The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Doing it Wrong on the Right Side of Town

Chris Szego
Posted June 10, 2010


Once a year this column turns cranky. Lucky you: today’s that day!

The Romance genre sells a lot of books. It dominates the paperback trade. When it comes to mass markets, Romance outsells every other genre and subject combined. It stands to reason, then, that it would likely also contain more bad books than any other genre.

And it does.  Oh my word, yes.

But this column isn’t about bad books, exactly. At least, not in the sense of poorly written. Among the many lessons one learns working at a bookstore is that life is too short (and your TBR pile too high) to read bad books. So instead, I’ll focus on specific things I don’t care for: particular issues, habits and narrative strategies
that really irritate.

Irritate me, that is: your mileage may vary.

Meh-ness and Hitting Marks

Dreadful prose makes itself known very quickly. You can tell by page two if a
writer has no skill with words. So it’s not hard to dodge that
bullet. A Meh book is sneakier than that, because it isn’t poorly
written. It’s competent, and that’s the problem. It’s only
competent. No one element, like plot or character or language, is
bad enough to make you stop reading, but when you finish, the sum total of your
feelings about the book can be summed up with: ‘meh’.

Readers deserve more than Meh.  I’m
all for competence: it’s a basic requirement. But it’s only step
one. Step two is making readers care. Meh is not the same thing as 
predictable:  you can guess where a story is going and still be
delighted to get there. What makes the difference is heart. If a
book has heart, readers will forgive any number of flaws. If it has
no heart, they won’t care at all. Think of it like acting. Yes,
an actor needs to be able to hit marks and to say lines. But if
that’s all he does, he’s not much of an actor at all.

I am Old Nowfittedcrabby.JPG

I’m not a huge fan of prologues. Most of them are used as an unofficial
infodump, and I think a story should start where it actually begins.
But I’m not adamantly against them either, except for one type:
the kind of prologue that tells you the main character is now old and
thinking back on her younger years. Sometimes it’s a letter,
sometimes a memory, sometimes it’s an excerpt from a future history

Oooh, I hate that. Because it interferes with one of the main impluses that drives the reading of fiction:  the desire to discover what happens next.
With an ‘I am Old Now’ prologue, you already know what
happened:  the main character survived to old age. So the story is
over before it even starts. It’s also a sly form of meta-fiction,
reminding you that what you’re reading is, in fact, a story. It’s
not real or immediate, it’s an artificial textual construct. I resent that reminder.
Partly because I studied way too much metafiction in my undergraduate
days, and partly becaue I just want to read the damn book.

wanted to:  now that I know what happened, not so much.

≠ Amusing

Everybody likes snappy dialogue. Witty banter, zingers and one-liners abound, usually in contemporaries but also in historicals. But just as in real-life
dialogue, in fiction there’s a distinct chasm between funny and
bitchy. Sadly, too many writers fall into it. Occasionally, the
problem is one of repetition: a character who always has a smart
remark can seem like she’s trying to score points, rather than have
a conversation.

Worse is the character who acts as if every question
must be an accusation, and every comment an attack.  Readers are supposed to assume that this unceasing display represents the character’s mental (and possibly physical) strength.  Unfortunately, a constant barrage of sharp comebacks is not a demonstration of strength, but an indication of
insecurity. Also, when blistering retorts are all you’ve got, they
cease to be funny.

Cheap Suspense

that breathless sense of ‘can they make it?’ powers much of
fiction, regardless of genre. In Romance, suspense is created as
much by character development as by plot. And yes, it’s hard.
But that doesn’t mean writers should take the easy way out. An
easy way to infuse a little suspense into a plot is to insert a line
like “If only he’d known what was coming, he would never have
done X”. Oh, come on! Not only is that unfair to the character,
it’s unfair to the reader, who was just yanked out of the story
into a meta-fictional reminder that what she is reading is a created
text (please see above re: my metafictional bias).  How about building suspense by, you know, actually building suspense?

The shabby way to create character-driven suspense trick is to have characters refuse to talk to one another. Luckily, this annoying habit is not nearly so common
any more, in part because it makes characters look like immature
knobs. One of the unwritten rules of the genre is that any conflict
that can be resolved by a simple conversation is not, in fact, a
conflict at all. The only writer in recent memory who did this well
was Jennifer Crusie, in the excellent Bet Me.

But she’s
Jennifer Crusie: don’t try this at home.


Chris Szego sez this column was brought to you by the letters ‘g’ and ‘rrrr’.


2 Responses to “Doing it Wrong on the Right Side of Town”

  1. Nefarious Dr O
    June 10th, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    You know, those could be used for alot of genre fiction, not just romance. But then, you probably did know that. Still, I agree with you all all of them: They are signs of lazy (or insecure, is there anything worse than a writer who lacks confidence?) writing. I’ve seen flashbacks used so poorly in so many types of genre media I want to find Mr. Peabody and strangle him then send his time machine 5 billions years into the future, pilotless.

  2. Carol Borden
    June 16th, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    i agree with you about meh. spectacularly bad books often have their own kind of genius, fueled by some overriding enthusiasms. some bad things can even transcend good/bad. but the meh book is often a result of a fear of writing a bad one and through that fear wastes everyone’s time with all its workaday, mundane competencies. can’t write something amazing without risking it being awful.

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