Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pet peeves, bêtes noires

One of this blog's readers recently surprised another with a critical comment about Peter Temple, which reminded me of that eternal question: What are your pet peeves when reading? What stylistic device or character trait makes you want to fling a book down in disgust?

Two of mine are obvious cliffhangers and excessive scene setting. The former, you can probably figure out. It's the trait shown by an author who has no confidence that he or she can hold a reader's attention and thus feels compelled to end every chapter on a note of contrived suspense. This exhausts the reader and detracts from the moments when real suspense is called for.

Excessive scene setting is too many chapters that begin: "Cicely ran a comb through her thick auburn locks, completely unaware of the events transpiring half a world away." Sure, every novel is a set-up. The author manipulates the characters and situations to create the effect that he or she wants. Excessive scene setting, unless it is intended for comic effect, makes the manipulation too obvious.

But now it's your turn. What drives you nuts?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

Talking of combs, as you do, one thing that drives me nuts, and apprears in about 2 of every 3 crime fiction books I read, is that darn fine tooth comb (variously written as fine-tooth comb or fine tooth-comb). However it is copy-edited, hyphenless included, it drives me mad!

March 30, 2007  
Blogger Bill Peschel said...

The tin ear, especially when the character is a newspaper reporter. Sometimes, the writer will include a story written by said character, containing prose that wouldn't pass muster at anything but the throwaway paper that plops on your lawn whether you want it or not.

Or, the article will have a clumsily written headline, and the character works for a major New York newspaper: "Bob opened the New York Times, and on the front page read, 'BOB IS IDENTIFIED AS SHROPSHIRE SLASHER'"

March 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

You know, Maxine, I may have read a crime novel recently in which investigators went over a house with a comb like the ones you described. Perhaps Cicely was grooming her fine locks like a team of crime-scene investigators.

March 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Bill: Don't underestimate the depths to which prose at a newspaper can sink. And that headline may have been from the New York Times, which does not always distinguish itself for the verve of its display type.

As it happens, I once defended a writer here against accusations that he used bad newspaper headlines. First, the headlines were not as bad as the critic thought, and second, the author used headlines for a clever narrative purpose. You can read the exchange here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2006/10/jakob-arjounis-devices.html

I realized when I consulted my comment that the book's jacket contains another of the things that drives me nuts: It spells the last name of Raymond Chandler's most famous protagonist thus: Marlow.

March 30, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

My pet peeves when reading are:
1. Bad punctuation/grammar and sloppy editing.
2. A mix of American and UK English. (There are a few books coming out in the UK these days which seem to have been produced in a transatlantic ether.)
3. Serial killer plots, as I'm simply bored with them. (But if it clearly says it on the label then I generally opt not to read it.)

Stylistic devices and character traits? It took me a while to think of an answer to this.
1. The narrator knows/works out something and tells you they have, but they don't tell you what is straight away. It adds to the suspense perhaps, but it makes for a hellishly frustrating read!
2. Protag is male, usually single, but has a glowing relationship with alcohol. He still functions and indeed, seems to be the only one with the nouse to solve a case. I think we've had quite a few of these, so I find it hard to welcome any newbies of this type.
3. Use of mental illness in a plot that leads to a denouement where "it was all in his/her head afterall". Cheating...

March 31, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

CFR, your number-one pet peeve is at the top of my list even though we did not see eye-to-eye on The Broken Shore. One particular publisher is notorious for the number of typos it included in a series of reprints of an author I like very much. One character’s name is spelled three different ways in the space of two pages.

I can well imagine that a mix of U.S. and U.K. English might be distracting, especially if the mix involves colloquialisms. Can you think of any especially maddening or distracting examples?

My murderers generally stop at one or, at most, three, so I’m not familiar with serial-killer plots, but I have noticed other readers suffering from Hannibal Lecter fatigue. And, while I don’ think I’ve ever read an it-was-all-in-his/her-head plot, I don’t like the related it-was-all-a-dream device in TV shows or movies.

The narrator concealing a solution from the reader was at the heart of my post about cheats, and I’ve also written about alcohol-sodden detectives at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/02/lonely-middle-aged-detective-is-growing.html, http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/02/deadline-in-athens-part-ii.html and http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/02/more-about-fictional-detectives-of.html , if anyone wants to weigh in (and wouldn’t it be novel to find a compelling female detective who drinks too much?)

Your comment raises another reason to question these protagonists: Where do they find the sharpness and stamina to solve crimes so well if they’re drinking all the time?

March 31, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

Ho, Ho, Peter, it seems that many protags can solve a crime, even if their outlook is restricted to the bottom of a whisky bottle or similar. All male to my mind.

The only female protag to approach this, as far as I know, was Jane Tennison in the recent final TV episode of "Prime Suspect". Realistic errors were made, but Tennison remained human and prone to human error.

But of course, at this juncture, the TV element is not the written word, so work it out for yourselves, as I have to, too!

March 31, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I should read some of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels if I really want to see how a drug-addled detective deals with a crime. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder does a convincing job as a recovering alcoholic solving crimes, although I wonder if there really are as many Alcoholics Anonymous groups meeting at such odd hours as they do in Block's novels.

I suppose an alcoholic private detective, who could work on his one case during the hours when he is functioning, is more plausible than an alcoholic police officer, who might have a full slate of cases and other responsibilities.

I've read lavish praise for Prime Suspect, and your comment is one more reason to want to see it. I think I'll make some episodes my next rental -- if they haven't been scooting out of the video store since the Oscars.

I think of the middle-aged, heavy-drinking, angst-ridden male detective less as a pet peeve than as a challenge. The author must convince me that he can do something interesting with the motif.

The American writer Fredric Brown wrote one novel in which the protagonist, not a professional detective, is drunk for almost the entire book. It worked. But then, Brown was one of the best.

March 31, 2007  
Blogger Bill Peschel said...

Peter, I see your point about the headlines. I wouldn't have commented on that one because I'm not sure how newspapers outside the U.S. operate.

But as a copy editor, I think I have a pretty good handle on how it's done here. The most egregious example was from one of Nicholas Spark's books, in which the heroine was a Boston Globe columnist. The examples of her prose rang dead on the ear.

April 10, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Wow, you're a copy editor, Bill? I'll have to take another look at your profile.

I haven't read Sparks, but I can certainly imagine that I might share your frustration. Maybe Sparks has a bad ear, whether in general or whether for the way contemporary newspaper prose looks and sounds.

I'm not sure contemporary American newspapers have a tone that can be easily captured in a way that would work in popular fiction. If anyone has captured that tone, it's the folks who put together the Onion.

April 10, 2007  

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