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Friday, September 15, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Crappy Generic Fantasy

September 15, 2006, is a day that will live in infamy.

On that day, for the first time, I read a few pages of a Robert Jordan novel. Then I stomped on the book in a fit of rage, and proceeded to attack it with a hammer. (Witnesses can testify that my feet missed the cover, but the hammer did not.)

Why did I get so mad?

Because that book was so terribly written. Almost all the sentences were awkward in one way or another; they seemed like a sloppy first draft. Some sentences were literally unintelligible.

A best-selling writer, dammit! Couldn't he afford a proofreader? Couldn't the publisher afford an editor? Books of that kind will surely read better in translation. It is almost impossible to translate them without improving the writing -- i.e. making it legible.

A friend showed the book to me. He and his fiancée, both intelligent people with a higher education, admit that Robert Jordan can't write. And yet they keep reading his interminable "sagas".

Why, God? Why?

This isn't about snobbery. It's about craftsmanship. If I bought a Robert Jordan book, I'd expect at least the basic requirements of a printed paperback to be fulfilled:

1. The manuscript has been edited;
2. The prose is coherent;
3. The customer will not feel ripped off.

One can write entertaining adventure fiction and at the same time pay a minimum of attention to clear, lucid language, functioning grammar and style. It's called "writing the second draft."

Then again, if readers are prepared to pay for the first draft, why try harder? If Robert Jordan is the measure of success, then why make the effort to write passable prose, or put any shred of creative effort into it?

In other words, why take any pride in your work?

"But he's made a lot of money," you say. "Money is the measure of success and quality."

I don't know why those books sell. Maybe reading them is like going to McDonald's: You know exactly what you get, and fast. The McBook. Maybe people are so overstimulated in today's world, they use Wheel of Time books to let their brains rest?

But no, that explanation doesn't quite work. Smooth, spare prose is easier to read than clunky, badly written prose littered with half-finished thoughts.

Can someone please explain to me why people pay money for the equivalent of a hamburger that's got worms in it?
And eat it?
And then ask for another worm-infested burger?

ADDENDUM:
But don't take my word for it. Listen to other critics here. And here. And here.

1 comment:

Mårten said...

I read the first WoT-book in Swedish and found it rather original (for a fantasy novel, that is). It was more character driven than this kind of books generally are.

Then again, I haven't read the original prose. Perhaps it is awfull.