Most of the things I enjoy are at least one of those things. In fact, I would argue that there is some sort of minimum sum I require, that a lack of cleverness is made up for by the existence of a feminist message, and intellect can make up for a lack of originality. I think that’s more or less true for everybody, with their own criteria, of course. If after the first few minutes or pages or whatever, the sum is too low, I stop it and go entertain myself with something else. I was thinking about doing a whole post about that and saving this one for next week, but for whatever reason (read: I'm tired, and that seemed hard) this is the one that wants to be written today.
All that is well and good, but there are some things that multiply the whole equation by zero, that make it impossible for me to like something, or impossible for me to recommend it, or at the very least impossible for it to move into my high-tier favorites list where it might otherwise deserve a place. And because bitching is hella fun, I am going to write out a list.
Warning: This list contains strong language. I know, I know, you're shocked again.
Warning: This list contains strong language. I know, I know, you're shocked again.
- Whininess. See my white guy entertainment post. Okay. Problems suck. I am there. I think my own problems are pretty goddamn sucky, and there are billions and billions and billions of people with whom I would not trade. But there are two problems with whining. One is that it demands center stage. It forces everything else to be put on hold: others’ problems, understanding the reasoning behind one’s own problems, and – and this is the kicker – finding solutions to one’s problems. So, really effective there, especially in a fictional context, when the plot has to either stop moving, or interrupt you rudely. (Not as clever as you think, authors.) Also, at a certain point, repetition gets boring. And whininess, after awhile, is repetition. I see this (and the next two or three on the list, actually) as the main reason(s) I don’t like contemporary literary fiction. (Let me quickly make it clear that I whine all the time in real life, and I try to support my friends when they need to whine in my direction. Fiction is different. I read fiction to escape real life. Whining I can do anytime.)
- Look at Me; I’m So Fucking Deep. It goes hand in hand with the first one, but there is a certain tone in some kinds of books that drives me mad. I can best describe it as a desire to be congratulated for identifying sources of unhappiness in one’s life. The internet has made me feel so fucking disconnected, maaaaaaaan. Our modern world, duuuuuude. People just don’t get what’s real, know what I meeeeaaaan? It’s not about getting credit for solving a problem. It’s about getting credit for identifying a problem, and then claiming that the problem one has identified is part of the universal human condition and is therefore deep. Two things. 1) It’s not necessarily universal. My problems may or may not have anything to do with whatever the hell you’re talking about, and you really have no idea how the problem affects my life even if I do find it applicable. Especially if it relates to The Challenges of Living in the Modern World. And before you say anything, let me remind you that your idea that you understand my problems better than I do is condescending and inappropriate. 2) Something actually being a universal-human-condition problem does not necessarily make it deep or interesting to read about. Unless you’re approaching it originally, I don’t really care what you have to say, because I identified that problem a long fucking time ago. You get no credit with me for figuring this out; some stoned college freshman beat you to the punch ages ago. (To veer off on a tangent for a moment, the reason this is tied so closely to #1 in my mind is that it always seems to carry with it a lack of perspective. I'm going to save you some suspense. The problems that we face as a society now, including the kinds of hypocrisy we enjoy, are different in some ways, but no better or worse or more interesting or more important than those faced by any society at any time. New technology and change has always freaked people out and made their ways of interacting with the world undergo a change. Go read a history of the Industrial Revolution and get the fuck over yourself.)
- Misogyny/Lack of Social Awareness. Yeah, that’s kind of self-explanatory. It’s why the novel of The Princess Bride will never compare with the film; ignorable borderline misogyny is a hell of a lot more tolerable than overt misogyny tinged with self-awareness. Grow up, folks. Ladies is people now, and we have been since the mid-seventies. (In other news, black folks is people, trans folks is people, queer folks is people, folks what don’t agree with you is people, and all of us people are sick of your whiny "depth.")
- Poor Pacing. I don’t like acknowledging it, but I am very much of the millennial generation, and as such have an unfortunately short attention span. Your scenes should have a point. (Remington Steele, I wanted to like you so much! I will give you another chance someday.) Conversely, if your scenes have a point, and move in a particular direction, each step you take in that direction should make a noticeable difference. BONES. If you're just treading water, you lose your stakes, about which more later. But you can't simultaneously keep your characters in a holding pattern and falsely portray movement. It's irresponsible and shows a lack of respect for your audience.
- Narrative Shortcuts That Backfire. Look, people. First person narrators should not drop hints, in some sort of smug I know something you don't know kind of way, unless your point is that your narrator is a fucking asshole. (Third person narrators may drop occasional hints. One every 100 pages or so.) Let’s think about why for a minute. One reason is that it’s obnoxious. I will fucking read the story because the story is good, not because you have lured me with your secret weapon of “it was a decision I would come to regret.” Secondly, people don’t talk like that. I’m a teacher at heart, and I overexplain everything (welcome to my whole family) but in real life, a person is far more likely to run off on a tangent so that you get the FULL CONTEXT OF THEIR POINT than to drop a hint about who and what they are and then go back to what they were doing. Even Holden Caulfield, who explicitly refuses to give the reader background, goes off on tangents rather than dropping hints. The only people who drop hints are storytellers, who don’t have faith in the interest their story generates on its own and feel the need to manufacture some. This is why it’s so egregious in a story told in the first person. James Patterson, are your ears burning?
- Expecting Charm to Work/General Laziness. I consider #2 to be a particular subset of this. In the Turkey City Lexicon – which I adored growing up, back when I thought I wanted to be a writer – there’s an item about knowing the difference between a conceit and an idea. It’s called the Jar of Tang, go look it up. Anyway, the fact that you have a good idea, or a unique viewpoint (you probably don’t) or a new perspective (see above re: you don't) is not enough to make your work quality without mastery of other storytelling devices. Your possibly good idea does not elevate excrement into art. If you write shit dialogue, it lowers the tone of your idea, and makes you look like an idiot. In other news, give your audience some credit. It is annoying to guess a twist fifty or sixty pages in advance. It is even more annoying -- by a factor of hundreds -- to guess a "twist" seventy or eighty pages in advance and spend those seventy or eighty pages watching the author drop gleeful hints as they imagine that they have you completely fooled. Kate Mosse, I am talking specifically to you.
- Awkward Writing. Yeah, occasionally you have to go listen to how people actually talk. I have this theory that this means you’re doing a kind of writing you’re either 1) not practiced in, or 2) not meant to be doing. It was a great relief when I realized I am better at writing essays than writing fiction and quit trying to write fiction. Patricia Cornwell, maybe you should try grocery lists for a while?
- Stakes Shortcuts. Sometime, when you are trying to put your finger on something within a piece of entertainment, ask yourself what the stakes are. I learned about the idea of stakes from a director mentor of mine, and it’s drastically changed the way I look at entertainment. To break it down a little – there are high stakes and low stakes. You want entertainment to be about high stakes, because if it doesn’t matter what happens, nobody will read to the end. So the entertainers do their best to make the stakes high. Now, there are easy high stakes, and hard high stakes. Easy high stakes come cheap. The world is going to END and EVERYONE WILL DIE unless this particular plot thing happens! I call stakes like that cheap because they don’t require you to particularly care about any of the people on screen (or in text). Everything is going to go wrong if the plot goes wrong, therefore, if the audience doesn’t invest in the plot, they must hate humanity. Great. Sold. Hard high stakes mean that if this particular plot thing happens, a person’s identity or relationship or place in the world will be destroyed. That’s harder to pull off effectively, because the audience has to actually care about the character(s). If they don't, they get bored, and it’s a huge waste of space. Now, that’s not to say that one form of stakes is better, exactly. But if you want to engage the minds and the emotions of your reader/viewer, pure easy stakes aren’t going to be enough (unless you luck onto some symbol that means a lot to them emotionally, which – hey, look where I’m going with this). There’s a multitude of ways to take shortcuts and artificially raise your stakes, no matter where you start with them. Want people to care about the world ending? Blow up a well-known landmark with some emotional connection to your audience. Or show characters that they can identify with flee from destruction. (Sounding familiar?) Want to make people care about characters’ relationships? Give the characters quirky and endearingly eccentric traits, because everyone considers zhirself kind of quirky and endearing on some level, and thus can identify. But those are shortcuts. Good entertainment means you care about the characters for their sakes, not just yours. You care if their world ends, or if their relationships end, because they resonate as people, in addition to just reminding you of yourself. It requires both commitment and trust from the creators.
- Solving One Problem Means Solving All Problems. Dear Rom-Coms of the World: Finding a mate does not instantly repair other relationships, work problems, financial hardship, or low self-esteem. Please take note. Love, Real People.
- That Goddamn Plot Where Someone Who Realistically Would Die So Fucking Fast Without Their Resources Manages to Survive and Connect With Nature. I have hated this fucking thing for twenty years, and I reaffirm my commitment to hate it for twenty years more. Twelve-year-olds of nearly any era are not equipped to live off the land for any length of time. That is ridiculous. Also, reading about root-digging and animal-watching is boring. If I wanted to connect with nature vicariously I would go to the goddamn zoo.
Those are mine. What are yours?