Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Call Me Hypocrite

A while back, I complained about the fact that writers aren't more inventive: when authors find a stable, compelling voice and mode of telling stories, they rarely deviate. I decried this on the theory that different stories demand different voices and approaches, and that part of what readers expect from writers is a new way of seeing things. If there really are only seven plots, as Christopher Booker argues in (you guessed it) The Seven Basic Plots, then it's up to authors to relay their stories in the most inventive, varied ways possible. And part of the skill of being a writer, it seems to me, is to avoid getting too comfortable in any one combination of voice and point of view.

Well. I was soon to be hoist by my own petard.

A couple of weeks ago, desperate for something diverting to read, I picked up a Terry Pratchett novel, Monstrous Regiment. Those of you familiar with Pratchett know that he's a very funny man. I don't pretend to have read all of his books -- his oeuvre is quite large -- but based on those I have read, I'd say he's not particularly inventive in the way that I describe above. His charm comes in his ability to elaborate endlessly on the Discworld he's created. Most fantasy writers create a world and then find themselves stuck with characters and mores that grow increasingly rigid, until the whole thing groans creaking to a halt, and the author has to create an entirely new world. Not Pratchett. From within his Discworld, he's fearlessly found new characters to write about, on topics as varied as the postal system or what it's like to be Death, though his overriding theme is human folly and stupidity. From his abiding rage, he is able to spin endless jokes and riffs on contemporary culture, while never failing to be entertaining.

So imagine my disappointment when I opened Monstrous Regiment and found that it was ... earnest. Oh, there're occasional jokes (there's a vampire in it who has, like a reformed alcoholic, sworn off human blood - he's a member of the Temperance League), but all in all, it's a fairly bitter story about sexism and the stupidity of war (and humans for waging it). So it was entertaining enough, but it lacked the usual Pratchett brio. As author of over 20 novels, he's got a right to flag occasionally, of course. But man, was I mad that he dared to write a book that was halfway serious. What I wanted was the old Pratchett, the usual Pratchett, the one I was comfortable with. It's not clear that he was experimenting with something new, by the way, just that he was angrier and maybe sadder than when writing other books, but the effect was the same: he blazed a new trail, and I was damned if I was going with him. Put me in mind of T.R. Pearson, whose voice in The Last of How it Was and other earlier novels is peerless and quite mannered; but when he began to deliberately break it down in a later novel, Cry Me a River, and meld it with contemporary details and a less mellifluous voice, he lost some of his charm for me, no matter how much I admired him for his daring.

Which just goes to show you: that's why writers aren't more inventive.

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chapman said...

one of the blessings of failure is that you don't have an audience to disappoint or disorient. you're free to move & change, because no one cares.

it's funny, though, because even in my tiny audience there are some readers and reviewers who tell me that X is my only really great book, and others who insist that X was my one real failure.

or somebody'll say the only good part of book Q was the opening 50 pages, and somebody else says that if you can get past the lousy first 50 pages, the rest is fine.

they'll also say completely odd things like, book Y was really "overshadowed" and "superceded" by book Z.

it's easy to ignore this kind of noise, since it all contradicts itself. and maybe more successful writers aren't really as influenced as you might think by particular criticisms. (though i guess if your agent or publisher tells you you've gone wrong, you listen. that's the saddest notion of all.)

Benjamin Chambers said...

I know what you mean. When I was writing and submitting, I would sometimes receive rejections from journals in which the editors had tried to articulate the reason for their decisions. I was often astonished by the peculiarity of their reasons, especially when their comments revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a piece. (I'm not an especially obscure writer, and I do have considerable control over my material, so I felt I had done everything a writer could to make his meaning clear.) And once, when I was on the staff of a literary journal, reviewing fiction, I was amazed to hear that one of the other reviewers routinely rejected first-person stories because he disliked them, without giving them to other staffers to read first. I think understanding that individual readers' responses will be highly idiosyncratic is a valuable lesson for writers, because, as you indicate, it frees them enough to follow their own artistic impulses.

But my point was somewhat different, in that I think writers, like readers, are generally very conservative, and while individual comments may tend to "cancel each other out," a group of readers will generally find the same strengths and faults in a piece, even if they describe them differently. And if they read much of a writer's work, they come to expect to read within the lines, so to speak, and woe unto the writer who surprises them too much.