Great stories and characters, dulled by artificial intensity
9th of August, 2014 · 1 Comment
I have just about goddamn had it with post-apocalyptic young adult novels. I read Divergent, then took a break and read Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, genius, and then headed into Divergent’s sequel, Insurgent.1 And I abandoned it about halfway through because it sucked. Which is a bummer, because the movie was really enjoyable.
But it didn’t have to suck. You can tell because, again, the movie was so good. It had so very much going for it: a very strong female lead, a good set of rules which the author followed faithfully, a richly colorful society with a history, a twist of evil human nature, and a subtle and slow-moving romance. Had those things sucked in the book, they’d have sucked in the movie.
And yet, the book sucked. It grated in much the same way The Hunger Games books grated. I didn’t even read the last one. Catching Fire. I listened to the audiobook while at work to power through the story and get it over with. God, that book was long.
The problem with the book is about 20 years in the making. I first noticed it when I was 15 and had this girlfriend who fancied herself an author. Let’s call her “Jessica” because that was her name and it’s easy to remember. Jessica, like so many mid-teen idiots (myself included, let’s not get nasty, here) thought she was an author and she always wrote these mysterious, deep little essays that made no actual sense unless you happened to be Jessica.
And she’d always make me read them and they always sucked but I always said they were awesome. I realized back then that they sucked for a great many reasons, and not just because she was a young author. No, worse than the pointlessness and narcissism was that it was always written in the first person present tense. They very problem I have with Divergent and Hunger Games.
First person is just fine. Or, it can be just fine. Odd Thomas was great. InterWorld was great. This Book is Full of Spiders Seriously Dude Don’t Touch It was great. All were first-person. This Book is Full of Spiders in particular was first-person because it’s a true story and it even had a part that was from the dog’s point of view and that was true, too. You can tell because you can’t make that kind of thing up.
Now that I’m actually reflecting on it, all three of those books had good points very similar to the good points of Divergent. Strong characters, good rules, a history and culture, and some romance (or, in Interworld’s case, no romance at all, which is almost the same thing).
Anyway, none of those books were written in the present tense. Present tense, in case you don’t know, is writing as though everything were happening right now. An example follows:
Past tense, which is normal: Empty handed, I turned and ran. The Walmart security guy sensed that something was wrong and chased after me, but since he was about 50 pounds overweight, I quickly outpaced him and made it safely to the parking lot where my wife was waiting for her McDonald’s cheeseburger.
Present tense, which sucks: Empty handed, I turn and run. The Walmart security guy senses that something is wrong and is chasing after me, but since he’s about 50 pounds overweight, I quickly outpace him and make it safely to the parking lot, where my wife is waiting for her McDonald’s cheeseburger.
Present tense sucks. It gives the narrative a sense of immediacy, but it’s a false sense. It’s like when, beginning in the 1990s, music started getting mastered too loud. All the levels were punched up higher. It gave the illusion that the music was louder, but it wasn’t. The highs were louder, the mid-range was louder, and the low end was louder. But that doesn’t mean the listener can actually turn the music up louder. That’s still a function of the listener’s equipment. No, what it means is that the listeners ears get exhausted faster, even at lower levels. And so it is with present-tense writing. Everything is turned up louder, takes place more in-your-face than normal, even the stuff that’s just stuff.
Put another way, writing in the present tense is a cheap gimmick and is exhausting to read. And that’s why The Hunger Games and Divergent make for far better movies than they do books.
It makes sense that we’re getting these authors writing in the present tense right now. Jessica is of an age to have written a reasonably successful book by now.2 So why wouldn’t some publisher, also about the same age, not think this is a great idea and publish a great idea written horribly? The answer, of course, is that there is and they did and the world is poorer for it.
You should save yourself some misery and read these books the way they were meant to be read: on film. In the meantime, read some books written by non-hacks. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Sue Grafton, John Wong, Clive Barker and Jim Butcher all leap to mind because all their books contain strong characters, great settings, stellar stories, and oh yeah, they can can all write.