In the litany of authorial sins that readers object to, are quirks that require readers to reread or rereread a passage to figure it out. So said the hundreds of readers who responded to a recent Washington Post query, written up here (paywall).
One cause for having to reread a passage can be the abandonment of quotation marks—Cormac McCarthy is an author who omits them (though, I admit, I don’t mind rereading him).
Hilary Mantel had the opposite quirk. She kept the quotation marks but eliminated everything like “Cromwell said” or “said the Cardinal.” Some dialog passages needed several readings to be sure I had the words coming from the correct character’s mouth. Most confusing in Wolf Hall, but better in the later books.
Another annoying source of confusion are gratuitously complicated timelines. The structure of a book should make it easier, not harder, to follow. Even Sulari Gentil’s clever The Woman in the Library (my review) baffled me at times. In a plot like nesting dolls, you have to stay alert to a change in point of view. Is it the author writing or the author she’s writing about or . . . . ???
On to the complaints about characters, starting with “unrealistically clever children or talking animals.” No, please.
A big one we should have evolved past by now is sexy descriptions of women in non-sexy situations. I read a lot of cringy stuff focusing on a woman’s appearance, especially her figure, top and bottom. Need I mention such descriptions are almost always written by men? Turn the tables and write about male characters in such a salacious way, you see how awful it is. (See this column by Alexandra Petri, “If male authors described men in literature the way they describe women.” Or this essay by Prasanna Sawant, “The Bizarre Ways Some Male Authors Describe Women.”) I don’t believe the male authors are even aware they’re doing it. Appearance is what they notice about women in real life, so that’s what they put on paper, whereas the male characters just show up.
Readers also object to “disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.” That holds for any character who is meant to demonstrate a point, like the protagonist’s open-mindedness: “Look, he has a Black friend, a gay friend, a loyal dog!” Authors need to give those friends and mutts something to do.
Then the readers got down to nitpicking. Somebody will object to almost anything, it seems: overused phrases like “his smile didn’t reach his eyes,” “she exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she was holding” (I encounter that one a lot). Even individual words would prompt readers’ to get out their blue pencils: burgeoning, preternatural, inevitable, lugubrious. In the comments on the article, one reader objected to “spelling based on sound, not a dictionary. Just read one novel that referred to riggers (not rigors) and emmersed (instead of immersed). I was stunned to read the author’s note in which she complimented her editor.” I, on the other hand, was pleased and surprised to see that such creatures still exist.
Post writer Ron Charles, who compiled these complaints, predicts that “somewhere some cynical, market-driven AI scientist is working on a novel-writing program that can accommodate all these complaints.” I hope not. Words written by a real person—blind spots and annoying habits and grammar lapses and all—are preferable to a formula any day.
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