Friday, 6 April 2007

I have a little list

First of all happy Easter to all my readers and may the meaning of the season not be lost in spring cleaning, chocolate eating, enjoying the first warm weather of the year or being nice to Easter bunnies. I spent the first three days of this week tagging along on a university geology trip and it was a profitable and, for the most part, very pleasant experience.

I don't read a lot of popular fiction these days (I just don't have the time) but for this trip I picked up a thick paperback novel. I don't wish to name names (I'm a coward) but it had been a massive bestseller in its native country for two years and came with a various quotes on the front that made you think you were in for a good read. Frankly, dear reader, as the current phrase goes, ‘it sucked’.

Now when I came back I had a nice e-mail asking me about the books that had influenced me which I meant to post on the blog but, in a fit of tiredness, deleted it by accident. Anyway, that prompted my thinking in my usual perverse manner about the bad books that have influenced me. I think the aspiring writer should either read very good books to learn things to imitate or bad books to learn things to avoid. I'm not sure of the merits of mediocre books: I suspect, like the Laodicean church, they are best spat out as being neither one nor the other.

My readers being a literate sort, you are no doubt aware of the splendid song in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado in which the Lord High Executioner sings:
“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list—I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed—who never would be missed!”
Well, I have a little list of novels that won't be missed. You may wish to add your own.

Novels that are fourth volume of a trilogy. In other words, the book that really shouldn't have been written because the seam was thoroughly mined out. But the author was desperately strapped for cash so he or she thought they could revisit their wastepaper bin with profit.

Novels that flaunt their writer’s encyclopaedic knowledge. You know the sort of thing, where every alternate paragraph is the author's lecture on how St Ebinot’s church has an architrave that is the high point of 16th century Caruthusian architecture or the gearshift on the Clarkson M20x Mark III has a distinctive notchy feel to it at speed. Yawn.

Novels that display their writer’s total ignorance of the world. I remember one book that talked about the sands of southern Lebanon, and if memory serves me well, had it populated by camels. There is no sand and no camels. None. Someone else wrote “the Mujahideen picked up the rifle”. Sorry, Mujahideen is plural; the singular is mujahid.

Novels that assume that the morals and thought patterns of contemporary Western culture are universal. This is very common. The writer assumes that for all the differences of culture and religion and language they are (or were) ‘just like us’. So in a historical novel set in the Reformation we have a hero or heroine who thinks like an early 21st century Brit or American and treats religious matters as peripheral to their lives. Most unlikely. Or, we have a novel set in the Middle East which fails to deal with the motivation of seeking honour and avoiding shame that runs throughout society there.

Novels that create unbelievable heroes. The classic example is the smartarse (sorry guys but this is a blog)—and it is mostly a hero—who can strip and clean a 9 mm Kwangi semiautomatic pistol with his toothbrush, speaks six major languages fluently and can tell you tell which Bordeaux is the best with venison.

Novels that are derivative. For instance, any fantasy novel that has a motley band of dwarves, elves, halflings and wizards trying to seek/destroy a ring/sword/crown of power/destiny/doom, etc. Sorry, been there, done that and got the mithril shirt. Ditto for the terrible secret that will undermine Christianity.

Novels that toy with spiritual matters. You know the sort of thing. The writer clearly has not the slightest interest in or understanding of Christianity but suddenly in an attempt to claim significance weighs into some theological discussion, where he or she is manifestly out of their depth. Do these people not appreciate that actually theology is a respectable discipline where almost all the big issues have been discussed and beaten to death many times over many years?

Novels that think that weight equals value. The epic eight-hundred page works with a vast array of characters who are so unmemorable that you really do not care in the slightest when they fall to their deaths over cliffs or are eaten by rabid hedgehogs or simply disappear out of the volume.

Oh dear, how long have I wasted with such things? I want my time back!