As a reader, I’m a big believer in John Gardner’s “fictional dream.” You know that concept where it’s the fiction writer’s job to create a dream world for the reader. A world we can get lost in and forget that we’re reading a book. If the writer is up to the task, a book can transport you to a little house on the prairie, 1950s Oklahoma, or the Shire.
The worst thing a writer can do is put something into their story that jars readers from this fictional dream they’ve created, forcing us back into the real world, the escaping of which is probably why we picked up a book in the first place.
Over the years I’ve developed a number of pet peeves concerning those things that jar me from the many fictional dreams I enter. At the very top of my list are cicadas. While it’s not the most egregiously jarring thing on earth, it is the most common. Nothing smacks so much of writerliness to me as the mention of buzzing cicadas. I see the word ‘cicadas’ in a novel and I roll my eyes. It’s a mild eye roll, but an eye roll nonetheless. Yes, the sound of cicadas is evocative of sultry, slow, summery days. You know what else it is? A cliché.
Number 2 on my list of pet peeves: Bad Math. I’ve never been a strong mathematician. There are only two situations in my life where I can get all beautiful mindy. First, it’s calculating how many times I can hit the snooze button before I really truly have to get out of bed. It’s an equation that involves multiplication, addition, and subtraction. Also, it’s often performed while half asleep which only serves to add to the amazingness of this feat.
The second situation that turns me into a math whiz is reading novels where the numbers don’t add up. Usually this involves hinky ages where characters are supposed to be a certain age, say 16, but then they do something at a time or place that isn’t mathematically possible. Like, for instance, being in college in 1986 even though the character was born in 1972 and there has been no mention at all of the kid being a genius. If you want a good example of bad math in fiction go read Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman. Ha! Just kidding, don’t read it. It’s awful.
The third, and biggest, pet peeve is the blacking out of text (or leaving a page blank). The eye roll induced by blacking out text is so energetic and fierce it could power a small town. Now, I should say, there are certain situations in a novel where blacked out text would make perfect sense, like redacted text in some sort of official form, or a letter that’s been through military censoring.
You know when it doesn’t make sense? When the narrator has “written” something, decided it’s too painful to let you read, and then blacked out all the text. Or, in Dave Eggers’ case leaving the page blank. Or in Jonathan Safran Foer’s case, just keep writing over and over on the same page until the text is illegible.
Boo! This sort of shticky affectation drives me batty. Maybe in Eggers’ case I can give him a bye because he was probably trying to say something about the artifice of reader and writer and walls, or something like that. It’s been a long time since I read the story in question.
But in the other cases? No excuse!
As a reader, the minute I see those thick black rectangles dotting a page I think, “aww man, why’d you have to go and ruin everything?” To me those rectangles mean the author valued their cleverness more than the story they were telling. With those black boxes they inserted themselves in a way that is impossible to ignore. “Hey, don’t forget about me! I wrote this and I am edgy. See? See? You can see it right there.”
Sometimes, in my more forgiving moods, the black boxes just make me sad because it feels as though the author didn’t trust their words to do justice to the emotion they were trying to convey, which is too bad because usually they were doing a bang-up job until they got clever.
Those are my top three pet peeves, please tell me you have some too.