This is the final post in a series on a style of genre prose that I dislike; I wanted to analyze why I dislike it, and it turned out quite long. It will make more sense if you’ve read the earlier posts, which I’ve just linked to and are all under the tag “Novelization Style.”
I started thinking of this style as “Novelization Style” after I realized that reading it felt like reading a novelization of a nonexistent Hollywood movie.
I’ve covered several reasons along the way. Novelization Style combines strict, unvaried close third person point of view with transparent prose. It feels like an attempt to render in prose the feeling of a scene filmed by a camera, creating an illusion of objectivity. The result is a standardized generic narrative voice, and what feels like a denial that the story is being narrated at all. Novelization Style is mostly paced moment-to-moment, again like a scene playing out on video; in some books section breaks echo the way a movie or TV show cuts between scenes. Novelization Style prioritizes action over interiority. Descriptions are brief and concrete instead of evocative; dialogue is plot-relevant; function trumps form. When it comes to plotting, bigger is better; generally at some point we learn about a conspiracy or pending disaster that will cost lives. Raising the stakes means making the threat bigger, not the emotional arc more intense or the intellectual and philosophical questions more urgent. Novelization Style sometimes uses recognizable Hollywood storytelling patterns, like the prologues and wrap-ups I described in the last post, or an apparent divide between “speaking roles” and “extras.”
I like early 20th century mystery novels, so I’ve read a lot of popular fiction from that era. This style seems new to me. Not entirely new, mind you; action-oriented fiction has always been around, and Novelization Style is probably descended from pulp. But it’s just different enough to be its own thing. I’m about to make an anecdotal assertion here, so it should be taken with skepticism, but when I read 20th century novels I less often notice a strict adherence to the close third point of view–they’re more likely to vary the distance, use omniscient, or acknowledge the narrator. The narrative voices are more willing to be lively or playful. And I notice fewer storytelling strategies that parallel film. Again, this is just my impression, but it seems to me that Novelization Style started growing in the Hollywood blockbuster era, and became dominant enough to notice in this century.
Time for the caveats. I don’t want to imply that everything that could be called “Novelization Style” is bad. I’ve illustrated some of my examples with Three Parts Dead, and, like I said, despite some quibbles I’d say it’s good. I can enjoy an actual full-on example of Novelization Style if it pushes enough of my buttons. (I mentioned before that for over a decade I was reading one or two Doctor Who novels a month; almost all were Novelization Style.)
My problem with Novelization Style is that I’ve read so much of it, to the point that I’ve begun to feel like it dominates the science fiction and fantasy genres. Even writing I wouldn’t classify as Novelization Style sometimes borrows a few characteristics from it–a focus on action, a certain kind of pacing, or a slightly too generic narrative voice. Novelization Style naturally gravitates to a standardized narrative voice. When there’s a lot of it around, a lot of the SF genre starts to look samey.
Given the ties between Novelization Style and pulp, I also want to say that “Novelization Style” shouldn’t be taken as a perjorative term for “not Literary.” (In fact, I find the whole literary/non-literary divide dodgy. As anyone who’s seen the stately Library of America editions of Philip K. Dick’s brightly colored paperback novels knows, there’s no clear line between the two.) I don’t want to imply that I don’t like adventure in my fiction, or that I don’t like light, fun novels. I’m prone to depression, and always looking for light, fun reads for the times when that’s what I can handle.
The problem is that my definition of a fun read includes a lively, individual voice that doesn’t sound like every other book on the shelf, and some ideas for my brain to engage with. Earlier I used a pop music metaphor–I want a book with hooks. I’m looking for a Beatles album, and keep getting tired synthetic re-recordings not by the original artists.
One example of a fun read I actually consider fun is Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. It’s a long series of adventure novels starring a fantasy assassin. What makes it different from many other long-running fantasy series is that with every volume Brust makes an effort to write a different book with a different structure. And although they have a light touch, they’re still engaged with ideas. Vlad is an assassin and criminal who by the third book has realized his job is in fact not as cool as the average teenage Dungeons & Dragons player would prefer to think. His journey from there is at times a reassessment of his life, and at times an introduction to parts of his society to which he hadn’t previously given much thought. Also, every volume is a complete and not overly long standalone novel, something I appreciate more the older I get.
So… with the caveats out of the way, what do I find missing from Novelization Style?
My preferences are depth-agnostic: as I suggested, I like to find certain qualities in a book whether I’m reading a lighter novel or the kind of thing that gets classified as “literary.” There’s voice, of course: a novel needs a personality, its own style and its own way of telling a story. It needs to be not just descriptive but expressive.
Part of a novel’s personality comes from the prose, and part from content. Every really good novel is a little bit imperfect. The most fun, engaging books aren’t perfectly engineered; they have ambiguities, multiple interpretations, detours, and odd protuberances. They often include passages that look like side trips and diversions, straying from the plot but developing themes, ideas, and characters. And they do need themes, meaning questions the author wanted to explore or arguments they wanted to make. A lot of SF comes up with a premise–“Like, wow, man, what if there were vampires and werewolves?”–and stops there. Good novels, even good pulp novels, dig deeper; they have subtext as well as text.
They’re eccentric and weirdly shaped and packed with stuff. Some of the stuff may or may not work. Readers may disagree about which stuff worked and which didn’t. When that happens, that’s a clue that the novel is interesting.
Thinking of a way to describe this, I recalled how Rudy Rucker defined the word “gnarly” in an essay. Rucker quotes Stephen Wolfram who believes there are three kinds of mathematical processes: Predictable, Random, and Gnarly. Gnarly is structured, like the predictable processes, but unpredictable like the random ones.
Incompetent writing is often random. Novelization Style is predictable. What I’m interested in is writing that has at least a little bit of gnarl. Novelization Style, with its standardized voice, focus on action, and video-influenced style, isn’t well suited to deliver that.