It is generally a sign for me that I’m not going to like a book if something pulls me out of the narrative early on. It is usually a character voice that sounds wrong to the ear, particularly with first-person narratives where the voice must sound authentic. Yes “sounding wrong” and “authentic” are slippery terms, but those are reader’s terms. If I am reading as a writer then I would need to say something like “the narrative has interrupted the fictive dream through the use of an incongruous phrase that pulled me out of the story and sent my thoughts wandering elsewhere.” Or something like that.
Latest book I am reading has a character – first person narrative, writing in a journal – conveying information that loops around on itself to the point of navel-gazing. Literally, on page three the character is explaining his notes from page one, in a diary where the entries are 7 hours apart. I suppose that any diarist is going to have those moments where they record what they are thinking and then go back later and try to decipher their notes, but these notes are reflective as opposed to expository, meaning that the character is infusing them with an understanding that they really haven’t had the chance to formulate in so short a span of time. If the character were narrating from a time shortly after the end of the book this would work, but not when we’re talking hours later, hours the character admits to having sort of mentally blocked out as a way of processing the fear and horror in between entries.
And if that sounds like quibbling (or like I’m spending too much effort on a book intended for middle grade readers who are probably not sophisticated enough to know the difference) even all that wasn’t enough to break the narrative spell. Nope, it was the line “Stairs are a bad omen in every Hitchcock film I’d ever seen.”
A bad omen? Really? And just how many Hitchcock films have you seen, young narrator, that you can generalize so?
I’ve studied film, I’ve seen my fair share of Hitchcock, and I could think of only three movies where stairs and the portent of evil came into play. In only one of those films, Vertigo, the idea of stairs themselves leading to heights are enough to foreshadow something about to happen. In the other two, Suspicion and Psycho, the stairs are simply employed as devices to heighten the emotional tension and aren’t, of themselves, omens. No, what I believe our narrator (and author) mean to say is that Hitchcock employs stairs as a motif in his films to create tension and underscore the drama of a particular scene. Or rather, this is the effect the author is going for but in pointing it out has undermined his own point.
Motif versus omen, is it really a big deal? And in a situation where some idiot kid is going to knowingly put himself in peril by exploring a haunted place, isn’t that kid just not smart enough to know the difference anyway?
This is one of those areas where people get bent out of shape, where books for kids aren’t supposed to be held to a higher standard than adult books, or be given some sort of pass because the readership isn’t going to notice the difference or care, and as long as they reading then everything is okay. True, I am an adult reading with the knowledge and sophistication of my education and experience behind me, but am I supposed to just ignore those things that pull me out of the narrative simply because no “average” reader would even notice? Should I simply assume the character is “authentic” because teens are generally unsophisticated and make generalizations about things they know nothing about? Or am I supposed to think the author is clever in creating an “unreliable” narrator in a story that relies on the reader to piece the mystery together through the use of external (online) media hints?
Bottom line, just like waking the over-tired as they’re finally drifting off to sleep, if you wake me from the fictive dream just as it’s starting I’m libel to be cranky about it.