Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Write Club: Things Not to Do

Hey y'all.  This is going to be the first of what I suspect will be an ongoing series of little things -- or not so little things -- writers do that are so dang irritating.  Sometimes it's so bad that I just can't keep reading. 

One of the things a writer can do to alienate the reader is talk to them as if they're children.  Even in children's books, this is unbearably irritating.  Y'know, when writers treat the simplest, most trivial metaphors are all dang clever.  And acting as if they know everything and have to make it much simpler sounding so you'll understand.

This is what Michael Coren, author of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Man who Created Lord of the Rings, has done.  Ugh.  There's nothing that can prove my point better than some quotes.  Here's the quote from the introduction, where Coren is talking about a survey done where Britain is trying to find out what book people feel is the greatest book of the twentieth century for England.  Of course, given the book, the survey obviously shows that LOTR won.  Coren then mentions some people who disagreed with the survey, calling them elites.

"Elites are small, influential groups of people who think they know what is best for everybody else.  They are usually wrong.  What cut into them so deeply and painfully was that Tolkien had always refused to join their sorts of groups.  Not only had his book won the day, but so too had the man."

1.  Someone complaining about know-it-alls really shouldn't explain out "elites" as if the reader is too dumb to understand without his explanation.  It's obvious enough from the context.
2. As of the making of the survey, Tolkien had been dead for about twenty years.  Do you really think any elites knew or cared who Tolkien hung out with?  You really think that some intellectual mofo somewhere is going, "Waaaah, if Tolkien were still alive, he wouldn't hang out with me!  Waaah!"?  Of course not.  No elite is really "cut" like that.  Coren is obviously attributing his own ideas to these elites.   This is not to say that elites don't exist, but just because someone's biased doesn't mean that his opponent isn't. 

The main problem I have with Coren's work is his over-emoting and awkward metaphors.  I can almost hear him telling this story to children as they're all gathered in the reading corner. 

"The Warwickshire dialect was as thick as the cream made from the milk of the local cows."

Unngh.  Oh, here's a quote done when Tolkien's mother is sick.

"She got worse.  Tolkien and his brother thought, as all children do, that their mother was immortal.  Nothing could happen to her, nothing serious anyway,  She was only thirty-four but she had gone through so much.  A good, kind, and gentle woman whom life hat not treated fairly.  On November 14 Father Francis was called to her bedside, as was her sister, May.  Breathing was difficult now; the noises coming from her room were strange and frightening.  Mother, mother.  Be well, mother.  Please, wake up.  It was not to be.  A sudden gesture, and her soul took flight.  Mabel Tolkien was dead.  No more pain, no more sadness."

UNNGH.  Insufficient punctuation, overemotion, inserting one's own emotions instead of summarizing whatever real emotions the actual Tolkien felt...ugh.  This passage makes it very difficult to see Tolkien's life, but very easy to see a Coren in a corner emoting as if his life depended on winning an emmy.  This book is full of stuff like this. 

Look, I know this is technically a kid's biography, but nobody, especially the children old enough to read this book, wants to be treated as if they're stupid.  Please, just tell the story.  The key to a biography is to insert your subject's personality, not your own.  That's one of the reasons why Roy Jenkins' biography of Winston Churchill was such a failure.  I mean, it's nice and all that Jenkins is an Asquithian, but I picked up the book to figure out Churchill, not the dang biographer.

Also, feel free to take children seriously.  It's annoying in both movies and television when they think something dumb is acceptable just because it's for a child.  I understand for toddlers, but if someone is old enough to read a book with few pictures then they should be given something they want to read.  The Chronicles of Narnia and A Series of Unfortunate Events both treat children intelligently, and so I'd like it if nonfiction books would do the same.

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