Oscar Wilde was right
Today’s main task turned out to be getting the heating system working again. We had a biomass system installed about 18 months ago and have had some issues on and off, but we think everything is now working and, now that we know what was wrong with the original installation, I’m hoping this will now be us moving to a permanent state of ignoring it and letting it do its thing. But there’s something wrong about having to have the heating on throughout June and July.
One of the great things about travelling in cities is that the travel time can be reading time. I’ve come back with a few more books than I left with, although admittedly I didn’t read the ones I took with me. This is partly because my patience with books is not what it was. There was a time when I would read anything to the end once I had started it, or at least got to about 10-20 pages into it. Now, I’m finding I might get a lot further into it and realise that I don’t actually care what happens next or what the outcome for the characters is.
We buy books based, apparently, on the basis of the front cover and the description on the back. And maybe the first few lines or pages. But of course it really is the case that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
I’m going to comment today on one book I bought when I found myself with an hour to wait and no book with me (I know, how did I allow that to happen?). After my comments, I doubt anyone will want to read it, and it’s in German anyway, but for completeness, it’s called Honigtot, or “Honey dead”. Don’t ask, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean either. But what I found was that this was a great example of the different way in which I read novels now. I am definitely much more aware of the writing, and am trying to see what authors are doing rather than just reading a story. Although in this case, all I wanted was an interesting story where I didn’t have to worry about the writing. That didn’t work out so well.
The description on the back cover sounded promising:
How far would a mother go to save her children?
How far would a daughter go to have revenge for her father?
How can a deep, all-devouring love reach across generations and heal old wounds?
Well, after two thirds of the book, I have no idea about any of those questions. If the author has any thoughts on them, she’s keeping them to herself. Oh dear.
The adage that is constantly in the back of my mind is “show, don’t tell”. It’s too easy to write descriptions of what is happening, but a lot more effective to show what is happening through the actions of the characters. Tell is boring, show is compelling. And harder to do consistently.
As I’ve been reading this book, and often the others I’ve abandoned along the away, I’ve been feeling this constant need to edit it. Just to write in the margin “show, don’t tell.” Because in this particular book, it’s needed everywhere. And it’s not as if it wouldn’t have been easy enough to change. I think it would have transformed the book.
The characters don’t work for me at all. I’m very aware that characters are what I am most strongly drawn to in books and what I remember long after I’ve finished the book and forgotten some of the plot. So what is it I don’t like about them I this case? They aren’t consistent for one thing. The mother makes decisions which I just can’t square away with other things she’s done. Now it might well be that there’s something else that’s going on that I don’t know about yet – and this is one of the reasons I’m going to get to the end of this book – but after two thirds of the book, and after the character has died, which didn’t have any emotional impact on me at all, I’d have hoped at least to have a basis for thinking there’s something I don’t now about. I fear it’s just that the character isn’t believable. And that’s partly because the same is just happening with her daughter – she is running around doing things that make no sense at all and that I simply cannot believe, based on what we know of the girl, and of what she has experienced. Halfway through, we are introduced to a new character who we suddenly like. And I thought, here we go, this is promising. Except that he made a decision which, again, I simply couldn’t believe, and then disappeared within a few pages.
And my third objection is to putting in commentary. Not description, but commentary. This was so excruciating at one point that I had to mark it for later. Here’s what I mean. Deborah – an 18 year old woman – has just wound up her stepfather about something and then decided she had lost interest in the subject and announced she wanted some cake. And then we have this (obviously my translation):
“Deborah’s thought process deserves further consideration, that is, it was her father Gustav who had first pointed her in this direction. He was the first, together with his friend Fritz Gerlich, who had thought about the significance of Hitler being rejected from joining the art school.
“Seldom had the principle of cause and effect had such a catastrophic effect on the whole of world history.”
Wait. What just happened? I thought this was a novel, not a textbook on German history. How did that part (it goes on…) not get picked up on by an editor? It’s been published by one of the big German publishing houses. Surely they would pick up on things like that? As well as the typos I keep finding, like a “not” that should not be there and rather changes the sentence. Does nobody proofread any more?
Ah, but now I discover that this top-10 seller (in Germany) was originally self-published as an e-book, and was later picked up by a mainstream publisher and her books brought out in a printed version. She’s now selling books (including this one) left right and centre and getting general great reviews. Maybe Germans like a different type of writing. But I don’t really believe that explains it, too many of their top sellers are translations of English-language writers for one thing. And the review of a different German author’s book, which I loved, was simply “Finally – a German author who can write.” So I think it’s just that this is one writer I’m never going to get on with. And on this one, I’m with Oscar Wilde (who I am about to take out of context):
“Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”*
I’m afraid I think this one was just badly written. But you know what? She’s getting these books finished, published and sold. That’s me feeling like I’ve been put in my place. So enough of the critique, time to get back my own writing.
* By the way, I also like the context:
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”