Sunday Salon ~ Warts and All

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersAt the moment I’m re-reading Geraldine Brooks wonderful book March in preparation for a book group meeting a week tomorrow.  The edition I have includes an article by the author in which she quotes Henry James on the subject of historical fiction.  Mr James was not amused. He wrote:

‘The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…’

Not surprisingly Ms Brooks does not agree and, for the most part, I’m with her.  I enjoy well-written historical fiction and I think you can learn a lot about not only the facts but also the feeling of what it was like to live in times other than our own, but…

Oh yes, there is always a but.  Sometimes that multiplicity of little facts that James talks about can become an avalanche under which the story is suffocated.  Over the past three or four years there has been a spate of books mostly, but not always, historical, which seem to me, and I have to add to many of my reading friends, to have suffered from what you might call the warts and all principle.  Their authors have done their homework to the nth degree.  Their research is meticulous.  It can’t be faulted.  And you know it can’t be faulted because you can read it all, every last reference, every last footnote, every last little fact, right there on the page.  You don’t so much read these books as mine your way through them, hoping beyond hope that you will eventually reach the seam of gold that is the story and that, if you do find it, it will still be alive and well.

Sometimes, you feel you can forgive the writer. (Although, I have to say that some readers are more forgiving than others.  My friend Mary and I have had some right ding dong discussions about what is acceptable and what isn’t.)  For me, one such occasion was Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian. It contained so much information I could really have done with a notepad and pencil by me all the time to keep track of everything.  And yet, at the core there was a fine story that was worth the effort it took to dig it out.  Kostova is a writer to be watched, I feel, and I’m very glad to see that she has a new novel, The Swan Thieves, due out in the new year.  I hope she will have refined her technique and that the resulting book will be sharper.  At a projected 400 pages it’s still hefty but, nevertheless, over 300 pages shorter than that first novel.

This week, however, I have had a rather different experience.  I’ve had to give up on a book by one of my favourite writers because over a hundred pages in I was still trying to claw my way through the spoil pile of her research in order to find a story that I was beginning to suspect might not be there to find in the first place.  Note, ‘one of my favourite writers’, this is no first time author not yet sensitive to how much detail should or should not find its way onto the page.  This is a writer with over twenty historical novels behind her and a rightly-deserved fan base that must run into six figures at least.

I think what may have gone wrong in this case is that the author has changed her period and that as a result she is not as confident as she should be about what the reader does or doesn’t need to know.  There is a sense almost of her reassuring herself that she knows enough about this new world to be able to write about it.  And, if that is the case, then I have to ask the question, where was the editor?  This is a question I seem to return to again and again.  Too many books recently have reached the shelves before they are properly ready.  In some instances the problem has been major faults in the way the story is fashioned, as here, in others the difficulties have had more to do with the quality of the proof-reading, which I know can never be perfect, but which nevertheless seems to be of less and less importance these days.

OK, so it’s been a bad week and maybe I’m feeling grouchy.  Am I alone in the blogging world in feeling this way?  Or are there others who have encountered similar problems?  Let me know what you think.

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Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 10:38 am  Comments (14)  

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  1. It seem to me that editors sometimes have a lighter tough with established writers. I’ll be reading something by Geraldine Brooks soon… my book club will be hearing her speak in November. I have Year of Wonders and People of the Book on my shelf.

  2. I don not think you are being grouchy at all as I have had some of these same problems with historical fiction. In order to accommodate the historical framework and details, the plot or the characters are not properly developed and the prose is leaden.

    JoAnn mentions People of the Book above, and as much as I appreciated the research involved to provide all those fascinating bookish details, I felt the book was lacking in terms of characterization and that created something second rate that could have been fabulous.

    Where is the editor? is also a question I have asked a bit of late. Too many books that are too long or too short, allowed to go on forever or pushed out there before they were fully developed.

    Happy reading!

  3. I’m with you Ann. It can be really frustrating, especially for a “favourite” author. May I ask which book you are referring to? Not March, right? I haven’t read a Geraldine Brooks.

  4. What a marvelous post!

    I’ve definitely read books where I thought the author was too proud of their own research. And sometimes I definitely wonder where the editor was! Whenever I get in that mood, I switch to older books for awhile. 🙂

    (Last week, I read a book by a fave author and was totally underwhelmed. It depressed me-I think it’s so much more depressing to read a so-so book by a fave author than a new one!)

  5. I had a similar experience recently when I ploughed through a Civil War novel called The Best of Men, it was long and rather boring, so I came away with a rather unfavourable impression of the book, yet the book’s main character was marvellously done, just buried under pages and pages of history lecture.

    As someone who wishes one day to be published, published books that aren’t as good as they could be, depress me. I constantly read how your book has to be perfect to even stand a chance, but quite clearly some aren’t.

    Although I’ve never really defined myself as a writer of historical fiction, I think I’m turning into one, I’m just in the process of finishing a story set in Ancient Egypt and as I go through the delicious process of casting round for a new story I find myself drawn to the Paris Opera and Degas. I’ve also attempted stories in the past about Charles I. Hmm I guess I’m a historical writer! So in that regard I can understand the fear about missing out a historical detail, which leads most of the time in the risk of overdoing it!

  6. I’ve just finished Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring and whilst it’s set in Russia in 1913, it doesn’t feel at all ‘historical’ in that sense of weighed down with detail (and I do know just what you mean). Fitzgerald is always an economical writer, out of fear, I read once, of boring people with what she knows. What a delightful attitude to take!

  7. JoAnn, I have heard this said before, that editors take a lighter touch with established writers and this may well be what has happened here. I am really envious that you are going to hear Brooks speak. Please let me know what she is like.

    Frances, you are right about the length of books. There have been some monsters of late that would definitely have befitted from a good trimming down. I don’t think People of the Book is as good as March by any means either.

    Claire, no it wasn’t March, which I think is excellent and gets the balance right. I’ll e-mail you and tell you what it was.

    Eva, I wonder if we’re thinking of the same book. I try not to be negative about individual books on the blog, which is why I haven’t mentioned the title here.

    Lacer, I can see that the fear of getting something wrong, especially if you’re not yet an established writer must be very powerful. You are caught in a cleft stick really with the ‘reader’ on one side and the pedant on the other. Getting the balance right is something that ought to come with experience. I think that is why I was so disappointed in this book. The writer should have known better.

    Litlove, now there is a writer who knows exactly how much she needs to give. Unfortunately there are all too few authors of Fitzgerald’s geius around.

  8. What an interesting post. I completely agree, and you’re not being grumpy at all! I’m reading a similar book at the moment which is bogged down with historical detail, and while it is very interesting, I do think it’s rather unnecessary. There are times when it seems to be a history of the period rather than a story set within it. I do understand that when you have done a lot of research, you want to demonstrate it somehow, but this is where a dispassionate editor should come in and do some much needed culling of extraneous faff.

  9. So true, Ann. I love historical fiction but when I read it I want to read a good story. Yes, that means filled with historical detail but not to the point where I feel as if I’m reading a school text or where I feel like the author is showing off just how much knowledge they seemed to acquire in their research.

    And, I’m so curious as to which book was disappointing for you. I think it’s especially hard when it’s an author you really like isn’t it?

  10. Rachel, it does seem that we are all coming back to the question of where is the editor in all this. I wonder if the publishing houses are cutting back in this area.

    Iliana, e-mail on the way to let you know.

  11. Personally, I think the “grouchiness” stems from being let down when you thought you were in for a thumping good read and the book turns out to be a slog in the mire.

    I think editing is a two-edged sword. My biggest grip with the only Geraldine Brooks book that I have read, Year of Wonders, is that the ending is atrocious–inconsistent with the rest of the story, and fantastical and unbelieveable. I have always given Brooks the benefit of the doubt and thought that I saw the hand of an over-eager editor encouraging her to jazz up the ending.

    That said, I agree that many books seem to be reaching bookshelves before they’re ready. The Glassblower of Murano, which I recently posted about, is one such. It was a fine novel that disintegrated in the last third–it could have used more editing and more time at the end so that it didn’t dissolve into triteness.

    With regards to historical fiction, density can be a problem, but one of the reasons I read it is to learn, in a fun way, about a time, place, people and the facts are part of the fun. However, the research should never jump out from the page as that–either the facts are integrated seamlessly or left out.

  12. Jane, you’re probably right about the source of the grouchiness, in more senses than one. There were about 600 pages of this book, so it was definitely ‘thumping’ but I was also looking forward to a weekend wrapped round it and it just didn’t happen.

    I’m with you on the notion of learning from what you read. A lot of my historical knowledge has come from narrative sources and although I know you have to be careful in respect of the accuracy here I still think it’s a valid way of going about things. It’s just that I like some story as well!

  13. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction and so haven’t run into the problem much, but if I did, I wouldn’t like it at all. One work of historical fiction I DID read lately, The Winner of Sorrow (about the poet William Cowper), captured a feeling of the time period with hardly any historical details at all. The author did research, I’m sure, but it wasn’t all laid out for you. The research gave the book a certain mood rather than lots of historical details, and I liked that a lot.

  14. That’s what you would always hope for, Dorothy, but lately it seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. I know nothing at all about William Cowper, so I’m adding this to the tbr pile as a good way of discovering more. Thanks for the tip.


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