On blogs and list serves there was some discussion recently about the Kirkus piece, “Reader Beware,” in which editor Vicky Smith discussed the decision to not give an unnamed book a star because of copy-editing problems:
After consultation, the reviewer and I agreed that although we both felt the story deserved a starred review, it should not receive one; we felt we had to look at the book as a whole, and the whole included too many grammatical faults to ignore.
Many thought the book in question was The Hunger Games, which I had found an exhilarating read. Spelling and usage have been problems for me my whole life; I have enormous trouble seeing my own errors (I kiss the ground of those who invented spell and grammar checks:) so rarely notice them in books I read. That certainly doesn’t mean that it is okay for them to be there, just that they don’t register when I read so they don’t affect my appreciation of a book.
What does bother me is poor writing. Clunky sentences, overdoing the telling rather than showing, trite situations, and repeating lame metaphors or similes are things I do notice. I am taken out of the story when I see too much of it. And there sure was too much of it for me in the much-admired Little Brother.
I had bought the book and taken it on a long plane ride eager to dive into it. And then the writing tripped me up. Again and again. A character kept “pissing like a racehorse.” Once, maybe, but more than once? Some characters seemed to have been created purely to give speeches or to be one-dimensional figures in opposition to the main character. Others were barely developed (notably the main character’s best friend) and seemed to exist purely to advance the plot. Parents came and went in completely unbelievable ways. The romantic (and sex) scenes made me cringe.
Yet reviewers and readers alike seemed to feel such clunky writing didn’t matter because the message was so important. Austin Grossman in the New York Times writes:
Doctorow’s characters tend to speak on behalf of the ideas they represent, as when the teenage protagonist stagily debates his Homeland Security interrogator: “I thought I lived in a country where I had rights. You’re talking about defending my freedom by tearing up the Bill of Rights.”
At such moments, “Little Brother” is trying to make speeches, and it would be unfair to judge the writing by other standards, but it does lead to a few awkward shifts in tone. After a disquisition on Internet protocols, it’s a little uncomfortable having to hear about Marcus’s first real kiss; it’s like spotting a favorite professor eating lunch.
So I guess I just wonder about this. Is it easier to catch those proofreading errors and to overlook clunky writing? Is the clunky writing less important? I don’t have any answers, but am struck by the different reactions to these two otherwise enthusiastically-received books.