There’s a good chance I’m being something of alarmist here, but it is a worrying trend I’ve noticed ever since my tortuous pedagogy, bizarre occupation, and currently staggered wherewithal. Writers aren’t trying. They’re not trying to better themselves and their writing, finding frankly a fifth grade reading/writing level sufficient for an adult, and they aren’t trying to challenge their audience, who from years of intellectual atrophy are content to treat reading as little more than a pleasant pastime, masturbation and little more. Let me put it like this. You can go down to any bowling alley between childrens’ birthdays and find at least five people who are absolutely fanatical about both their sport and their growth as a sportsman in that regard. You couldn’t just walk down to a book store nowadays and find the same; this is assuming you can even find a brick and mortar book store.
I have with me today a little example, something I’ve pulled from a book I was bought for Christmas, for which I’m very grateful. I’m virtually impoverished and can’t afford to buy many books if I want to keep my website online. Anyways, I’d asked for popular science fiction novels of several varieties, some of which by name. And what I had expected was, for the most part, dangerously evident. Science Fiction as a genre has a proud history of excellent writers, who mastered both the subject matter and their own style. I honestly can’t say the same for Asimov, but we’re all allowed our idiosyncrasies. Anyways, lord have mercy have I been taken on a tangent. I’ve pulled a paragraph from one of the books I was purchased, a more modern work of fiction that will remain unnamed in both title and author. I’m going to list it immediately here, but I want you, whoever’s actually reading this, to think in your head what’s wrong with it before your eyes leap to the succeeding paragraphs in which I rip it to pieces.
Jackson rolled his eyes at Peter’s embellished call to action as he yanked on his utility top and felt his boots automatically snug around his feet. He could feel the full day’s worth of growth on his face and knew his breath must smell like a trash can. Irrationally, he felt some resentment towards the aliens for attacking before he could shower and get something to eat as he rushed out of his quarters and raced for the bridge.
I confess that I couldn’t help providing some indicators to precisely what I’m talking about. While I could attack this paragraph for simply lacking imagination absent any sort of really colorful terminology that could sell even this relatively mundane scene, that’s not what I’m going to focus on. While the author may simply be a published neophyte who lacks the use of a large lexicon, I don’t think that’s the case. The author has chosen to write in this frankly disrespectful style.
What’s bold and what’s italic are somewhat closely related. They both have to do with narrative focus, and this is all over the place. Beginning with the italic, the narrator seems from the information available to be both third person and omniscient to the extent of being able to narrate the action and read people’s minds. There’s nothing wrong with an omniscient narrator, but they have a lot of potential that is wasted on this sort of writing, which is unfortunately a subject for another time. [You’ll have to forgive me, as my ailing health has reduced my cognition considerably, and I get easily confused.] Instead of using embellished and irrationally, both of which are judgments made by the narrator–not the reader–the narrator could have talked about physical gestures and contortions the characters might make which would indicate the very same, perhaps supported by short snippets of irritated dialogue. This would have brought the scene to life, but rather we’re left stuck believing the narrator’s interpretation to be correct because we have no other choice. Moreover, such judgments as embellished and irrationally are better used in a first person narrative, which in that case actually give the protagonist character rather than robbing him of it in third person.
Now, the items in bold are all verbs that deal with subjective experiences, all things lingering within the character’s head. I could talk about the sharp repetition of feel and how it quickly becomes dated, but I want to point out that instead of just saying “the boots snugged about his feet,” he for some reason felt compelled to tell us he could feel that happening, as if this is something special, as if his feet are traditionally numb. Why waste that effort? Why not just tell the audience what is obvious from third person? He could say he had a five o’clock shadow. He could say he snapped and cursed the aliens under his breath. He could say he smells bad. What we’re seeing wouldn’t pass for good writing at the secondary school level, and most unfortunately these weaknesses are not unique to this author but absolutely ubiquitous to his compatriots. Potential writers reading this claptrap are learning bad lessons whether they’re aware of it or not.
Most of you are probably swearing at the screen by now, cursing with me, “Show not Tell; that’s all you’ve demonstrated,” and you’re completely correct. It’s the illustration of this example, however, which makes it so abundantly clear why I must invoke this doctrine. I mean, I’m not going to tell anyone to avoid telling the reader outright anything, but I think we’ve all known when we’ve crossed the line from aiding the reader to shoving his face into the text. It’s hard for me to read rubbish like this. I’m supposed to get a handle on the competition. And it makes me worry, if this is what the competition has to offer, if this is what’s selling books, perhaps I’m in the wrong genre or perhaps even the wrong line of business.