Trying not to be savage about it

I think it was Richard Ford who once remarked that it’s a pretty difficult thing just to write an average novel, never mind a good one. That’s so true. We hold writers to higher standards. Actors, musicians and other artists can all turn in average performances and no one notices. But writers? We savage the average.

That’s why I’m always a bit torn when I come across something I dislike. At the very least I want to be able to say — “Yes, dear writer, I may not be the perfect reader for you and your story, but I’m sure plenty of others are. And regardless, I salute you for the effort and discipline and creativity it takes to get something like this to the page.”

secretatlas.jpgThat’s pretty much what I’m going ancientevenings.jpgto have to say about Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas. I gave up after 70 pages, which is unusual for me. Once I start I generally slog forward, no matter how bitterly I resent it. Hell, I even finished Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer (may he R.I.P.) Now there’s a book for masochists.

According to his web site, “Michael A. Stackpole is a New York Times Best Selling author, an award-winning novelist, an award-winning editor, an award-winning game designer, an award-winning computer game designer, an award-winning comics writer, an award-winning podcaster, and an award-winning screenwriter.”

He’s prolific; and he’s won awards.

And clearly he has an audience for his brand of fantasy. It’s a genre I dip into now and then, although perhaps I’m a little fussy in my tastes. I think I came to Tolkien too late in life — he just doesn’t do it for me. But I can recall getting lost in the first Stephen Donaldson books and hey — Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and The Once and Future King by T.H. White both shine through with brilliance.

But A Secret Atlas will stay a secret, I’m afraid. The causes of my discontent are various. During the first 70 pages no fewer than 25 different characters are introduced. 25! I had to start my own little genealogical atlas.

And the back story really does go on and on. Perhaps these are conventions that video game players intuitively grasp, but they’re lost on me.

While the writing is generally serviceable, it sometimes is not. “…you always depreciate your own skill…” (strictly speaking probably correct but ‘deprecate’ sounds more correct to my ear) and “[he] snapped a bow at…” which is puzzling, because it turns out this isn’t a perfunctory bow at all, but deep and long. And maybe this is splitting hairs, but if I ever meet the Queen, I will bow to her, or before her, but not at her.

But these details are of no concern to Stackpole fans. And clearly you can’t earn a following like his without tapping into something. Alas, t’isn’t for me, but perhaps ’tis for you?

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2 Responses to “Trying not to be savage about it”


  1. 1 Grady November 21, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Greg, just found your new blog…. good stuff! Glad to see you don’t agree that blogging is dead.

    Here’s something you might find interesting…

    I’ve found a copy of the essay by George Orwell that Vancouver Sun writer Steven Hume referred to in his talk at an NSERC conference on science communications I went to last week in Victoria. It was in relation to how jargon and high-brow language is used, often unconsciously, by people in authority (like university administrators and professors), and how newspapers tend to avoid it at all costs because it’s just not how normal people think or speak…

    The essay itself is interesting on a few levels…. especially if you’re a fan of Orwell, check it out if you’re interested:

    http://www.wordpirate.com/Below%20Decks/The%20Grammar%20Monkey/Propaganda%20and%20Demotic%20Speech.htm

  2. 2 proseparsed November 23, 2007 at 4:21 am

    Grady – thanks for this. That’s a great piece by Orwell and a reminder that stamping out the high-falutin’ cliche will always be in vogue. It’s interesting that he himself sounds quite stylistically elevated while preaching plain talk. Do you know what kind of audience ‘Persuasion’ first had….?

    While most would agree that writers should strive for simplicity and clarity, I sometimes wonder if we in the word trade do a disservice to the language and the culture in our persistent efforts to leave no reader behind. Does ‘dumbed down’ have a bottom? I’d love to be here 100 years hence and see the level to which the public discourse has sunk. Greg


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