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.