I’ve noticed lately that I’m becoming less tolerant. (Shh, let me finish.) It used to be that I could pick up anything and read it, but age seems to be making me even more persnickety. My literary palate insists on appropriate vocabulary, adept sentence structure, developed characters and a worthwhile denouement. In particular, if I’ve paid a fair amount of money for a traditionally published book, I expect the writer and the editor to have produced something close to perfect; I’m a little more tolerant of self-published books.
About year ago, in a Friday night fit of lethargy, I’d gone to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel when it was in the theatre. Loved it; have since rented it for another viewing. When I discovered the novel, I was quite happy because there are a lot of Friday nights that need something fluffy, but I was somewhat suspect of the author; I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to slog through Hot Water Man some years ago. My suspicion was not disappointed. (How the hell can you keep a character for a whole twelve sentences, interspersed, and think it’s a good idea?)
I had a similar problem when I read The Lovely Bones for a student’s Independent Study Unit: undeveloped characters, dropped subplots, and clumsy sentences. That ISU frustrated the bejesus out of me.
I’m beginning to wonder if my issue isn’t with novels. Like successful businesses that incorporate and begin to worry more about CEOs than clients, I wonder if most authors just don’t have enough control for a work that large. There are, of course, the blessed exceptions, but even brilliant writers like Emma Donoghue and Rohinton Mistry have shaky parts that make me grit my teeth–although, that could also be the work of editors who sacrifice logic and art in favour of money.
Novels have become the literary staple so there’s lots of them around, and there’s enough space in a novel that the writer and/or editor can make a mistake and it’s not noticed—or, at least, it’s not thought important enough to worry about. Novellas and short stories demand clarity, purpose and perfection. In a short piece of fiction, one would not introduce a character, have him pop up a few times throughout the story without actually playing a role, and then end the story without reference to him. Not, of course, that there are no imperfect short stories lying around, but one mistake in three thousand words is more prominent than one mistake in a hundred thousand words.
I like small things: short stories are better than novellas, and novellas are better than novels. Small packages are the best (they often contain books); small spaces are cozy; small quantities leave you with that ineffable desire that give purpose to our existence. Independent bookstores that sell only books are better than department-store bookstores that sell yoga mats and coffee mugs. Small cats don’t put your legs to sleep like big cats do.
Perhaps another thing that sways me is my job: day in, day out, I work with students who have no appreciation for perfect writing. They take no pleasure in an exquisitely turned sentence or a character that’s so real the reader can taste him. These students are with me long term, and it’s often months before anything evolves in their writing. At the end of the day, I want to revel in the written word, not spend more time wrangling my way through something that is slapped together just so the author can say “There. I wrote it.”
In my intolerance for loose writing, I’ve learned a bit about consumerism: how to be the purveyor by day and the consumer by night. Both roles demand a set of standards on my part, though I sometimes feel guilty that I can’t lower one set—it seems whiny and high-needy. But then a few years ago, I thought my sister was insane for researching toasters before spending an inordinate amount of money on one; her perspective was that toast, as a staple of her diet, was worthy of these particular standards. As a staple of my intellectual diet (I do partake in the odd movie or conversation—I think of these as salt), the books I read are worthy of my standards.
I think after having given her two chances, I can certainly say that’s the last Deborah Moggach book I’ll read. Instead, I’ll continue my search for a Timothy Findley replacement (seeing as he won’t be writing any more books), and wait keenly for Vikram Seth and Yann Martel to come out with their next offerings.