Friday, 6 July 2012

Briefly... a pet peeve!

I discovered recently that I have a pet peeve when it comes to novels.  I've been reading two really good books - Wise Children by Angela Carter and A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford - and they both are really, really good.  But both were a little marred for me... I've discovered that I really don't like it when a novel starts with one scene in 'present day', and then skips back and starts again in the past, progressing forwards again to the present.

I haven't quite worked out why.  I think I'm used to 'flashbacks' being a bit of something to skim through, and when the flashback takes up the entire novel, obviously things are different - and perhaps I find that disconcerting.  Somehow everything takes on that sepia tone of prolonged anticlimax...

Does anyone else feel like this?  I imagine not... but perhaps you have other pet peeves which feel irrational, yet affect your enjoyment a bit?

Sorry for such a brief post - I've spent the evening painting (final picture will be shown, if it is ever finished!) and now I'm going to sleep the sleep of just person in a turpentine-filled room.

35 comments:

  1. Hello Simon

    I am looking forward to seeing you painting.

    I totally agree with you, I dislike flashbacks. I think my mind is not it's best in reverse, maybe I need a new transmission.

    Helen

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    1. thanks, Helen - it's going slowly, but I hope to finish before I move house!

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  2. For me it's similar to prologues. I really dislike prologues simply because once I get to the main story I forget whatever tidbit came first. And honestly, that's not effective. Usually if there is a prologue or different time period bit in the beginning, they reference it somewhere near the end, and I'm left confused until I remember that there was indeed reason for it. Silly.

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    1. I do think it's rather a weak way of opening - as though the author were conceding that their *actual* opening weren't enticing enough.

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  3. I have a more extreme version of this - I am happy to accept skipping around in time (or analepsis and prolepsis, as a friend once casually mentioned) but cannot stand books that start with the narrator being dead. I have read one, and that's by an author/friend (Linda Gillard) but I will actually avoid them. Dead at the end, fine. Dead at the beginning, not.

    I also don't tend to like books set in Africa (apart from N Africa - I will tolerate Egypt) - never been sure why and there are some exception. This and my dislike of sci fi have ruined all but 1/3 of Doris Lessing's oeuvre for me!

    Liz

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    1. Your friend has been reading Genette, I'd wager! I read through Narrative Discourses and learnt to throw around terms like 'repeating internal homodiegetic prolepsis' - which are limitedly useful at a book group ;)

      I tend not to like books set in countries where the author doesn't live - but African novels by African writers are fine by me - indeed, a review of one will be appearing in a few minutes here!

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  4. Strangely enough this is what Beryl Bainbridge does in most if not all of the novels I have read. And I loved it. They are real teasers and you don't know what they are about at all till you get to the end. My own pet peeve, which I blogged about yesterday, is books that start in the present tense and then jump back to the distant past and a completely different set of characters and then to and fro all the way through. Drives me crazy.

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    1. I managed to miss that with the Beryls I read! With a good writer, I can still really like the novel - but not as much as if they hadn't done it.

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  5. I don't mind at all, and rather enjoy a prologue which hints at darkness in the past of which Beryl is a fine example as Harriet has already identified.

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    1. It is an irrational peeve, I know - you're lucky it doesn't spoil your reading!

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  6. It seems quite fashionable at the moment, I guess there's an element of 'trying to please everybody' - a little contemporary, a little historical...

    It's not so bad if it's a case of, 'Three months earlier...' but when we are dragged back centuries and an attempt is made to get the reader to believe that some Victorian milk maid's struggle is relevant to her great-great-great-great granddaughter, who has a stressful life in an international bank--

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    1. I must say I have managed to avoid any book like that - thank goodness!

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  7. I can understand your frustration, it can seem a little gimmicky. But in other cases, like Brideshead Revisited, it can be brilliant. My bigger pet peetve is when the narrative jumps back and forth so much that it gets confusing.

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    1. I don't mind a bit of jumping around myself - as long as it's not too silly. But when it's one leap backwards, it's so frustrating to me!

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  8. Interesting. I am not sure I have any opinion on it when it comes to books. I do however,enjoy the same technique when employed in movies.
    Sorry for this totally irrelevant comment

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    1. Haha! No, it's relevant :) I don't know quite what I think of it in films... I think it might annoy me there too...

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  9. Most of the time I completely agree with you but a well-written book can get away with it. It is only in the last few years, it seems to me, that almost every second book I read has this format and oh, it is getting so old. Almost up there with the obligatory bedroom scenes.

    Another peeve of mine: Books beginning in 1912 0r 1914; aha! which characters are going to drown or be shot?
    Erika W.

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    1. Very good point, Erika, about 1912 and 1914 novels! I tend to avoid historical novels, and prefer reading books published more or less at the time they're set, so I miss out on this knowing wink from the author... thank goodness!

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  10. Anonymous said "a well-written book can get away with it," and I agree with that. Sadly, it seems the technique is over-employed by writers who cannot think of a way to get the reader's interest without beginning in the climax of the novel (or movie; they often do the same). It does irritate me, especially when, as others have mentioned, the story then jumps back and forth between the "then" and the "now."

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    1. I've dropped several books this year because that was exactly the impression I got: The writer couldn't think of a way to make the beginning interesting enough in their eyes, so they plucked a high tension bit out of somewhere later in the story and plonked it at the start, leaving me with a cliffhanger, wanting to know what happens next, and no idea WHEN they'll finally get back to it. The longest I stuck it out was three chapters before giving up in frustration and disgust.

      I believe I wouldn't have minded so much if it had been like alternating between timelines each chapter, or something else along those lines. Can't please everyone. :)

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    2. Mama Hen and Anke - I think you've put your finger on it: often it's done because the author doesn't feel their actual opening is strong enough - and they have to have a faux-climax. Anke - we're definitely on the same page here - alternating timelines is preferable to a one-off.

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  11. I wonder how you would get on with Martin Amis's "Time's Arrow" then???? ;)

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    1. Good thing I read through the comments before I brought up Time's Arrow.

      Linear narrative is old-fashioned and remains in use mostly to appease readers who aren't up to being challenged. In fiction, the narrative can begin anyplace and jump around all it wants. As far as being a modern trend, go back and read Tristram Shandy and look up the literary term "in medias res." Has anyone read The Iliad and The Odyssey? Starting at the beginning and following through linearly to the end was not a common structure for fiction probably until the realists in the later part of the 19th century and even there they used other structural devices that altered the time sequence of the novel (like a story within a story). Newer schools of fiction (serious fiction, not best-sellers on the front rounder at Barnes and Noble) tend to ignore it as more suited for Bazooka inserts.

      There is one linear narrative that sometimes causes me grief: the epistolary novel. Here again, though, despite the linear nature of the exchange of letters, the contents of the letters can reference events that occurred outside of that linearity. I recommend Clarissa and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

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    2. Oh, Mike, your comment did make me laugh! I'm not sure whether or not that was the intention... but "Linear narrative is old-fashioned and remains in use mostly to appease readers who aren't up to being challenged" must have been written in jest, no?

      I should add, in general I don't mind when a sjuzet and fabula don't match up - it's just the trick of a preliminary homodiegetic prolepsis which annoys me. (Oh, I don't need to look up in medias res ;) )

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    3. Karen - I might actually be more tempted to give Amis a go, since (I believe) it's all backwards, isn't it? It's just when it's a one-off at the beginning that it annoys me.

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  12. @kaggsy - it's up soon on my reading list, so we'll soon see - besides, Amis is a master and i suspect gets it just right...

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    1. Another endorsement! I have never read either Amis, shockingly.

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    2. You can't go wrong, they're both very enjoyable and easily readable without being simple or insubstantial...

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  13. For me, it depends on how well it's done. Sometimes it's so good that each time there's a time shift, I find myself thinking, oh darn, I was enjoying the other timeline.... and then the same happens again.

    Similar to Liz not liking dead narrators, I dislike a book starting when the protagonist is about a million years old. Because going back to when they were young and dashing and sexy and all just isn't going to work for me, because I've seen them all wrinkly, etc. Yes, I know it's coming to us all (and damn fast, too) but I don't want it waved like a flag at the start of the book.

    Exception to this, however, was Water For Elephants.

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    1. That's Wise Children out for you on two counts, Susan! They're 75 as it opens. But the book does close with a 75 and 100 year old having, er, shenanigans. Definitely strange.

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  14. I don't mind moving around in time too much - sometimes it can be interesting (but then, as with anything, it can be awful). The first pet peeve I thought of is similar: use of tenses. If an author keeps shifting from the present tense to the past tense and back again, I go crazy. But it's not exactly a widespread problem - in fact, the only example I can think of is Margaret Drabble's trilogy of novels beginning with The Radiant Way. TRW is one of my favorite novels, but I do remember that often in the three books, Drabble would switch back and forth among tenses and it was very difficult to understand why. It didn't seem to be shifting in time - or if it did it didn't seem to matter to the story, if that makes sense? - but one chapter would be in the past and the next would be in the present, for no apparent reason. So the effect, I guess, is almost like a patchwork of events in roughly chronological order.

    This is probably confusing. I don't think I explained it very well. But trust me, it was irritating. Keep in mind that it's been 2+ years since I read the books! Maybe my memory is failing me. Either way, though, I clearly forgave Drabble for this, since I mentioned my adoration of TRW. It was a minor problem, and once I gave up trying to figure out why the various tenses were being employed, I enjoyed the book very much.

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    1. Although I am not sure of Margaret Drabble or her sister, with a good writer your response should be WHY? ... why did the author shift tense? Understanding this may uncover meaning in the text and make your reading experience that much richer.

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    2. Oh, Dan, I'm definitely with you there. I don't much enjoy use of the present tense in a novel at the best of times, but if they're using both then it does almost always feel like a silly gimmick.

      And you remind me that I must read some of the Drabbles I'm amassing...

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    3. PS I also dislike using more than one tense. I don't mind novels that move around in time (when it's done for a purpose and with skill - such as to add some mystery) but it does seem clunky when they feel the need to use the present tense for the bit that's 'up to date'. You're right, that irrationally annoys me too.

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  15. I believe we've already moaned about novels that have a family tree at the start? I probably just don't like that type of family dynasty story, but I also feel like it shows a weakness in the writing. If the reader can't keep up with all the characters or remember who they all are, I think you've done something wrong...

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