Friday, April 29, 2011

Bad books, bad writing

Are bad books and bad writing necessarily the same thing? And does context matter? There are plenty of poorly written books in the world that have become bestsellers; and plenty of well written ones that are torrid; yet are we even talking about the same thing? Sometimes a writers' style doesn't gell with the reader. I remember recommending Anne Micheals' "Fugitive Pieces" years ago, and someone being disappointed, finding the poet's style too intrusive for its subject. There are "marmite" writers that you can love or hate; but there are books which given space and time I'd happily give a rationalised trashing too. (One example from way back: the much lauded late Carol Shields. I hated "The Stone Diaries" but was intrigued by its success and critical acclaim, and read her later novel "Larry's Diary." If anything it was worse, but whereas with "The Stone Diaries" I could perhaps say it was a "marmite" book - and probably not written for a male audience at all - "Larry's Party" protagonist was male, but Shields' didn't get anywhere close to the male psyche, and the book was both boring and unbelievable.)

Usually, if you can't say something good, you possibly shouldn't say anything at all - it might just be "marmite" after all, but I wrote a negative review of Sean O'Brien's debut novel "The Afterlife" last year, because the reviews I'd read seemed to be skirting around how poorly written it was; and I half feel that I should do the same for Adam Roberts' "Swiftly" which is one of the poorest books I've read in a long time. A piece of "steampunk" (rather than SF) where Gulliver's discoveries are now protagonists in 19th century European history, the idea is a grand one, but Roberts' soon loses interest in it - preferring an extrapolation of the idea (what if the Lilliputians were giants compared to some other organism? etc.) which is frankly unecessary. Worse, the wild goose chase of an unlikely set of protagonists is punctuated by the worst kind of historical novel purple prose, and for reasons that - having not read Roberts before - I'm assuming are meant to be humorous, an obsession with the scatalogical. The blurbs on the cover, the interesting premise, the homage to the great Swift, would indicate that you are in the company of a modern master; but the end result is over-long, poorly structured, and written in an indigestible prose style that may be an effective mid-19th century parody, or may simply be rubbish. Not a full review, I'm afraid, but I did struggle to the end, hating the book more and more as I skipped through its unengaging picaresque, with characters I neither liked nor had any sympathy for. Having read a few SF or related novels over the last year or two, I've become used to a sort of clagginess of contemporary SF prose that aims, I think, to be almost "literary", but its usually been redeemed by both the scope of the imagination, or the sympathy with the characters. "Swiftly" provided neither of these comforts.

So is there a connection between bad books and bad writing? A well written book will let you excuse a lot, a badly written one - one's patience quickly wears thin. I know that Carol Shields being a good writer couldn't rescue "Larry's Party" - in many ways, her "good" writing, mitigated against it. I know that Sean O'Brien is a deft critic and capable poet; but "The Afterlife" despite being an original idea, is scuppered by the writing. Adam Roberts is no hack, but "Swiftly" is no honour to Swift.


Art Durkee said...

Speaking as a lifelong SF reader, I'm not so quick to dismiss as entire genre on the basis of not having read much of it.

SF, as Ray Bradbury put it, among others, is a literature of ideas. It's true that there are plenty of poorly-written SF novels in which the ideas are better than the writing. On the other hand, Bradbury himself is one of those whose writing is very good, very crisp and fun on the ear, and whose ideas at their best are just as crisp.

I enjoy steampunk, which of course is an offshoot of cyberpunk, but merely doing a pastiche of 19 C. writing style isn't enough, as you point out. There are certainly good novels within the genre, though.

For very well-written hard SF novels, full of mind-blowing sense-of-wonder ideas, I recommend current SF authors like Peter F. Hamilton. An example of good writing and great ideas combined.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Blogger ate my previous comment. Wasn't criticising the genre, just a particular book. Been impressed by some of the SF I've read recently (The City and The City, The Wind Up Girl and some older books) but not this one, but wondering if there's the worst sort of "literariness" creeping into some of the prose, the "clagginess" I mentioned? Just a thought; and always good to have a new name to look out for, so thanks.

Anonymous said...

Such hypocrisy!

You spend days tweeting your disinterest in the Wedding and how you will NOT be watching it; "@Kate_Butler I'm not switching the television or radio on until saturday now" [28 Apr]

...Contradict yourself by tweeting about it on the day; "amazing how many chores you can get done when there's nothing decent on the tele (*goes and puts the recycling out*)" [29 Apr]

...Then write a whole blog about the Royals and tweet about that; "Feel I can be rude about the absurdities of the royal wedding now" [30 Apr]

If you truly wanted to show you were uninterested in the Wedding you would not have mentioned it at all.

Please do try and be more honest.

Adrian said...

What can I say? I tried to avoid it, but they were still going on about it when I switched the news on all weekend. I don't live in a cave, and I found I had something to say about it after all.