This weekend, I went to the library’s annual book sale. Most of the books I bought, I’d never heard of – but the synopsis looked interesting, or they dealt with topics/genres that I’m currently involved in. The only book I was curious about previously was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend + Short Stories. I like that many of Matheson’s stories are about being alone, which is relevant to my NaNo novel, and he’s just a classic pillar of sci-fi.
Anyway, the book I actually started reading was Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. Knox is revered as an elegant author and the series has supposedly decent world-building.
I’m 40 pages in and I’m constantly editing her prose in my head. On the very opening page (of a prologue -_-), I’m like “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TREES. This description is awful! You’re just throwing pretty words into a run-on sentence with places and other Proper Nouns that you haven’t defined!” About three paragraphs in, she brings in a sentence with a setting’s name, a main character, what they’re doing, and some intriguing aspect of their situation, and I’m like there. Why isn’t that your opening line? Everything that came before this doesn’t matter, and THIS is your good sentence.
I have this problem with a lot of books. In fact, it leads me to abandon many these days, and almost table-flip reading entirely. While I recognize that Knox writes like a professional, I find myself overly critical of her. Why? I’ve never even heard of her. All I know is her writing in this one book. And I’m not enjoying it.
It’s not just because I write fast-paced commercial fiction. I’ve also read slow, cerebral novels I’ve enjoyed enough (like Never Let Me Go) because what they lack in action they make up for in intrigue. And there have been some recent reads that my mental editor did not mind. As much as I disliked Hazel and Gus in The Fault In Our Stars, I never mentally edited Green’s prose. I also enjoy House of Leaves – and so far, I can’t think of anything that I would change about it. Just when you think Mark is going on some tangent about nothing for three pages, his concluding paragraph relates it all together and you’re just like “AHHHH.”
What does this come down to, really? Why can I be patient when Dashner takes his time setting up questions in The Maze Runner, but I’m desperately waiting for Knox to spell out her world in Dreamhunter? Why do I give Mark Danielewski the benefit of the doubt during his tangents, but in other books, I would skim such rants? Why can I look past the poor prose of some novels if I enjoy the characters and story? It’s because for some unexplainable, astral reason, the ‘good’ authors are the ones who gained my trust. They successfully created enough of the fictional dream – the verisimilitude – for me not to care about what rules they break.
I’ve also been reading Gone Girl. The first chapter is awful. It’s boring. It’s clunky. The prose tries way too hard, making you far too aware of the author. The narrator, Nick, is just whiny cardboard.
Then, the second chapter switches tenses, time, and narrators, and suddenly the book is interesting. I’m left wondering why this isn’t the opening chapter, because Amy’s voice is actually interesting. It’s natural. There is motion. I’m less doubtful of Gillian Flynn now. I trust her a bit more, because chapter two proved that she can write. And that’s why I keep reading.
I can’t pinpoint what makes me trust an author. In the end, I can’t say I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go or The Fault in Our Stars, but I did finish them. I finished them because the authors kept me gripped enough by….something. Some sense of trust and investment in them. So, one of my continued exercises is to figure out how readers can trust me. My main tool is a strong opening and an attempt at strong voice. I also try to be really direct. I want to give the sense that the world is deeper and broader than what is on the page, but I don’t want the reader to ask questions every second line.
In the end, you can’t please everyone. My father and my friend Greg both read Paradisa. Dad complained about the book in a very specific way – a way that made me realize he did not trust me. He questioned everything from line one, while Greg kicked his feet up and just ‘went’ with it. In the end, Greg understood the novel nearly as well as I do, and Dad was left lost and bitter about ‘the worst thing he’d ever read.’ How can one truly be ‘right’ if the other one exists?
I think we all have different expectations out of an author we trust, which is one of the primary influences on our ‘taste.’ It’s the reason we gawk at how some books were ever critically acclaimed. It’s the reason we sometimes enjoy stories that most of the population scorns. For whatever reason, those authors gained our trust, and I believe that’s the foundation for a subjectively great book.