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Weekly Column by Andy Grieser
Column by Andy Grieser

August 9, 2002

I devour books at a pretty good clip. So when I hit the local used bookstore (The Gallery on Belmont, for y’all in Chicago), I’ll get three or four cheap horror or sci-fi or mystery novels and one redeeming book. It’s the old fast food and gourmet philosophy: You can’t afford gourmet every night for dinner, and besides alternating it with fast food makes it taste all the better.

It’s a pretty good strategy. I’ve actually run across some really good (or at least entertaining) authors who for whatever reason never made it big and were banished to the dollar bin. I’ve also come across some truly bad writing from writers who went on to sell lots and lots of copies. (But whose older works also got dumped with the rest of the cheapies.)

Exposure to high quantities of bargain-basement writing (not to mention the stuff that sells for full price) has forced me to develop more than a few pet peeves.

First, I’m going to pick on Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill. The book is interesting, in that some chapters are wonderful while others are downright bad. My theory is that Ruff fell into a first-novel trap, and tried to include all his friends and all their wacky times in college and his ideas on life then wrote the thing while high. Dude, what works for Robert Anton Wilson doesn’t work for everyone else. Plot quirks aside, what killed me was an out-of-nowhere screed on why God must be female.

Look, people, God is neither male nor female. Yeah, most religions use the male pronouns for the Almighty. Does that mean God is male? No more than a toaster is female. Romance languages assign gender to genderless nouns. Most novelists seem content to use God in the Christian sense. Christianity flourished in Latin, the grandpappy — see, I assigned gender to a genderless noun — of romance language. So, God was given male pronouns and now it’s cool to postulate that God is really a woman because men are these buffoonish men only seen in commercials where the father has to order pizza because, ha ha, he burnt an otherwise simple dinner.

Incidentally, despite Ruff’s sermon on God as a female, the God character in his novel is a Greek man. Go figure.

Okay, next peeve: Using a novel as a soapbox. Or rather, interrupting the flow of a novel to rant rather than integrating said rant into the flow of the story. Really, the worst offender I can think of these days is Tom Clancy. Read any of his "techno-thrillers" from the past few years — that is, since he got successful enough to write whatever he wanted and still sell millions — and you’ll find random diatribes against the media or liberals or, God forbid, the liberal media. Again, when part of a story? Fine. Push your politics. If you want to write a column completely unrelated to the story, hit up your local newspaper. Because I paid for every page in that book, and I really hate it when I have to skim while you blather on.

Don’t think that I’m picking on Clancy because of liberal leanings. My fellow liberals are just as egregious offenders, but Clancy is by far the worst I’ve seen in years.

Last peeve of the day: Blowing your wad. This I see all the time in those cheap horror novels written by folks who went back to their jobs as insurance adjustors or whatever because they didn’t hit it big in the publishing lottery. A good story has a progression — that’s the whole build-up/climax/resolution thing your junior-high English teacher was trying to teach to a class of teens who would instead merely repeat "climax" and snicker for the next week.

I’ve picked up a couple recent books from Bentley Little that fell into this trap (The Association and The Store, for y’all playing at home). Little was a good, raw, no-holds-barred horror writer — I love University — but he seems content to grow up and rely on middle-aged, once-cool, left-of-center men as his protagonists. (Another irritant: They’re usually writers, which to me just screams "See? I’m the hero!" and lacks originality.) Oh, but said protagonists always know from Page One that something just ain’t right about that ominous store/homeowners association/pet-walking business.

I mean, come on. Part of the great pathos of The Shining is that Jack and his family don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. We as the readers do, though, and so we’re on the edges of our seats. But if you blow your wad, as Little and other authors do, there’s never any tension. Our hero already knows something’s up, which changes the reader’s focus from "how will he learn the truth" to "how will he win, and then how self-righteous will he act for having known the truth all along." All the pages in between become filler rather than a journey.

It’s tempting to think I’m asking too much from dollar novels, but I don’t think so. Great writers don’t always sell millions, and I’m lucky enough to have found a few who do everything right and still disappear. I gotta tell you, though, their novels get finished and have a place of honor on my bookshelves. The writers who prompt my pet peeves? Well, maybe someone at the local charities will be more forgiving.

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