novel sounded like winner, and I was hoping to write my own review of it on this humble blog.

That won’t happen. Although I found a few things I liked about the work, I found a far greater number of things that I hated. Chief among them was the writing; it was dreadful.

The writing is full of colloquialisms, the kind of cliched stuff that creeps into first drafts but needs to be cleaned out. The protagonist proceeded “with a spring in his step.” He found he was “sitting on a gold mine.” He went with his “proverbial tail between his legs.” Things happened at “the last possible moment.” He realized he had a “window of opportunity.” At one point he even smelled “a clean, fresh scent.” And so forth. Many sentences were obviously constructed so that they wouldn’t end with a preposition, and they read about as affected as you can imagine. “Big words” pop into the narrative that seem inconsistent with the narrator’s natural vocabulary.  Every single page had something like this. It was grossly amateurish; it was the kind of thing I saw from my students when they wanted to write “properly.” (An aside: at one point the character must do something “at 2:00 a.m. in the morning”!)

At first I wanted to attribute this sloppiness to the voice of the narrator, that the writer wanted the narrator to speak like a precocious middle school student, but I don’t think that’s it. I certainly didn’t see a reason for having the narrator tell the story this way. I really think it is due to a first time novelist (with little prior fiction writing experience according to the book’s website) who received shamefully inadequate editing.

But more than just the narrative bothered me. The protagonist begins to go through a profound psychological change with an almost arbitrary motivation. Or rather, the matter that sparks his change had been before him all of his adult life, and I don’t think the author did a very good job of showing why he was suddenly (and so extensively) affected by it. It seemed contrived. Other motivations needed for the character to take plot-required turns are presented when they are needed rather than woven into the character’s personality from the start. I felt as though this character could do just about anything, make any kind of decision, or reveal some hitherto-unseen-but-suddenly-necessary skill at any time. Throughout the story the protagonist had “never felt more frightened in his life,” or “never felt more happy in his life,” or “never felt more certain in his life,” and so on. Important characters are referenced but never introduced. Other characters are given extensive introductions and are never seen again.

The plot was clever, but it took a bizarre turn near the end that provided high drama yet didn’t seem necessary to show the development of the character. Like so much else in the story, the hand of the writer was apparent when, with good writing, the writer should disappear in the story.

In all, it was a big mess. I don’t know what the editor did for the writer (it is from a large, well known publisher), but some serious work with the red pen might have rescued the writing. Certainly if it were my story, I wouldn’t have submitted it in this condition. I don’t see myself reading this author’s next novel. Maybe I’ll pick up something of his a decade from now and see if he has improved.

As I said, I finished this novel with a bad taste. I always fear that by reading such writing, I will be influenced by it in my own writing. Fortunately, I have Philip Roth’s new novel on my reading shelf. I can tell that every single word in his fiction is chosen to do specific work. It will provide the corrective I need.

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One Comment on “A bad taste”

  1. Pete Says:

    If you’re so inclined, drop me an email and let me know the identity of the author and book, which I’m dying to know, if for no other reason to learn which major publisher allows phrases like “with a spring in his step” and “sitting on a gold mine” appear in print. I’ll keep it completely confidential.


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