The exploration of damaged prose

I’ve written before in passing about how hack writing pales into insignificance alongside great talent. Consider this paragraph from what purports to be a crime thriller:

Carol frowned. This wasn’t the Tony Hill she’d known all these years. Yes, he’d recently claimed he’d been changed profoundly by discovering the identity of his biological father, understanding the reasons why the man had played no role in his life, and coming to terms with his legacy. But she’d been doubtful, seeing little evidence of any change beyond the superficial decision to leave Bradfield and moved into the splendid Edwardian house in Worcester. OK, that had also meant jacking in his job at Bradfield Moor secure mental hospital, but Carol was convinced that giving up work wouldn’t last for more than a few weeks. Tony identified himself too closely with the exploration of damaged minds to abandon it for too long. There would be another secure hospital, another set of messy heads. She had no doubt of that.

(I apologise in advance for any corrections I mean errors in transcription.) Unremittingly mediocre, isn’t it? I mean, I could go on all day about its uneven idiom, its clumsy exposition, its sesquipedalian prose, its ambiguities. But the worst part of reading it is when you catch sight of the spectres of author and editor (assuming there was one) hovering over it, looking satisfied with the work, giving a curt nod to signify: “Yes. This long guff of talentless rubbish truly belongs in a modern thriller.”

Here’s the rub, though: this isn’t written by some genre hack, or team of hacks; this is from Val McDermid: apparently respected outside her genre; presumably on the strength of her writing! Stunned as I am, it’s all I can do to resist swinging open the living-room windows and bellowing into the night: “What in hell has gone wrong with the crime thriller genre?”

Darned if I know. But if Kingsley Amis chose to spend his declining years only reading this sort of stuff, then his decision looks less and less like a cheeky thumbing of the nose and the established literati, and more and more like some kind of cry for help.

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5 Responses to The exploration of damaged prose

  1. 1looby says:

    I’m in a book group where each member takes turns to both choose the book and host. After about two years of monthly meetings now, I can predict, with not infallible accuracy, whose choices I am going to enjoy and au contraire. I stopped reading one person’s choice, “One Day” by David Nicholls. “The language is both stagy and pedestrian, the characters are clichés, and it’s patently written with an eye on the film script he wanted it to be. It rehearses received ideas of the 80s without illuminating them or adding something personal and convincing. A continually renewed carousel of lovers is a weak deus ex machina to keep the plot turning,” I wrote at the time.

    The nadir, however, was achieved with a book by Adele Parks, which caused the first huffy resignation in the history of the group. I would have admired its advocate more if he’d responded to our displeasure by describing what it was he found interesting and stimulating about the book, and how it fulfilled the one rule of book club: “choose a book you want others to read.” (“And lay on some nice grub”).

    A while ago, I decided, for extra-book club reading, to concentrate on classics. I started with Don Quixote, which is a laugh-out-loud book, one you annoy anyone else in the room with by reading out extracts. I’m on Moby Dick now, which has a demotic and intelligent language, like a more obssessive Sterne.

    Maybe crime fiction is at a bit of a dip now and awaits its saviour. Fiona, my daughter, urged The Killing, that Swedish-Danish TV series on me, and my completely uninformed guess is that the genre is more rewarding in that form.

    Yeah, sorry–I realise you’ve missed your bus now.

    • smallbeds says:

      I annoyed K. by doing that with Don Quixote, although she minded less given we were in Spain while I was reading it: admittedly in Valencia rather than La Mancha, but then the Don proves to be rather errant, doesn’t he?

      Although I loved the story, my crap, cheap-print copy is bit of a doorstop and I’d turn it into an e-reader version if I could. But it’s now home to four tickets, to a “baile” flamenco demonstration at the “pensionistas” club my parents go to, that we saw after my mum had had an operation. As you can imagine, I’m now loath to get rid of the damned doorstop and will doubtless move house with it before maybe finally getting rid.

      Quite a long one for a book club, though, I’d have thought; if you’re not careful with that sort of tome, you’re likely to achieve what the only book club I was ever in (at my previous employment) managed to achieve: never to meet, even long after I had left the company, when the company was finally sold and essentially liquidated.

  2. 1looby says:

    We didn’t read it at the book club (the longest book we’ve done was Middlemarch). There’s an unspoken rule that anything above 3-4 hundred pages is asking a ibt much.

    I can’t speak for the company you were in at the company you were in but Kirsty’s also “in” a book group that hardly ever, from one year end to the next, meets. I think sometimes people like the idea of a book club. In which case none but the most committed will turn up. Ours works through affective bonds.

    But what I wanted to say referred to something in your post about crime fiction. I’ve just read this–I had no idea Dorothy L Sayers was a crime writer.

    • smallbeds says:

      Of course! I forgot about Lord Peter Wimsey. K. also mentioned Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (I loved Gallowglass) and Patricia Highsmith (I found the first Ripley book too excruciating to read, but remarkably well written.) And Nikki French, who is apparently two people.

      Plus, of course, she keeps quite rightly reminding me about Agatha Christie. All right, all right, I say; and then immediately forget.

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