Suspending disbelief

I ended up reading a Louis L’Amour novel on my kindle a couple of days ago. Now: as a writer, I pay serious attention to what a writer who could sell that many million books was doing.  I don’t believe the wetware (us) have changed that much. I’m sure the literati (litterratty?) would find a million and one ways to sneer, but the man was able to sell books… which they generally suck at.

Let’s start by saying this particular book will never be one of my favorites, and certainly wasn’t his best. It still appealed to me a great deal more than average award winner in recent years, but that’s setting the bar on the ground. Your mileage may vary, but OVER ON THE DRY SIDE was a good learning exercise for me, because, unlike some of his other books I found myself able to step outside the story enough to see what the author is doing, rather than just being so caught up that I don’t care what they’re doing.

A good writer is something like a political campaigner. A lot is done for the result, not all of which, examined outside of the headlong progress inside… makes a whole lot of sense.  A lot of it is that the reader (or voter) WANTS to believe that. That’s how you get people somehow believing a politician is too stupid to tie his own shoe-laces… and a Machiavellian genius orchestrating plots of fiendish deviousness. Yes, both. Or how mysteriously ‘confidential’ sources spout something that someone they didn’t like said or did… not when it is supposed to have happened, but at the politically useful moment, sometimes years later. 

Like the reader caught up in the story, the voter (or potential voter) who wants to believe, does (most of the time, anyway. Everyone can go too far). Likewise, the reader/voter who does not want to believe… does not suspend their disbelief (likewise, most of the time).  

The reader (or voter) who doesn’t have such pre-conceptions is a harder nut to crack.  Now, as I said this book didn’t work for me. But it did at first, because, well, the author did that part well. I was very taken with the setting details and the character… and the hook. Dead man left on the step of his homestead, the dry remains being found by the lead POV characters. It lost me at the point that the author started adding bits because, I suspect, he didn’t know where the story was going when he started it, and didn’t go back and backfill those details. Some of the details in the initial bit just… never recur and are counter-indicated later.  Without going into spoiling, think of a typical political hack job, where the person doing the accusation fills in a lot of detail about a specific place where an incident is supposed to have happened. Someone then points out that road for example or building didn’t exist, or was just too far to walk. The story then changes – without this ever being explained or corrected, to suddenly adding in a place that did exist and a driver (never previously mentioned, and whose name they can’t remember).

   Now you can get carried along by the story, especially if you wish to believe… but seriously, if you’re just making up shit as you go along… in the computer era it’s fine and easy to correct and insert the right details, not have headlong flights that didn’t happen, and herds of cattle that never appear again.  As for the politics… as those sort of corrections are more difficult, if you didn’t talk about when it happened but suddenly come out with it just before the election or voting in a judge or whatever, it didn’t happen. And if you have ‘anonymous reliable sources’, it definitely didn’t happen, no matter I might want to believe you.  

13 comments

  1. It occurs to me that in this case, the unreliable narrator is… the author.

    As to my political suspension of disbelief… it was long ago hanged by the neck until dead, dead, dead…

  2. At this moment, I’m working on a chapter about the first Army medical people participating in the Torch landings in North Africa in WWII, and wondering about the source book that I am depending on. There’s been a description of some medical gear issued to three nurses sent up to the aid station that just doesn’t match what I’ve seen in other sources – and at least seven or eight people crammed into a single jeep for a twenty-mile journey? Hmmm. I’ve been building a picture of it in my mind, and I just don’t see how they all fit, as the source materiel described…

    1. Hmm. People only, or people and gear? Seven or eight infantry, no. Doctors and nurses, probably.

      You can fit five people in the back – yes, two are on laps, and I’m assuming decent terrain that would take not over an hour to go twenty miles. Three up front. Yes, three – the Willy MB had the shift on the steering column, not the floor. (Although you can fit a small person over a floor shift; I remember being that person as a youngster a few times in my Mom’s International TravelAll. Only poked in the gut a couple of times on New Mexico ranch roads.)

      1. Two doctors, three nurses, all carrying light packs, a corpsman, ditto, and two armed infantrymen, one of whom perched on the hood. I’ve seen some pictures of jeeps outfitted as ambulances, and they managed to carry a good load so I suppose that eight people can squeeze in. It wouldn’t be a comfortable ride – at night in a blackout, and occasionally being sniped at.

  3. [problems with the story]

    L’Amour “wrote to market”; in the early years, selling wherever he could. Often those were Western pulps, which had a somewhat formalized style as required by the genre, which reads rather stilted and stereotyped by modern standards.

    His agent passed some of those off to ghostwriters, who turned them into novellas or novels without L’Amour’s knowledge… though they were released under his name. The agent (or his successor…) also failed to file copyright extensions on some of his earlier work, which fell into the public domain and was then handed over to ghostwriters by skeevy publishers, puffed up to novel size, and then reissued as L’Amour books… which was technically legal, but since they were altered works, not ethical by most standards.

    If you some across any of Robert Silverberg’s “two-fisted detective” stories, they read about as badly as you’d expect. But that was what the market bought, and science fiction wouldn’t pay his rent.

    The takeaways here are:

    A) if you want to sell, you write what your market (the editors, then) will buy
    B) if you use an agent, you can’t just assume he’s either honest or competent (L’Amour was far from the only one to learn that…)

    1. L/Amour was a ‘pantser’; he probably had only a general idea of the conclusion when he wrote the first pages. His attitude toward rewriting was probably similar to RAH’s: rewrite only on demand. Length was what the market would bear, novelts for the magazines, short novels for the paperback market.

  4. Inferior works can be useful for learning purposes. (I have heard Atlanta Nights is especially good, but frankly, people who’d read that through scare me.)

  5. That title doesn’t sound familiar. Maybe for good reason? L’Amour had some weird things (and I absolutely love L’Amour and have also studied him for what he did right.) For example, Last of the Breed is awesome in so many ways, “thicker” and more involved than most of the Old West setting pulps and also maybe three times as long. Except that the entire climax/conclusion/fight happens off screen. The hero goes off with the Bad Guy on his trail and then shows up again after he’s made it out of Siberia and it’s all over. It sort of makes a person wonder if his editors said, Louis, you’ve written 80K and you *never* write 80K. We already will have trouble selling this and we can’t sell this if you add another 20K words.

    1. A lot of older publishers had fixed page count agreements with their printers. They got a better deal if all their books were exactly 150, 200, whatever pages. So stuff got chopped down to fit, or blank pages or (sometimes) ads for other books were inserted at the ends. If you ever noticed why books in some paperback lines were all exactly the same thickness, that’s why.

  6. I found myself able to step outside the story enough to see what the author is doing
    My problem is that the more I like a book, the harder that is to do. So the books I think are the best are the ones that get the least analysis.

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