Monday, February 18, 2019

Memo to Self

Q: What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

- from Susan


Hah, this question stopped me cold. I don’t often remember books I didn’t like. I mean, why waste precious brain cells on that? 

I admit, I do sometimes read contemporary fiction that just doesn’t cut it with me. But unless it’s got gruesome torture or scaring-the vulnerable-protagonist-half-to-death scenes, I don’t consciously think, I will avoid that kind of scene. I am not likely to stop and think, “I must remember not to use too many adjectives when describing a woman’s dress or a man’s hair.”  Really unappealing books  - everyone’s taste’s differ, so I mean my taste alone – get tossed before the end so they don’t even worm their way into my already crowded brain. 

As I was writing this, I realized there was a recent crime fiction novel, much praised, that made me wonder if its admirers had somehow read a different version than I did. It was annoying, puzzling, incoherent at times, artificial in concept and character, long on telling and markedly short on showing. Subjectively, I felt my own recent book was better. Well, of course I would, but instead of motivating me in my own work, it depressed me. That book got buzz, accolades, and sold very well. The writer was crowned with olive wreaths, while I, sitting gloomily at my computer, wondered if I should just hang up my keyboard and learn how to knit. 

Revisiting this week’s question, I’m wondering what the person who posed it had in mind? War & Peace, perhaps, where the love story is terrific, but the time it takes to tell it seems interminable? Memo to self: No one reads anything longer than 275 pages



The Sun Also Rises, in which purple prose conquers everything and Men Are Strong?  Memo to self: It’s not necessary to hear violins in the text.


Perhaps the questioner had in mind the opening line to Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. You know, “It was a dark and stormy night….” Memo to self: Avoid melodramatic prose...unless you want to embrace it as Madeleine L’Engle did, using the same line to open her classic A Wrinkle In Time.




Which proves something, I guess.

12 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Memo to Susan: I'm wondering if the recent well-received crime fiction novel that was much praised but that you didn't like is the same one I'm thinking of. Of course, there's many that fall into that category... And it is frustrating.

Art Taylor said...

Oh, no! What does it say about me that I like all the books here! (...well, not Bulwer-Lytton, but....)

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I'm with you, Susan. I don’t often remember books I didn’t like. There could be lessons on what I'd do different, but I'm not sure if it would act as a motivator.

James Ziskin said...

Come on, Susan. Dish. What was the book???

Good post!

Susan C Shea said...

Paul and Jim, Ha! We are a community that believes in supporting each other as writers, so you know I'm not going to publicly criticize an individual. And, I have to say, if so many people were wowed by the book in question, the fault may be mine in not seeing it.

Art, I like those books too (other than the infamous, poorly treated Bulwer-Lytton, whose book I have never read) too. I was just trying to think what in the writing of them might I not want to do in my own work.

dietrich, it is an interesting question but hard to answer, isn't it? I struggled a bit with it.

Alexia Gordon said...

I can think of a book I didn't like at all, that I read because I loved the movie version. (The book is not always better.) When I thought about what was different between the two, I realized the movie developed the supporting characters to a much greater degree than the book. The book, literally, portrayed a lot of the supporting characters as shadows. The movie fleshed these characters out and they ended up being some of the funniest characters in the film. I learned supporting characters need to be vibrant, not one dimensional.

Susan C Shea said...

Alexia, That's so interesting. Usually, the film version has to chop away secondary characters and their stories to stay within the limits of time that the book doesn't have. This sounds like the reverse of that.

Keenan Powell said...

Well certainly none of my friends' books! I love all their books. But I do have an ambiguous relationship with James Joyce's Ulyesses. The internal monologue is the most delicate and intimate I've ever heard. I want to write like that. But, come on, is there a story? So I listen to it bits and pieces at a time. I don't worry about following it, just luxuriate in the language.

Susan C Shea said...

Keenan, One of my all time favorite books and 100% easier to follow than Finnegan's Wake! I think Bloom's journey is metaphorically a story, not unlike a Renaissance story poem about traversing the underworld to learn about ones self. But maybe that's just my English major self talking!

Kathy Reel said...

In talking about books that some people are crazy about and others don't like, I had an interesting conversation the other day with my adult son. We often talk about reading, and I can't remember which one of us first mentioned Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton or why, but almost in a synchronized blurt, I uttered, "I love Ethan Frome," and my son said, "I hated Ethan Frome." As much as we agree about liking books, we came down on opposite sides of this one. Of course, I haven't decided whether or not to cut him from the will for his lack of taste. Hahaha!

Susan C Shea said...

Kathy, I'd leave him in. I remember reading this in high school and thinking it was the most depressing story I'd ever read. Part of that might have been because I was 17 and the notion of a lifetime of sour, hard retribution was a nightmare, but some to think of it, I still do!

quoi said...

I am a reader/writer who always has a background tape running that goes: "I like this . . . I want to find a way to do that myself" and "I don't like that. . . better check to see if I am doing it too" . . . . Here is a negative reaction that was instructive: In Anthony Horowitz' mystery "Magpie Murders", I was so thrown and annoyed by the book-within-a-book conceit that I couldn't suspend my disbelief again and engage with the framing story. It really illustrated for me how powerfully readers enter into the world you are creating and what a responsibility that is for the writer. Not to disrupt the dream or violate whatever rules you've created to build that world, those characters. Of course, Horowitze did this intentionally and plenty of people liked it. Even though I didn't, I learned something from it.