7.20.2008

Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night was the topic of discussion at the RS book group last week. It’s one of my favorite books ever, and I was hoping to share the sense of awe I felt when I finished reading it for the first time. It’s a beautifully, densely, cleverly written work about love, truth, and integrity, all wrapped up in a mystery novel. It’s one of the few books I’ve read since my teens where I felt that intensity of involvement I miss so much from my childhood reading.

We had a great discussion about the book, with many meaningful insights, but somebody mentioned something that puzzled me.
“Sometimes I felt like there was too much description,” she said. “Like she could have cut out some of the words.”
I’ve heard this complaint from other people about books I’ve suggested, like books by Mary Stewart for instance. And I don’t understand it. How is there too much description in this?
The village of Hohenwald was much smaller than Oberhausen. It lay a mile or so behind the main road, in a pretty hanging valley, and was little more than a cluster of houses grouped round its church whose tower rose, crowned with a bell of grey-green shingles, above splayed roofs and gables of red tile. An arched stone bridge spanned a narrow mountain river, and led what traffic it could into the cobbled square. To south and west the land fell away in smiling orchards and fields of corn, some of them cut, gold among the greens, while to north and east the mountains lifted their stepped ramparts of pine forests. The verges of the gravel road were white with dust. [From Airs above the Ground, by Mary Stewart]


Compare it with this:

Ulicia wiped her fingers at the warm wetness over her eyes and held out her hand; her fingertips glistened with blood. As if emboldened by her example. some of the others cautiously did the same. Each of them had bloody scratches on their eyelids, eyebrows, and cheeks from trying desperately, but futilely, to claw their eyes open, to wake themselves from the snare of sleep, in a vain attempt to escape the dream that was not a dream.

Ulicia struggled to clear the fog from her mind. It must have been a simple nightmare.

Wait. I have to interrupt here. A simple nightmare? They're scratching their faces bloody and trying to claw their eyes open, and she thinks it's a simple nightmare?! Whatever.

She forced herself to look away from the flame, at the other women. Sister Tovi hunched in a lower bunk opposite, the thick rolls of flesh at her sides seeming to sag in sympathy with the morose expression on her wrinkled face as she watched the lamp. Sister Cecilia’s habitually tidy, curly gray hair stood out in disarray, her incessant smile replaced by an ashen mask of fear as she stared up from the lower bunk next to Tovi. Leaning forward a bit, Ulicia glanced at the bunk above. Sister Armina, not nearly as old as Tovi or Cecilia, but closer to Ulicia’s age and still attractive, appeared haggard. With shaking fingers, the usually staid Armina wiped the blood from her eyelids.

Across the confining walkway, in the bunks above Tovi and Cecilia, sat the two youngest and most self-possessed Sisters. Ragged scratches marred the flawless skin of Sister Nicci’s cheeks. Strands of her blond hair stuck to the tears, sweat, and blood on her face. Sister Merissa, equally beautiful, clutched a blanket to her naked breast, not in modesty, but in shuddering dread. Her long, dark hair was a tangled mat. [From Blood of the Fold, by Terry Goodkind]


So is the fold in question the one on their eyelids? Or does it refer to Sister Tovi’s thick rolls of flesh? I don’t know. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. Actually, reading it over now it doesn’t seem quite so bad (although this is only a few paragraphs from a pages-long section, so you’re not getting the full effect) – but as I was reading this the first time, I was so frustrated by the plodding pace and overly adjectivized description that I felt a bit like scratching my own eyes out.

Here’s another selection from the same book that may be a better illustration of “too many words”:

Richard felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising.

The definition of hackles is the hair on the back of one’s neck. There are no hackles on anyone’s ankles or abdomen or anywhere else, so that phrase is redundant.
Terry Goodkind is a popular fantasy author (although he doesn’t consider himself a fantasy author, just an author who uses fantasy to tell his stories), with a series of fat books (tending to 500+ pages) to his credit. I'm not saying he’s a bad writer, because I don’t think he is, but he is loquacious.
Incidentally, I recently heard that a new tv series based on Goodkind’s wizard books is coming this fall. I'm kind of excited about that and plan on giving it a try. I'm a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy movies. I’ve even watched some of those cheez-fests on the Sci Fi channel. But when it comes to reading sci-fi or fantasy books, for some reason I'm a lot pickier. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are among my all-time favorite books, but no other fantasy I’ve tried to read since has done anything for me but cause scornful mirth. I remember when The Sword of Shannara came out back in the day. My older brother liked it and tried to get me to read it, but he gave up pretty quickly, mostly because I made him mad by calling it The Sword of Sha-Na-Na. He also tried to get me to read the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen R Donaldson. I started the first one, but couldn’t get much past the first few chapters.
One of my problems with reading fantasy is that it all seems so derivative: cheap Tolkien knock-offs crossed with dialogue from 1950s knight movies. Another problem I have is that I start laughing as soon as I read the names. Like no one in a fantasy world can be named Bob or Lisa:
Skreeaw of Wheet pulled back his bowstring and shouted to Drumplyx. “Your offenses have not gone unnoticed, you misshapen whlamgrul. Duke Shrwgnot shall hear of this when he comes to Xxnilenicnek.” Drumplyx snorted in derision. “Ha! Blxrwyg is dealing with Shrwgnot as we speak!”
And so on.
Sci-fi is a little different. I’ve had a little better luck finding stuff I can read in that genre. I'm not a big fan of the short story, sci-fi or otherwise (with notable exceptions that I won’t go into here), but I’ve read and enjoyed a number of novels. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey and really liked it. It made sense of the mind-numbingly dull movie I’d seen.
Then I read 2010: The Odyssey Continues and was very disappointed. In that case, I preferred the film. I’ve read some Ray Bradbury and some Isaac Asimov and some of the Star Wars and Star Trek novels. I don’t know if the Hitchhiker’s Guide stuff counts as sci-fi, but I really like those books, too.
Even so, I’ve had a problem with sci-fi at times. Sometimes it’s too hard, focusing too much on technology and not on character. I feel character is probably the most important element in writing, because if none of this matters to our development or insight to ourselves as human beings, what’s the difference? And then, for a long time, women were pretty much non-existent or merely ornamental in sci-fi. And I find it hard to read something where there isn’t at least one intelligent, likable female character.
So, I'm always on the lookout for well-written – and non-repetitive – stuff to read, regardless of genre. And I keep hoping to experience again that sense of awe. 

1 comment:

Shannie said...

hahaha oh my.
i love and completely agree with your impression of modern fantasy novels.