The best way to learn English used to be to read books. We got some beautiful turns of phrases and excellent English from the classics.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
A woman after my own heart, there!
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Words that hold true even to this day, don’t you agree?
“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” ― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
What a beautiful, beautiful thought!
Then there are books like Prince of Tides, a story of a destructive family relationship, where a violent father abuses his wife and children. But the language – it’s sheer poetry!
“…the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of the filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold…”
The first tenet of writing well is to reduce adjectives and keep descriptions sparse. But if an author can write such sublime prose, words that paint pictures in a reader’s mind without taking away from the overall story, I say go for it!
Even books that you don’t really like leave you with some profound thoughts. Like The Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis, which I didn’t like much. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it. Maybe if I read it a few years later, when I’m an even more mature reader, I might “get” it. Then again, maybe not. But despite the fact that I didn’t like the book, I enjoyed the writing.
“…even the most impoverished of souls, my mother always said, have an inner landscape, and I concluded that hers would have been an empty lot with tennis balls scattered like boulders, punctuated by the occasional peak of a NordikTrack or StairMachine.”
And then there’s this absolute beauty from Julian Barnes’ Pedant in the Kitchen:
“Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.”
This is one sentence publishers would do well to take to heart.
But not all beautiful prose is restricted to the classics or to literary fiction. Mass market paperbacks, pulp fiction, and genre fiction can teach you a lot! If you, like me, are not a big fan of non-fiction, you’d do well to pick up a Wilbur Smith or Leon Uris. I learnt about bushmen and spoor and how to trail big game from Wilbur Smith’s swashbuckling adventure stories set in Africa. Pulp fiction it may be, but its brilliantly written, with a deep understanding of the continent, of its indigenous tribes and culture. Leon Uris’ books also are meticulously researched and very well written. I developed a lot of interest – and understanding – about the IRS and the Palestine issue through his excellent novels. They’re fast-paced, gritty, filled with excellent characters, and deliver a crackling history lesson to boot!
Books can also make you, for a little while maybe, like a sport you hate. Like cricket. I hate the game. But Tushar Raheja’s Romi and Gang could have changed that. It is a simple story of a group of young cricket-obsessed boys. Of gali cricket. Of growing up. A book that could have been so much more than it was, if only it had received some TLC from an editor. Reading it made me want to bring out a red pen and get to work editing it. And that’s no fun. Especially when you really want to like a book. But you can’t. Because the language makes you want to cry.
“No cricket ball could be found out in the open. He searched behind the heap of old pads and stumps. There was a box full of racquets and other sports equipment. He put a brave hand into it and rummaged about.”
How, pray, can a hand be brave?!?
Horrible language aside, it wasn’t developed well either. There was an allusion to someone called Kim, someone who you could make out was of particular importance to the protagonists. But who was he? Why was he important to them? None of these questions were answered, and you felt like you were in the dark about something important. And that, dear publishers, is a big disservice to your readers.
I recently also had the misfortune of reading Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Reviewers go ga-ga over his books, calling them little masterpieces. But don’t fall for the hype. Because none of the characters are properly developed and none of them have an original voice. All the dialogue in the book sounded stilted. All the characters talk in a similar manner – in atrociously similar English. In fact, they all speak Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English) ALL THE TIME! Really Mr. Hall, and whoever edited that book, all Indians most certainly do NOT talk with na (no?) and yaar (dude) strewn through each and every sentence that comes out of their mouth. Especially not cricket bookies who catch the detective red-handed. He will not say “Shut up, yaar.” He will let out a stream of abuse so colorful your ears will turn red. So please, give the reader, and their intelligence, some credit.
Horrible grammar and stilted dialogue are not the sole fault of the author. A large part of the blame is to be borne by the editor, and even the proof reader.
Author Joyce Carol Oates says it best in this tweet: “It is not generally known that brilliant editors can make successes of manuscripts too unwieldy, too amateurish to be published as they are.”
To which author Lesley McDowell replied: “Indeed – success of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies largely down to his editor at Faber, Charles Monteith”
So this is a humble appeal to all the publishers out there – please, please, please, invest in a good book editor and in a good proof reader. And when you find them, never let them go! They are the people who turn an ordinary manuscript into a work of art. They are the ones who polish and burnish and hone the creativity of authors into shining brilliance.
And to all the readers out there – here’s a humble appeal. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s ask for well-written (and edited) books. Books with words that will send our hearts soaring, our minds racing…words that we would want to read again and again and again.
So share this post with your friends, fellow readers, and publishers. Let’s get our voices heard. Let’s ask for more books that we want to read and savor, not throw across the room in frustration.
Please tell me I’m not the only one who is frustrated by the recent spate of horribly edited books out in the market. And before you go, do tell me which book(s) you love – for the language, the story, the brilliance.
And if you’re wondering what to read next, do take a look at my bookshelf. I’ve rated each book that I have read, and linked all the ones that I’ve reviewed on the blog.