Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stuart Neville isn't as good a writer as you think he is; he's better: A look at his next book

Back in 2010, I wrote about the clever and effective chiasmus in Stuart Neville's second novel, Collusion.

A chiasmus, as I wrote at the time, is a literary figure in which a phrase includes a list of concepts, and the following phrase repeats those concepts in reverse order — the old A-B-B'-A' form (or A-B-C-D-D'-C'-B'-A' and so on). The Bible uses chiasmus all the time, and so did Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. And Alexander Pope ("His time a moment, and a point his space," Essay on Man, Epistle I. ). Neville's extended chiasmus in Collusion ran thus:
"`I've been called lots of things. Smith, Murphy, Tomalty, Meehan, Gorman, Maher, I could go on.' He leaned forward and whispered, `There's some people say I'm not even really a Pavee.'

"A dead mask covered O'Kane's face. `Don't get smart with me, son. I'm a serious man. Don't forget that. I'll only warn you the once.'

"The Traveler leaned back and nodded. `Fair enough. But I'm a serious man too, and I don't like answering questions. You'll know as much about me as I want you to know.'

"O'Kane studied him for a moment. `Fair enough. I don't care if you're a gypsy, a traveler, a knacker, a tinker, or whatever the fuck you lot call yourselves these days. All I care about is the job I need doing. Are you the boy for it?'"
Collusion was Neville's second book; So Say the Fallen, to be published in September, is his seventh, and I have yet to discover a chiasmus in it. But I did find, in the novel's very first paragraph, further evidence that Neville pays more attention to writing well than most writers do, that the themes commenters note most often in his writingguilt, sin, suspense, racking internal conflict—make themselves clear not just at story level, but in the very structure of his sentences.
 

I haven't seen a finished copy of the book yet, so I can't quote the paragraph here. What I can tell you is that it achieves exactly what I said the Collusion chiasmus does. It lends the passage in which it occurs
"weight and rhythm and a fair bit of grim humor, too. Most of all, it makes the reader sit up and pay attention, alert for what comes next."
Reviewers, readers, and blurbsters quite rightly praise Neville for the ends he achieves: the suspense, the emotion, the characters for whom sins of the past are anything but dead. Why do so few people notice the means by which he achieves those ends?
===================================
(Adrian McKinty, Neville's friend, co-editor, and fellow Northern Ireland crime writer, sheds some light on this question in a post called "Genre Fiction and Bad Prose" at his Psychopathology of Everyday Life blog, http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com/2016/06/genre-fiction-and-bad-prose.html)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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38 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Because we're reading them as pageturners?

Nice analysis. I had to go look up a few examples of chiasmus to get it.

Speaking of Neville, did you know he's due to appear at a Noir at the Bar in Belfast? Heard about it on Gerard Brennan's blog.

I don't remember if Noir at the Bar has crossed the Atlantic yet.

June 15, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But that only leads to the question of what makes Neville's work a page turner.

No doubt under the influence of my professional experience, I find Adrian's argument about bad prose persuasive, Good writing is at best ignored, at worst looked down on. In my business, some people will admit they are not the world's best reporters, but no person in the history of American newsrooms has ever admitted being anything less than an exquisite wordsmith. The crime writing that is regarded as good prose tend to overwrought, to hit the reader over the head.

And yes, there has been at least one Noir at the Bar in Glasgow. I also have not abandoned thoughts of trying to set one up in Bristol.

June 15, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, I was being somewhat facetious. But certainly there are plenty of page turners that are not well written. I think the fact that Stuart's are very accessible as well as being well written might mean that people don't think about the prose style as much as they do in some other works.

Ah, Glasgow. Yes,that would definitely be a good place for a Noir at the Bar.

June 15, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Facetious, but much good writing is transparent. People may not seek out a book for its good writing, but it keeps them reading whether they know it or not.

I'm sure plenty of bestsellers are not well written, but is that true of page turners? I don't know whether big sales mean that buyers read the damn books. And I generally stop reading a poorly written book, so I couldn't say for sure that plenty of page turners are poorly written. I've read just one story by Stephen King, for example, and it was written well. I may not read anything else of his, but I can accept the notion that he is a good writer. (On the other hand, there's a quotation of his floating around on social media to the effect that "Life is not a support system for the arts. It's the other way around." That's a nice thought, but I hesitate to regard anyone who would use the phrase "support system" as a good writer.)

The only badly written (though the bad writer may be the translator) novel I can remember reading and writing about is a novel called 1222, by Anne Holt. Search for it here on DBB.

I have seen a distinction drawn between writing on the one hand and storytelling on the other. That may have been valid when this culture of ours was more literate than it is now, because even the storytellers knew how to write a sentence. That cannot be taken for granted now.

One reason my comments and reviews are overwhelmingly positive is that if a book is crap, or cliched, or poorly written, I won't waste my time reading it. I also can tell you that, pace the boosterish mentality that pervades this country, writing has got worse and is getting worse.

Here's an interview with the two guys who ran the Glasgow Noir at the Bar. Good blokes, and I've read books by both: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/announcements/noir-at-the-bar-glasgow/

June 15, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Hmm. I really liked 1222, and I don't even have to resort to blaming the translation to say that.

Stephen King is a really good writer, or at least I think so, having read one of his stories in non genre form. I think mentioning support system is just a nod to the vernacular.

I don't think writing is getting worse, although I do think we are probably at the end of one way of writing before we really get into the next phase. Don't know if I will live to see the resurgence, or understand it if I do. I'm still struggling with Joyce's version of modernism.

Finally, I'll say that due to my long time working in a bookstore, I don't think good writing is really the only thing that keeps readers reading. Though I wish it were so.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would say entirely seriously that it's a tribute to Anne Holt that I was able to read and enjoy 1222 despite the translator's numerous misdeeds. And I certainly don't want to scare anyone off the book. But my post about the novel will explain what I mean. The book read as if it had been translated rapidly and never received a final polishing: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2012/05/fact-that-or-is-it-possible-to-be-good.html

You may have a point about our being between phases of writing. But whether something is dying or something is being born, the result is not pretty. Younger writers resort to jargon, and useful grammatical forms are dying. Ponder the difference in meaning between these two sentences: "The bill will increase the tax on cigarettes" and "The bill would increase the tax on cigarettes." Enjoy the latter, because it's on the way out and will not be part of that hypothetical next phase of English. Then ponder the sense, or lack thereof, of such not entirely hypothetical statements as "A Senate committee has passed a bill that will increase the tax on cigarettes. The bill now goes to the full Senate." I get that "will" used in place of "would" so often in news stories at work that I have almost stopped noticing it.

The conditional, in other words, is going the way of the subjunctive, and our culture and language will probably survive. For now, though, it's a goddamn annoying mistake that I will likely see two or three times at work this evening. And what of those reporters, usually on politics, education, or business, who fall into the jargon of the beats they cover, the reporters who write, without any apparent blush, about companies that will "partner going forward"? What does that eagerness to fall into forced top-down corporate optimism say about their ability to think independently?

More to the point of your comment, I think, young reporters make these mistakes far more than older ones of (which is mot to say, of course, that all older reporters are better journalists than young ones). And I see this every day. Anyone with a bit of sense and insight will recognize that our language changes. Thanks to my job, I see it happening every day. To acknowledge change does not necessarily mean liking it or accepting it. I have slowly growing to acknowledge that many people accept use of "they" as a neuter singular form. But I will always find a way to write and edit around it.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Since will and would mean two different things, I wonder what caused that particular slippage. I may use it myself without noticing, but when you point it out, it does seem odd.

I am less surprised by anyone copying any kind of language trend if someone they think is either cooler or more powerful than they are is using it. But I think people adopt these things so unconsciously that I can hardly blame them. It would be worse if they did it in a more considered way.

I can say for sure that my education in English usage and grammar was inferior to my parents' education. I had good teachers, but this just wasn't what was in vogue in education at the time.

But as I'm not a copyeditor, I mind these things less than you do. I am more concerned any time I am aware that language is shrinking rather than expanding. I happen to be reading Moby Dick right now, and I must say that our ability to express ourselves in a sentence have fallen a long way from Melville's time. Of course, not everyone was Melville, but he did expect people to understand his prose. I think there are many who would not now.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the lapsing of the conditional is part of a centuries-long trend toward simplification in English. Our language has lost almost all its noun case forms, for instance.

I agree that people probably adopt these ways of speaking unconsciously, that they model their writing on the models available to them. I suspect that increasing worship of corporations and the decline in literacy fostered by the Internet may be responsible.

Samuel Johnson wrote this in the preface to his disctionary:

"I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation."

Can you imagine anyone today understanding those words, much less formulating that thought?

I don't mind these things because I'm a copy editor, I'm a copy editor because I mind these things. The only difference between my position and yours is that my job probably allows me to track these changes, and this increasing illiteracy (which are not necessarily the same thing) more closely than other people.

(You used to work with books. For some reason, "copyeditor" is the preferred form in book publishing, "copy editor" in journalism. I have no idea why,)

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I can understand it, but I couldn't have formulated it. Although I think there are benefits to be had from the wild exuberance that Samuel Johnson wouldn't accept. I like it when language jumps the walls.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like hearing children conversing with their parents, switching without warning from English to Chinese or Spanish and back. I like jocose references to a wife as the memsahib. I like the verb "diss."

I love being "stumped" by a question, and I loved it even more when somebody told me it comes from cricket. I love that "gunsel" came from Yiddish, and that Dashiell Hammett fooled his editor into thinking the word had something to do with guns.

I don't like being told that low-wage workers are crew members, associates, or partners even as their ranks expand as well-paying jobs disappear. I don't like that companies in the medical or engineering space partner going forward. I don't like the disappearance of useful distinctions, such as that between "will" and "would."

I don't like "this point in time" instead of "now" or patients who had three surgeries after being shot multiple times rather than three operations after being shot more than once.

Not all change is good.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

No, of course not. But some of the greatest characters in fiction have been created by writers who were sensitive to pomposity and other ills in language and pointed out their foibles by parodying their speech. Some variation of this foolishness has been with us for a long time. I just don't know that there's a screen that keeps out the drivel and only lets in the gems.

I bet there is a great novel of corporate speak just waiting to be written, or possibly it has, and I just haven't gotten to it.

I will admit that it is very hard to stand by and have to listen to this jargon and have to pretend that you don't see through it. But on the other hand, it's a way that people do unwittingly signal their true intentions and loyalties, and, well, forewarned is forearmed.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorothy L. Sayers parodied advertisingspeak brilliantly in Murder Must Advertise. That she did so I think more than eighty years ago is one the most astonishing facts in all of crime writing. And I haven't read a lot of Dickens, but I suspect one could pick any number of examples form his work.

Some variety of this foolishness has probably been with us for a long time, and I think people even tried to ignore it, a la Henry David Thoreau, or even to fight against it for about five minutes during the 1960s. But that dissent was commodified pretty early on. Now we get post-modern corporate-driven irony, in which people like David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert pretend to make fun of what they really serve and worship and are accepted at face value as alternative voices. What a surrender that is.

A humbler example: the occasional journalist at my paper who would rise into management and then, like a new immigrant ashamed of his grubby origins, would fill memos with "impact" as a verb as if he'd been doing so all his life.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's when they start using the term 'impactful' that you know it's all over.

Almost everything is corporate now, though. There is not much hope of escaping it if you need to make a living. I don't know about Letterman or Colbert because I can't read their inner thinking, but Stewart always seemed to me to know that he had sold his soul for a mess of pottage and was still somewhat kicking against the traces.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No one who draws a paycheck from this newspaper has ever used "impactful" in my presence. But some reporters, under some mistaken belief that every story must contain direct quotations, have quoted the word in articles.

Yes, almost everything is corporate now. That's my point. The corporations have won. The goal now has to be to minimize the damage they can do. Interesting you should suggest that Stewart seemed to know he had sold his soul. Many people would not concede even that much.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think that, despite his fame and popularity, he is aware that he is a handful of dust in the cosmic scheme of things as we all are.

I could be wrong. But I still wish he was around to puncture the marvel that is Trump from time to time.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The reason Northern Irish novelists are so good, I think, is because the barriers to publication are so high. No one wants to read a Northern Irish based mystery in the UK, Ireland, America or Europe when they can read a Norwegian or English or American set mystery. If you're a local author anywhere in the world you'll at least have a built in local audience. Not in Northern Ireland where the Troubles have so scarred the population that they dont want anything to do with Ulster. Publishers are aware of this so perfectly adequate Belfast set stories dont get published whereas if they were set in say Copenhagen they'd be fucking best sellers. With high barriers to publication N Irish writers have to really excel and stand out to attract a publisher.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: If Stewart were still around, I'd probably be less hard on him than I am on the headlines and posts on Facebook that would inevitably proclaim "Watch Jon Stewart destroy Donald" over some video of a comedy routine. I don't think you're on Facebook. If I'm right, you're lucky to miss that wishful, self-regarding junk. Woody Allen had people like that nailed in Manhattan.

Trump deserve whatever he gets, and-- well, I can't being myself to say that the American people deserve Trump, but it would be nice to see some real analysis of how something like him could happen. I like to think he heralds the death of the Republican Party in its present form, but would its successor be any better?

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Maybe that's why Steve Cavanagh sets his novels in New York. I read his second novel right before I read So Say the Fallen. And damn, the man knows how to write terrific breakneck thrillers.

I can understand why British publishers and readers might be leery of the Troubles--why the title of Stuart's first book had to be changed from the excellent Ghosts of Belfast to the not bad The Twelve for UK publication. (I asked him on a Bouchercon panel if chose the number 12 because of its religious and other resonance in Western culture. He said no, not really.) But that leeriness will have to wear of eventually, won't it?

(So Say the Fallen makes just one direct reference to the Troubles, but a reference that might be too pointed for some, and one allusion.)

June 16, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

The American people don't deserve Trump, regardless of what they ignorantly did to raise him to prominence.

Yeah, I'm not on Facebook. It's still a bridge too far for me. I know that makes me retro, but that's nothing new.

Nice to see Adrian check in around these parts. He's right, the Northern Irish contingent has eet a pretty high bar.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: In re Scandinavian crime and Northern Ireland, Jo Nesbø likes so say that he would always be asked to tell traditional ghost stories when he was younger. With all do respect to him, I know of no crime writer who respects ghosts as much as Stuart Neville, and if anyone comes close it may be Anthony Quinn. And that's not to mention that book of stories based on myth that Gerard Brennan et al. put together.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I compared social media to a crowded bar. The noise is such that not you hear makes sense, and a good deal of what you do hear will be loud, uninformed, and unpleasant. Every once in a while you'll pick up a snippet of wor5thwhile conversation.

Yeah, it's tempting to think of Trump a great lesson, salutary political joke, but the joke could well last years. So, yes, no one deserves him.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

N.I.'s soccer team also appears to be punching above its weight.

June 16, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Northern Ireland always punches above its weight at football. Never gets any coverage of course but there you go. I've read about 20 articles on plucky little Iceland in the last week. Zero on N.I.

Nesbo's books have got decreasingly interesting and increasingly violent over the years to my eye. Maybe thats what the punters want...who knows...fuck the punters I say, give em what they need not what they want.

Jon Stewart? Like Saturday Night Live I was always baffled that anyone found him or his shtick funny. It was amazing to me when he wd win the Emmy Award year after year and they'd bring 25 writers up on stage with him. 25 writers to write that feeble obvious shit? Trevor Noah, incredibly, is worse because he has zero charisma and his odd high pitched whistling Dutch-Afrikaans-English-American accent grates on the ears. But he's just as unfunny as Stewart, I'll give him that.

Seana: alas my internet connection in the new house is pathetic so I can't blog or comment as much as I'd like. There's a cafe round the corner which has good wireless but their music makes me insane. Dont worry about Trump. 13M people voted for him in the GOP primaries - thats about 5% of the US population. He wont break 40 in the general. Weakest GOP candidate since Goldwater in 64.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Unfortunately in America, we do have to worry about Trump until he's no longer a problem. It's not just whether he wins, it's his ripple effect. He has already changed the political climate for the worse.

Still like Jon Stewart, you can't sway me. But I agree, Trevor Noah wasn't the right hire. I actually watch Larry Wilmore more now. I get him and his crew.

Sorry about the internet thing, Adrian. Hope to see you at full power before too long, but I continue to read what you do post. I'm sure others do as well.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Does N.I. really punch above its weight in football? I know it has done some good things at the World Cup, but not in the last thirty years. Northern Ireland needs to start an eleven entirely made up of O'Flahertys or Campbells, so they can get press the way Iceland got attention for starting eleven players whose names ended in -son the other night.


I have read Nesbo's last few books, which include some of his earliest work, because his books have not been translated in order of their original publication. The last one I remember browsing opened with a woman-in-violent-trouble prologue that was so over the top that I got the idea Nesbo may have been poking fun at the whole phenomenon. You know the kind I mean: A person, usually a woman, recovers consciousness to find her or himself in the dark? Check. Feeling a dull pain in some part of the body? Check. Tied up in a dark basement? Check. At first foggy, but then the nightmare comes flooding back? Check. Prologue in italic type? Check.

I don't remember if Nesbo's prologue was in italics. I do remember that I did not read the book.

Do I give Nesbo too much credit in suspecting he may have been making fun of the trend? Maybe. After all, I once thought the last season of The Thick of It was good.

I don't a lot about American popular culture, but I really don't get the phenomenon of the late-night talk-show host. I get some of the tactics: the pandering in the guise of satire, the repetition of jokes, complete with mugging until even the most inattentive viewer gets the point. If Malcolm Tucker ever sat me down and made me watch the zeitgeist tape, my head would explode.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know Jon Stewart's work as well as you two do, so I can't claim to despise him like Adrian does or like him as Seana does. And I don't know whether he is that funny or not. But I am amazed at the seriousness with which he was and is taken. I think many people in this country would vote for him for president in a second. I mean, it's not like he's Sara Paretsky or Walter Mosley: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2016/04/what-they-said-at-2016-edgar-awards-or.html

June 17, 2016  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Dont worry about Trump. Just ignore him. Read Sam Wang. This election is baked. Everything between now and November is just an attempt to get eyeballs on screens.

Peter

Yes you give Nesbo too much credit.

The Thick of It S4 was as shockingly terrible as Arrested Development S4. Of course at the time, Slate, NY Times, The Guardian etc. etc. lavished great praise on 'em. The media herd instinct has only gotten worse in the last 5 years.

Late night talk shows have always been bad. Look at a random Johnny Carson bit on youtube - you'll be amazed at how unfunny it is.

Ive got some stats on NI in I think paragraph 3 here:
http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/allez-les-verts-why-all-irishmen-and.html

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I understand what you're saying, but I don't like the way the national conversation is drifting. It's really disappointing to me that so many of the populace can't see through that guy. And of course, coming from California, I wouldn't have thought Ronald Reagan could have pulled the presidency for two terms either, until he did it.

I never liked Late Night talk shows either, but I really did like Stewart's half hour. I didn't get on to him till quite late in the game, but I enjoyed him till he gave up on it.

Nesbo can do no wrong in my book. Just kidding. I have at least two of his books in my house and haven't read him. But, say what you will, he is a good T-shirt model.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I remember giving The Thick of It, Season Four too much credit for what it tried to do: exploring darker themes. In retrospect, that was nothing but jumping the shark, or something close to it. It got away from everything the series was good at. Bumping the New Labourites, which I presume is what the Hugh Abbott-Nicola Murray crowd was supposed to be, out of government, was a huge mistake, creating too many scattered narrative centers. It didn't help that the Fergus Williams, who I assume was at least loosely inspired by Nick Clegg, was such a shit character, a clown at utter variance with the heavy thematic melodrama mentioned above.

Commenters have noticed that in the older days of late-night talk shows, a comedian could go on and least get to do his routine for a few minutes. Now, it's all vacuous suck-up talk, unfunny mugging, and fake satire--except when Craig Ferguson would have crime writers as guests. But even in that case, I remember being frustrated by the brevity of his chat with Ken Bruen, Presumably the producers think American audiences can't pay attention to anything for more than 45 seconds. Ferguson's chat with Stuart Neville was a good deal longer and more satisfactory. I assume this was because Ferguson had recently bought a film option for Ghosts of Belfast.

My guess is that I don't give Nesbo too much credit. Instead, he might be guilty of a crime similar to the offenses of Stephen Colbert and any other late-night talk-show comedian who is taken seriously as a political commentator: If I were a grand jury, I might say there was sufficient evidence to charge Nesbo of the crime of making fun of torture-in-the-basement while at the same time titillating readers with it. The reason I don't come right out and call Nesbo guilty is that I did not go on to read the book.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I wonder if Americans place too much faith in the idea of a "national conversation." (I don't remember the whole idea of being "part of the conversation" entering popular speech until the Bill Clinton years. And no, I do not hold this against Hillary.)

But what is the "national conversation" in country of late-night talk shows, social media, and, perhaps most important, great faith is placed in polls to which respondents may not answer honestly, particularly to controversial questions

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Or if they're like me, they've just stopped answering poll questions. I'm tired of giving people information about myself that they can tally for their own ends. Actually, I haven't really stopped taking them, but I am gradually weaning myself from them. Partly because in many cases, it's just a thinly veiled excuse to ask for money.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: All that, and you're not on Facebook? That makes you more sensible than 98.9 percent of Americans with a margin of error of plus/minus 0 percent.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Sensible, no. Skeptical I'll own.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Same thing.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

If I were actually sensible, I would ONLY be on Facebook and not have a thousand smaller things going on across the web. But too late now.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You have saved yourself from Facebook in time.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

So far.

June 17, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure your native good sense will serve you well should you take the plunge. I myself joined only just over two years ago, and I like to think I do a fair job of shutting out the nonsense.

June 18, 2016  

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