Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fifteen minutes redux - on Grammar

(continued from last post)

I was excited when my latest book order came in, and so when I put Hominids in the "I'm done enough" stack I picked up How I Live Now.  This complete switch in my normal genre came about because I follow Bookends Literary Agency's blog (, and for Valentine's Day they ran what was basically a circular reading group.  Each poster suggested a book he loved that the previous poster then promised to read, and we'll re-convene sometime in March (I forget when) to discuss our reading experiences.  It's kind of a clever idea, this introduction to new titles and genres, but....

It didn't work for me.  The poster after me named How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff.  This book, just like Hominids, has won awards.  It's critically acclaimed.  People love it.

I hate it.

I didn't get to the point in it where the characters would've made me care (or not). About five pages in was as far as I could go. In this case, it was the writing style that just did absolutely nothing for me. No, wait, that's wrong. It did something for me. But what it did was the opposite of what a book should do.

Look, I get that Rosoff was trying to write like a young teenage girl. If the critics' acclamations are to be believed, she succeeded. In my new series, I'm trying to write like an older teenage girl, so I get how challenging that can be.  I just hope to God my voice doesn't sound like--as irritating as--Rosoff's.
Looking over reviews from (admittedly after I'd already decided on my own that I hated the book) I had some validation.  Others disliked it as much as I, and for the same reason.  One review started like this:

I admit, the first third or so of this book was hard to get through.  There were several reasons for that: a story told by a 15-year-old girl, written the way a 15-year-old girl might write it, is all very good for realism, but it also means having to read a story that sounds like it's written by a 15-year-old. This is hard if you're not fifteen yourself.

It's usually tough to quantify what it is about a voice that either endears or irritates me. In this case, though, it's not hard at all. Yes, she's only fifteen, but I generally like talking to high schoolers. Rosoff's teenage girl, though, don't know no grammar, and she fails at punctuation. Yeah, I know--not every character in every book can be an English teacher, or even a competent grammarian at the very least. That's fine. But most books assume that the narrator, at least, can speak the language well.

  • Harry Potter knew grammar. He'd somehow learned it while living underneath a set of stairs in the home of relatives who hated his very presence.
  • Frodo and the other members of the Fellowship knew grammar, and they'd grown up on opposite sides of--well, the mountains.
  • Tom Sawyer--well, Tom talked with kind of an accent, but when he did something, he did it with mostly-proper grammar.
  • Even Eragon whined with good grammar, despite his being raised on a farm in the middle of a castaway valley.
Nobody questions when a character is written in a narrative voice that follows the rules of the language. But when they're not: "I'm coming off this plane, and I'll tell you why that is later, and landing at London airport and I'm looking around for a middle-aged kind of woman who I've seen in pictures who's my Aunt Penn." Run-on that is, and right at the top of page 2. "Anyway, I'm looking and looking and everyone's leaving and there's no signal on my phone and I'm thinking Oh great, I'm going to be abandoned at the airport so that's two countries they don't want me in, when I notice everyone's gone except this kid who comes up to me and says You must be Daisy." Arrgh. Book, meet wall.

Again, I get the whole YA voice thing. But does the main character have to be ignorant of quotation marks?

So, ignoring the new book-sized dent in the bathroom wall, I switched my fifteen minutes back to non-fiction.  I'm still not done yet with Terry Brooks's Sometimes the Magic Works, so I picked that back up and found him discussing--characterization.  Heh.  I wonder what Brooks would think of Hominids and How I Live Now.



  1. Agreed! I have several books I've put down because I don't like the writing style. And yes, they were award winners, but something just irritated me about them. I guess I'm just happy with writing in 3rd person POV; that takes the majority of the narration out of the character's hands and into the writers. I think it's better that way. But to each his own...