Saturday, January 09, 2010

What makes a novel worth reading?

I don't mean all that stuff about a compelling story and vivid characters and giving your protagonist an obstacle to overcome. I mean the bits of verbal champagne that make you want to tell your friends or put up a blog post.

The prologue of John Lawton's A Little White Death, third of his Frederick Troy novels, offers at least two. The first is in the book's very first paragraph:
"She knew revolutionaries. Short men, serious men, men who marked their seriousness physically by being bald or mustachioed or both."
The second follows some amusing byplay between two characters, one of whom is a physician come to the United States to treat John F. Kennedy for Addison's disease who hooks up with his fellow Brit just before leaving the U.S. Here are the lines with which the physician ends the prologue:
"`Fine. I understand. Now why don't you hop in a cab. We can have one last drinkie before I dash to Idlewild.'"
(Read about John Lawton's Second Violin here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , ,

23 Comments:

Blogger R. T. said...

I like the term: verbal champagne.

You have zeroed in on the answer to the question in your lead.

Good writing--the kind that sparkles like champagne--trumps most other elements in fiction. Good plots and intriguing characterizations fall flat without carefully crafted sentences.

There is no substitute for delicious diction and sparkling syntax.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I like prose that knows where it's going -- strong, confident, with every word in its place.

In “Best Man Wins,” Frederick Waterman nails his intro with just this sort of style:

I walked on board Flight 587 from Paris to New York, showed my ticket to the flight attendant, then walked though first class, where I usually sat, and continued back to coach. At Row 22, I stopped and looked down at the man sitting in Seat A, the man who I knew would be there, the man who had been having an affair with my wife for the past four months.

I sat down in Seat B.


R.A. Lafferty does it too in "Golden Trabant" when he describes how an oversupply of gold causes a global currency collapse:

If one small shrew is put into a warren of mice or rats, it causes panic. The shrew is smaller than any of them and it may be one against hundreds. But it will eat them; it will eat them alive. And given time, it will eat them all.

Something like this happened to the green money, the white money, the rainbow-colored money of the world. Token shrivels before the thing itself. It could not stand up to free and growing gold.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Throwaway lines like those you described always keep me reading, even when other parts of a story are weak. I don't mean "throwaway" as a pejorative; I just mean a line that's not really set up to grab your attention, just dropped in there and could be missed if you're not already paying attention.

I just read a good example last night in Michael Koryta's excellent A WELCOME GRAVE. When discussing a frightening killer for the Russian mob, Lincoln Perry's friend says, "Is this the same Thor who makes men disappear like it's his day job?"

Perry's reply: "Actually, it think it is his day job."

No big deal, no pause for a laugh, but perfectly inserted.

This is why movies made from Elmore Leonard novels usually stink. All of Leonard's humor and "verbal champagne" (great term) are like this, and the directors and screenwriters try to play them as laugh lines, which kills them as sure as squeezing a butterfly too tightly.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I suspect that delicious diction and sparkling syntax are less often a subject discussion than perfect plots because they are probably difficult to define and even more so to impart. You know them when you read them.

Bill James has written lots of delicious sentences in his time, and so has Peter Temple. I cite Megan Abbott again as a writer who has set some gorgeous sentences to paper.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, my favorite parts from each of your examples:

" ... where I usually sat ..."

and

"But it will eat them ..."

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I think we have a similar sense of how such lines function. "Throwaway" is not a bad term for them. My point is that such lines need not be essential to character or setting or plot development. Their only appeal is to a kind of pure pleasure principle, a pleasure unique to reading, constructed entirely of words, appealing to no one's sense of justice or empathy or anything else commonly invoked as a source of crime fiction's appeal.

I haven't read Michael Koryta, but I think he appears in one of my photos from Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Westlake's Dortmunder books have zillions of "throwaway" lines, as I recall. Same with Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr comic crime stories. There are a fair number in the early Alistair MacLean books too.

Thinking about it, the latter two sets of books are written in the first person. Is there something in that format which makes these observational asides possible?

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm glad you mentioned Westlake because one of my favorite lines, though probably not as strictly throwaway as others mentioned here, comes from one of the Parker novels, I think "The Score," where Gtofield is carrying on, and Parker, tiring of his antics, says: "Shut up, Grofield."

And then there's this Dortmunder-like exchange that slips into a Parker novel, "Dirty Money":

"`You kill a lawman,' [Parker] said, `you're in another zone. McWhitney and I are gonna have to work this out.'

"`But not on the phone.'

"Parker yawned. `Nothing on the phone ever,' he said. `Except pizza.'"

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

Very interesting question, as usual, Peter. I also like your expression "the bits of verbal champagne." The sense of place is important to me: it doesn't mean that I need a detailed description, but I need to get a sense of where the story happens and where I am (my the vintage point). Not sure if I can explain that better. Lately, I have started to read some books that I quickly dropped and in each case I made myself articulate the reason for my rejection: it's an interesting process.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Simona. I'd like to hear more. No need to name names; I'm not looking to embarrass anyone, but I would like to hear what makes you put a book aside. I'm an impatient reader, and certain things -- usually having to do with ungainly prose -- make me lose what little patience I do have.

What will violate a book's sense of place for you?

"Verbal champagne" may be an apt expression because champagne is essential to no one, but it sure does enhance a meal or an evening out.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger R. T. said...

To play the word game a bit more, here is one more comment about "verbal champagne" -- flat champagne is unpalatable and ought to be flushed down the commode; flat prose is equally useless and deserves as similar fate.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In a concession to the spirit of the time, let us say that books containing flat prose deserve to be recycled even if the prose does not.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Heh. So would Dorothy Parker have changed "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force" to "landfilled, not recycled?"

Captcha: undepoop. I kid you not.

January 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Undepoop is one of the better of its kind.

January 09, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

To pick up Simona's point on putting books aside, I used to read a book to it's end no matter how much I hated it but as I've got older I've adopted a zero tolerance policy towards books that haven't nailed down my attention by the first 20 or 30 pages

As for naming names here's three I've tossed aside recently with varying degrees of force:

Bill James, in the absence of iles (opens with 40 pages of undigested research on undercover policework and has more alphabetical, numerical and alphanumerical lists that you could shake a stick at. In fiction the reasearch is supposed to inform the writing, not be the writing)

David Peace, 1980 (pretentious drivel interspersed with anodyne storytelling. Of course if you want a shortcut to get the critics to love your work DP is going about it the right way)

Richard Price, Freedomland (why is it 736 pages long? From what I read because he spends more that half his time describing things that are either uninteresting minutiae or irrelevant. Beautiful sentences should be hunted down and terminated unless they have three kinds of proof that they have a right to be on the premises).

Re Donald Westlake here's a description from Bad News of a statuesque Native American woman:
'She looked like a cross between Pocahontas and Mount Rushmore'
And one of my favourite Westlake opening lines:

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage killing a man.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Among your recent three, I was able to read In the Absence of Iles as an appendix or footnote to the rest of the series, all of which I've read, about a third of them more than once.

So beautiful sentences ought to be treated like dogs? An author ought to be required to have a license for them, and said sentences should be "fixed," lest they multiply indiscriminately?

I don't remember the Bad News line, though I've read Bad News. Interesting that the Parker opening is from Firebreak, one of the post-comeback Parker novels. Recent books in the series were a bit less harsh than the pre-comeback books, but not that opening.

January 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Yes, Peter, it's the indiscriminate multiplication of beautiful sentences that's the problem. Writers frequently get carried away with their own eloquence and if they're successful writers, editors are powerless to stop them. Of course, I enjoy beautiful sentences when they are used in the service of the story that is being told

Perhaps you could list some of those H&I titles that seduced you into reading them more than once.

Yes, I think the comeback Parker was a bit of an old softie.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Our man Bill James is capable of a beautiful sentence, as it happens, as in the opening of The Detective Is Dead:

"When someone as grand and profitable as Oliphant Kenward Knapp was suddenly taken out of the business scene, you had to expect a bloody big rush to grab his domain, bloody big meaning not just bloody big, but big and very bloody. Harpur was looking at what had probably been a couple of really inspired enthusiasts in the takeover rush. Both were on their backs. Both, admittedly, showed only minor blood loss, narrowly confined to the heart area. Both were eyes wide, mouth wide and for ever gone from the stampede."

Here's a list of the Harpur & Iles novels: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/j/bill-james/

The series is strong through its first nineteen books, I'd say, and Club through, probably, Eton Crop are especially highly recommended. I've written a fair bit of Bill James, including an interview with him here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/search/label/Bill%20James%20interview

I'd never call Parker a softie, but some of the last books do show traces of sympathy for economically downtrodden folks (as do some of the Dortmunder books and The Ax. There's also a trace of Dortmunder-like humor in a heist in which one's inside man is dressed like an angel -- and the target is the receipts at a revival meeting.)

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

I realize that my comment was not well articulated. I got really excited about the question. I seem to have problems with memoirs and travel books. Memoirs don't hold my attention. My impatience with travel books is probably connected to my impatience with guide books. Too much about "the place" I guess. We have talked on this venue about Camilleri's Sicily, then there is Vasquez Montalban's Barcelona (but also other places he describes), Izzo's Marseilles, De Angelis' Milan, just to name a few. They all are able to create for me the space where their stories happen with a balance of telling and showing, so that the space is physical. I am not sure I make sense. One reason I like the Montalbano movies is that the space felt seamlessly connected between the two media.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vasquez Montalban may be even better as a guide to a city not his own. Have you read his "Buenos Aires Quintet"?

I'd say that the most successful travel writers, at least among crime writers, are those who don't set out to be travel writers.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am pleased, flattered and honored that you were excited by the question. Thanks!

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

Not yet, but I am going to read a lot more Vasquez Montalban: I wish I could read him in his original language. In my comment, I was referring to memoirs and travel books in the widest sense. I agree with what you say: some writers have the ability to create the sense of a place without setting out to be travel writers. You are welcome! I like questions that make me think about my reading (why I like this book, why I don't like that book). The conversation above was very interesting.

January 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't say the conversation was very interesting. I prefer the present tense.

I haven't read much in the way of memoirs and not much more in the way of travel. But think broadly: Marco Polo wrote a travel book. So did Sir Richard Burton and Robert Byron and Ibn Battuta.

If "a sense of where the story happens" includes a sense of when it happens, then it's surprising and acutely observed that you should invoke travel books in a discussion of John Lawton. I get a strong sense of place and time in his books. In fact, I don't separate the notions of place and time.

January 10, 2010  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home