The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

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2 responses to “The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

  1. One of the best things about your reviews is that when you DON’T like something, you’re able to give clear and coherent reasons why. Instead of just “this book is rubbish”, or “I hated this book”; you’ve always got a great, well thought-out rationale. After reading this, I still don’t know whether I’d enjoy “The Hours” or not; but I certainly enjoyed this review. Keep up the good work.

    • You’re as kind as ever, David, and I always have thought that mindless hatred is as abhorrent as mindless worship. Plus, authors pour their lives into their books as they write–even if I don’t like what they’ve done, I try to respect that effort enough to really think about what they’ve put out there. Glad you like my cranky, critical posts.

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