Reviewing Some Award Winners
Since there’s been grumbling in the comments about quality of writing of certain award winners, I figured I’d do some line-level investigation of one of the recent efforts. Nothing personal against the person whose work I’m shredding, and I’m going to try to be nice here and not let frustration lead me into rants.
It won’t be easy – I can’t copy/paste from the format the blasted sample came in, which means I have to transcribe the work first, then review it. On the flip side, by the time I’m done, you’ll get an idea why I don’t do this lightly. Or often.
And remember, I’m trying to avoid gratuitous snarkage and nastiness. The original is in italics, with bold for emphasis. My comments are in regular font face with italics where I want emphasis.
Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.
The author did not get off to a good start with me. The kindest thing I can say here is that the tone works for conversational style, and that the opening paragraph is possibly one of the biggest messages from Bob I’ve ever seen in a published work. If I’d been handed this for editing it would go. When you start a book saying “let’s get the boring bits over with first” this says that at a subconscious level the author is worried about whether the book is interesting enough to keep a reader.
First, a personal ending. There is a thing she will think over and over in the days to come, as she imagines how her son died and tries to make sense of something so innately senseless. She will cover Uche’s broken little body with a blanket – except his face, because he is afraid of the dark – and she will sit beside it numb, and she will pay not attention to the world that is ending outside. The world has already ended within her, and neither ending is for the first time. She’s old hat at this by now.
To start with, present tense can be immensely distancing when not done exquisitely well. This isn’t: the prose meanders, and something that should be wrenching just doesn’t catch my interest. Here we have a mother shocked senseless by the death of her small child, and there’s nothing. No feeling. The one part in this entire paragraph that rings true is the touch of not covering the boy’s face because he’s scared of the dark.
The run-on sentences don’t help. They can be effective when used well, but the impression here is that they’re being used because the author doesn’t really understand how this is supposed to work. It looks like an attempt to convey a sense of shock and disjointed grief, but instead all it does is distance me from the situation even further.
What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.
Um. Okay. This isn’t even present tense. It’s a kind of mangled future tense, the kind of thing I’d expect to see as an experiment not intended for publication.
And it is her bitter, weary self that answers this almost-question every time her bewildered, shocked self manages to produce it:
This sentence begs for snarkage: how many selves does she have? I get that the author is trying to convey that the character has some emotional conflicts, but there are better ways to do it. And “almost-question”? It sounds more like it’s a plea to some kind of deity – please tell me my son died free.
He wasn’t. Not really. But now he will be.
In context this almost works, so I’ll leave it go.
* * *
But you need context. Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally.
Speaking of context, at this point, if I were slushing, I’d reject. I still haven’t got so much as a hint of what kind of story I’m dealing with, much less what kind of character, and after over a page in which there’s only a tiny hint of humanity, the author switches gears to discuss the continent?
Here is a land.
It is ordinary, as lands go. Mountains and plateaus and canyons and river deltas, the usual. Ordinary, except for its size and its dynamism. It moves a lot, this land. Like an old man lying restlessly abed it heaves and sighs, puckers and farts, yawns and swallows. Naturally this land’s people have named it the Stillness. It is a land of quiet and bitter irony.
And here is where I stopped. Between the bathos of the metaphor and the complete tone-deafness the author achieved in I presume attempting to sound literary, not to mention the warning signs of major infodump ahead, I have no desire to continue. For all I know this could be a quiet, desperate romance about some woman living in Iceland (apart from the reason I’m reviewing it in the first place).
Now, I could say a lot more. I could get nasty. I’ve held back. A lot. The point is, there is not one thing in this opening page and a bit that appeals to me in any way – and at this point I have no idea what the character looks like, how old she is beyond old enough to have had a child, or even if she’s going to show up later.
More importantly, I don’t care. I can’t be bothered to waste my time on something that spends the first few hundred words attempting to create a lyrical word picture (at least, I presume that’s the intention), and failing. If the author and editor couldn’t manage to make the opening interesting enough for me, chances are pretty good that the rest won’t be either.
All else being equal, I’ll take a look at the opening of one of the winning novels from that other award for next week, and give it the same treatment.
(Yes, the detailed numbers analysis will happen. Life needs to stop harassing me first).