Again With the Vampires…

Authors are often accused of being “pretentious” for a whole host of reasons:  using unnecessarily difficult vocabulary, disregarding grammatical rules and structure, abandoning any coherent sense of time or space, writing in the second person present tense.  The list goes on.  Personally, I think the charge of ‘pretentiousness’ is often used by readers who want justification to put down a book that requires more effort to read than the latest Dan Brown thriller.  Jose Saramago’s fast and loose application of grammatical structure in Blindness, especially his use (or lack thereof) of quotation marks, makes the text a bit more dense.  But, it certainly doesn’t detract from the gravitas of the story – it adds to it.  A reader who can’t make it past this – well, they should probably just go back to Dan Brown.

In an essay entitled “Mr. Difficult,”  Jonathan Franzen recounts a personal struggle he had after a reader castigated him for using word like ‘diurnality’ and ‘antipodes’ in his novel, The Corrections.  He writes:

One part of me, the part that takes after my father, who admired scholars for their intellect and large vocabularies and was something of a scholar himself, wanted to call Mrs. M– a few names in reply.  But another, equally strong part of me was stricken to learn that Mrs. M– felt excluded by my language.  She sounded a bit like my mother, a life-long anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical “average person.”  My mother might have asked me if I really had to use words like ‘diurnality,’ or if I was just showing off.

By the end of the essay, after discussing William Gaddis at length, Franzen arrives at the conclusion that, in order for excessive difficulty to be justified in a novel, there must be some form of payoff for the reader. “I know the pleasures of a book aren’t always easy,” he says.  “I expect to work; I want to work.  It’s also in my Protestant nature to expect some kind of reward for my work.”  Difficulty simply for the sake of difficulty, he seems to imply, is a form of self-indulgence on the author’s part since, in his model, a novel is a form of contract between the writer and the reader.

I think Franzen might agree that the inverse of this implication is also true.  An author who, in any way dumbs down his or her writing in order to appeal to a wider audience is also guilty of violating this contract between the writer and reader. I found myself thinking about this as I read Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire epic, The Passage.

I should start off by saying that I actually liked this book.  Despite my previous rantings about vampire novels, I found this story to be quite engaging.  The characters (most of them) were well thought out and, aside from some slow drags in the middle, it didn’t bog down. There were some contrived plot moments – characters seemingly dying at the end of one chapter and miraculously reappearing a few chapters later – but these were easy to forgive as they provided a bit of much-needed emotional release in an otherwise dark story.

It was the writing, however, that got me to thinking about Franzen’s essay and the contract between the author and the reader.  Cronin’s prose seemed to me to be very, very uncomfortable.  For the most part, it wasn’t horrible writing.  There were moments where Cronin’s prose very nicely paralleled the bleak contours of a post-apocalyptic America.  At these times, it’s obvious that Cronin is a very talented writer and story-teller.

At other times, however, a less talented writer seems to assume control, a writer who relies on stilted dialogue and lazy metaphors.  Consider:  “She’d felt herself being sucked down into it, like water down a drain.”  Not a horrible sentence, but a lazy one.  Was the ‘water down the drain reference’ really necessary?  Did it add something unique to the sentence? I think not.  Sentences like this one abound, not particularly bad yet not rising to the level of much of the rest of the novel.

Most maddening were the pages and pages of groan-out-loud-inducing capitalizations.  When I went to school, we were taught that capital letters were reserved for the first word of a sentence or a proper noun.  John, for instance, or Uruguay. Words like before, we, became, and this don’t qualify.  Cronin is a graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so maybe they teach different grammar rules that I’m not privy to.  Still, unnecessary capitalization just screams pretentiousness.  “They were the We, the Babcock, and they were forever as he was forever, all part of the Twelve and the Other, the Zero.” Groan.

What bothers me so much about this seemingly arbitrary capitalization is that it’s completely unnecessary.  It’s meant to signify Important Ideas or Grand Themes but any reader who has taken the time to read this novel (it’s a long one) doesn’t need to be bludgeoned with huge letters advertising what’s important.  To me, it signifies a lack of faith in the reader.

This lack of faith is what brings me back to Franzen’s model of a contract between the writer and his readers.  The use of capitalization is a gimmick, and a poorly executed one at that.  It’s something I would expect from Dan Brown and, in his case, wouldn’t necessarily be surprising or detract from his novels.  With Cronin, however, there is such a stark difference between the gifted, talented writer whose prose relies on the intelligence of the reader and the gimmicky, lazy writer who places no faith in the intuitive capacity of his audience.  As a reader, I expect authors like Cronin to challenge, not spoon feed.  If I wanted pre-chewed mash, I’d go browse the mass-market paperback racks (which, I should add, I sometimes do).  That is what’s so frustrating about The Passage. Cronin is obviously a very good writer and he tells an excellent story.  Having seen how good it can be, the parts which don’t live up are that much more disappointing.

These last few paragraphs have been harsh.  I will reiterate that I did like the book and, when the sequels arrive, I will undoubtedly read those as well.  Still, I get the feeling that, in some very small way, I’ve been cheated out of what could have been an extraordinary novel by a writer’s attempt to maximize his audience.  I’d be very interested to know if anyone else who read this novel felt similarly.



  1. Fantastic review! I really didn’t like this book, but your review made me realize that the writing style was a big part of that. I found the first part really interesting, fast-paced, great characters, and then the rest of the book felt really flat. The characters may have been well thought out but I never cared about them. He could have used a very good editor.

    There’s an interesting review of Franzen in this month’s Atlantic — he’s criticized for using language that is too pedestrian, which is fascinating in light of what you’ve written here.

    Thanks for visiting my blog! You’ve got a new follower.

  2. @curlygeek04 – the first part was definitely paced better than the rest of the book, although I did feel that he was trying a bit hard to channel Stephen King.
    I will look for that article in the Atlantic, although I am trying to avoid reading about Freedom as much as I can until I can actually get my hands on a copy of the book. It’s one I’ve been waiting for for a long time but, being in China makes it hard to get a copy. I may have to splurge on the exorbitant Amazon shipping fees to this side of the globe. Thanks for stopping by!
    @Man of la Book – Glad that you liked the review! I just added links to my RSS feeds. To be honest, I don’t even know what exactly an RSS feed is, but I think it should work. Thanks for coming by.

  3. I can’t decide which is worse: an author that writes “difficult for the sake of being difficult” books or an author that essentially thinks his audience is an idiot. Unfortunately even if the story is interesting either one of these problems can get in the way of actually producing a novel worth checking out.

    Great review! Thanks!

  4. Personally I’d rather struggle a bit to comprehend a good writer (Whats wrong With a Dictionary) than to be dumbed down to, there’s nothing worse than appealing to the lowest common denominator, it lacks faith in yourself & your audience. liked the review, glad your back.

  5. I liked this review. I really disliked this book but I was too busy trying to drag myself through the book purely to really notice the writing. But maybe the writing was just one reason I felt as though I was dragging myself throught it?

  6. @Alley- I also can’t figure out which is worse – opaqueness for the sake of opaqueness is just as frustrating as a good writer caving to popular pressure. I do wonder if I was a bit harsh on Cronin, especially given that I haven’t read any of his previous works. I just felt that the writing in The Passage was so uneven there had to be a reason why…
    @Parrish- I agree with you – a good challenge is one of the joys of reading. Sometimes, a novel needs a little work on the part of the reader.
    @Jessica – Why was it that you disliked the book so much? Personally, I thought the story was well done. I don’t like vampires, but it didn’t dwell too much on that aspect. It was just the writing that distracted me to no end.

  7. Thanks for your great review! I read the book very recently too ( and agree that it was a bit slow in the middle. Otherwise, I just loved the story.

    I don’t know about the writing style. First of all, I read a translated version (into Dutch) and secondly, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill type book and not a literary work. I think it succeeded as a good novel that will appeal to many people.

  8. @leeswammes – Thanks for the comments, I read your review and it was quite good. I would agree with you that it served as a very good popular novel. As I mentioned in my review, I liked it quite a bit. I suppose that, knowing what I do about the author, my expectations were a little different. And, the bits about the writing did bug me. But, I completely understand how those differences could be tempered a bit in a translation.

    1. I guess it makes a difference that I have not read anything by Justin Cronin before, so I don’t know how The Passage compares to his other work. I hadn’t even heard from him before The Passage! I must check him out. It sounds like his other work is “better”.

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