Friday, 12 May 2017

Literary gaffes

I love books. I love reading. I've always got a book on the go and a pile of unread books I'm looking forward to. If I'm not reading a book, I feel intellect-ually and emotionally under-nourished.

But there are certain literary failings that crop up over and over again (in novels, that is) and regularly annoy the hell out of me. For instance:
  • Endings that leave half a dozen plot strands unresolved. I mean, whatever happened to Wendy? Did she finally leave Tom or did they kiss and make up? And whatever happened to Sophie? Did she ever kick her heroin habit?
  • A constant parade of uninteresting minor characters who're instantly forgettable and add nothing to the plot. Why not leave them all out?
  • A plot so complicated and full of twists and turns that it's impossible to keep track if you have a poor memory and an IQ less than 250.
  • A pretentious writing style that equates obscure words and references with literary merit and equates simplicity with lack of imagination.
  • Numerous flash-forwards and flash-backs that leave me thoroughly confused and wondering which day or year or century we're currently in.
  • Stories told by several different narrators which never quite come together and leave gaping holes in the plot that nobody ever explains.
  • A book that would have been perfect at 300 pages, but the author thought it needed another 200 pages to do justice to their literary brilliance.
  • Astonishing coincidences and lucky breaks that miraculously save a character from a sticky end. The unexpected £50,000 inheritance from a long-forgotten aunt or the sudden discovery of an identical twin sister living in Sidcup.
Still, these habitual flaws are all part of the package. Something as complex as a novel is bound to go astray somewhere. A novel perfectly written, perfectly plotted, and easy to follow, has probably never existed, and never will.


  1. "A novel perfectly written, perfectly plotted, and easy to follow, has probably never existed, and never will." You've got to be joking, Nick. What on earth have you been reading? You don't know what you have been missing.

    Your complaints are many and varied. To pull them all together I'd classify you as an impatient reader in need of instant gratification. A bit like what babies are fed once they are introduced to "solids", namely mush.

    Mind you, in fairness and to commiserate, there is one genre I was introduced to in my late teens by one of my teachers. Oh my god. The open ended short story. So there you are, in the grip as it were to only be left hanging not so much high as dry at the end. Still, I suppose the upside being that we can make up our own endings even without the author holding our hand.


  2. Ursula: Either you're easily satisfied or I'm too critical! Please name me a perfect novel....

    No, I'm not after instant gratification, I read quite slowly, I savour every paragraph and I like a book that gets me thinking. I steer well clear of the best-selling page-turners that just want to keep you on the edge of your seat.

    I can't get on with short stories at all, I prefer a proper book. By the time I've got engrossed in a short story, it ends. Most frustrating.

  3. You are committing literary sacrilege Nick. All authors will come after you now. If I were you, I would lie low for a few weeks. May be seek protection like Rushdie did.

  4. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski is a perfect novel and as often all depends what the reader is searching for. I love short stories and I do not need at all a finished plot. Books are like movies taking place in our heads. I 'm reading a lot , mostly world literature and I love poetry . Books you can read and understand easily are called in my country "railway station" literature, which means without any elaborate construction,simple characters and a plot you can imagine up from the first page.
    Mia More

  5. I more annoyed by grammatical errors than anything else. Also, why do some authors drop the ball on naming characters? I cannot distinguish between Cathy Jones and Lisa Smith.

  6. Mia More, how very strange/funny that you mention Dostoyevski. I was about to recommend his "The Idiot" to Nick but then thought the better of it. You can't be too careful what with people taking everything the worst possible way.

    Nick, how long have you got? There are hundreds hundreds hundreds and more hundreds, nay thousands, of "perfectly written, perfectly plotted" maybe not always "easy to follow" novels to be read. More than I will ever be able to pay homage to in my lifetime. However, and maybe that is what you are referring to, the "modern" novel of recent times is most definitely opaque. Read the old masters and you'll be gratified. Instantly.


  7. Ramana: I've fled to my rural hideaway deep in the Glens of Antrim. If anyone asks about me, I'm on a skiing holiday.

    Mia: I wasn't that impressed by Crime and Punishment (though I read it in my twenties and it probably deserves a re-reading). I think Therese Raquin by Emile Zola is a much better book on the same theme.

    You do me a disservice. I have no interest in railway-station type easy-reading. I was brought up on people like Dickens, Chaucer, Milton and Jane Austen, so I'm ready for something demanding. But demanding novels aren't necessarily perfect. I remember some of my fellow pupils at school tearing apart some of these venerable tomes.

    1. I never said , that you are reading railway station novels, I only explain what we understand by "easy" books. You seem to be a bit touchy.What people like or not is not a real matter to be discussed. Le goût et les couleurs ne se discutent pas as say the French.

  8. Bijoux: I'm not bothered by grammatical errors unless the book is littered with them. And yes, too many names are too banal to remember easily. As opposed to, say, Wackford Squeers or Abel Magwitch.

  9. Ursula: I've also read The Idiot but so long ago I can't remember it at all. Another book for re-reading, I think.

    Modern novels I like, though not "experimental" ones, which drive me nuts. Personally I think the old masters (or mistresses) are rather over-rated. I have a high opinion of The Family by Meg Wolitzer, Jernigan by David Gates, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell. But the literary pundits prefer the famous names to such lesser lights.

  10. Mia: Oh, it seems I misinterpreted what you were saying.

    Taste and colours are not discussed? They're discussed endlessly here in the UK. Good taste and bad taste are inexhaustible topics. And the fashion experts are forever saying "pink is the colour for summer" (or blue or green or yellow or whichever colour takes their fancy).

  11. I do make an attempt to read current publications - I hesitate to call most of them literature, though, so I will follow up the authors you named in the hope of better!

    I recently threw a book over the balcony in frustration...a dog is brought into the story, just, I suppose, to hook dog lovers, is ill treated...and then the blasted author forgets to mention him again.
    And no, I am not climbing down there to check on the name of the author...

  12. I used to love Patricia Cornwell...then she became too I T and lesbian focused!

  13. Helen: Just what I was referring to. Whatever happened to the dog? Was he rescued? Who knows?

    John: I used to read loads of crime fiction but I went off it. I didn't really care who done it, I was more interested in the characters. So I gravitated to books that concentrated on the characters from the start.

  14. I've always had too much trouble with eyestrain to read novels. I occasionally try one in an audio book, but I prefer history and memoirs.

  15. Jean: I read a bit of history and biography now and again but for some reason it's always been fiction that fully engages me.

  16. I love your sense of humour.
    I chose to write that instead of using my normal LOL. but you do.
    you make me chuckle or laugh out loud usually.
    I recently read a novel by a favorite author who decided it must be clever or cute to never use the name of the characters when she started a new chapter.
    she used the pronoun he or she.
    and since there were quite a few characters I spent several pages each time wondering who she was talking about. RIDICULOUS! and so unnecessary.
    I am currently reading 'a world in disarray' by Richard Haas.
    and also... Amy Tan's 'the valley of amazement.' I never read her popular 'the joy luck club.'
    i'm usually not a big novel reader but thought I would tackle it. will see how it goes down.
    enjoy your hideaway deep in the glens of antrim! LOLOL.

  17. Tammy: Glad I tickle your funny bone!

    Strangely enough, I remember a novel just like that, which avoided naming the characters. It might even be the same novel, but I don't remember the title. I was constantly puzzled as to who was being referred to.

  18. I would begin to differ on perfect novels. I can't count the number I've read. Balanced nicely with the truly awfuls and those in between. Are you on Goodreads?


  19. Here's a story what I wrote, pick the flies out of it if you dare. "Once upon a time there was a boy, Nigel, and a girl called Cynthia. They met, fell in love, got married and lived happily together until they got divorced. The end". Simple, straight, no frills and with that feel good factor! If you would like a copy, it's available as an eBook from somewhere, only £25!.

  20. www: But people aren't perfect, nature isn't perfect, celebrities aren't perfect. How can so many novels be perfect? Maybe I'm just too picky because I was taught literary criticism at school and I've been applying it ever since.

  21. Keith: There seems to be a general view that what I really prefer is best-selling page-turners with a totally predictable plot and totally predictable characters. Er, no. But I do think there's a happy medium between bestselling rubbish and over-ambitious "heavyweights" that are like wading through treacle.

    I've read "Nigel and Cynthia". I've also read the follow-up, in which Cynthia falls in love with Denise and they start a highly successful cup-cake business and buy themselves a picturesque Mediterranean island. A super un-putdownable read!

  22. You do have a lot of, um, dislikes.

    May I recommend anything by Ove Backman? No, wait, Fredrik Backman. One of his novels is A Man Called Ove.

    You didn't mention insisting on using pronouns even when it's not obvious who's speaking e.g. Wolf Hall.

    I've just read a book by Tarquin Hall about an Indian PI called Vish Puri. I enjoyed it but think I must have been tired when reading it as I got to the end and the murderer had been revealed and I must have missed that somehow.

  23. Liz: I do have a lot of dislikes. I suppose that's because I've spent the best part of 70 years reading books and my definition of a perfect one has become more and more rarified!

    Thanks for the heads up, I hadn't come across Fredrik Backman. A Man Called Ove is compared to The Rosie Project which I greatly enjoyed.

    That must be a first, not registering who was the murderer!

  24. I only got as far as Ursula's comment, and I started thinking about how much I hate those short stories that are really extended anecdotes!
    Maybe more to say later.
    Right now I'm reading Steven King's The Stand. It's crap, but it's my kind of crap! Want to understand America? Read The Stand.

  25. If you want to read beautifully constructed novels, I can recommend the works of Wallace Stegner. He is misunderstood as a"regional novelist" of the American west, but his work is classic with tremendous attention to his craft as a writer. You could start with *Angle of Repose* or *All the Little Live Things.*

  26. Hattie: I think The Shining is the only Stephen King book I've ever read. As I remember, I wasn't too impressed.

    Never heard of Wallace Stegner. Thanks. I must check him out.

  27. I have read many novels that keep me engrossed to the end and leave me wishing for a sequel. I am most troubled by awkward or grammatically incorrect writing. And by writers who try to through in too many pop culture references.

  28. Agent: I hadn't noticed any straining after pop culture references myself, but there are plenty of references to famous literary figures, just in case we assume they're not very well read!

  29. I am in two minds about flashbacks and multiple narrators. They can be really interesting, (or I think so) even though they can also be confusing. But actually most of the issues you mention ought to have been picked up by the editor. I know a lot of people who self publish don't have an editor, and it often does seem to show.

  30. Jenny: Flashbacks and multiple narrators can work well if they aren't overdone and if it's always clear who is doing what when. But some authors get carried away and take it to incomprehensible extremes.

    I think many many books haven't been properly edited, probably because of cost-cutting and skimping. There's so much verbiage, unnecessary scene-setting etc. And I think once an author is well-established, editing is often abandoned and the books are published as written because "it'll sell anyway, so why bother?" The later Harry Potter books are a case in point.