Thursday, February 28, 2013

Analysis: Jean Auel versus Jack Higgins.

Photo by Fred.

by Frederick Pyke

I bought Jean Auel’s 'Land of Painted Caves' and Jack Higgins' 'Without Mercy' at a thrift shop for $2.50 each. It’s interesting to see what other writers and editors do. Both were on the NYT bestseller list, Auel's at #1. Higgins uses a minimum of description. There are some stylistic differences, which shows...I don't know, maybe what you can get away with.

Hopefully this isn’t author bashing for sake of my own insecurities. Both writers use several different literary styles in the dialogue.

One style has no dialogue tags.

“I haven’t done much with that thrower, but I can handle a spear.”

It’s Mejera, the acoloyte of Zanaldoni of the Third, Ayla said to herself, remembering that the young woman…

Okay, that’s one style.

Mousterian man.
“I think I may have hit another lioness too, but I don’t need to claim any part of that one,” Ayla said…

So the one style uses dialogue tags and the other doesn’t. I’ve also noticed quite a number of adverbs, which are supposedly a no-no in modern writing.

…Ayla said softly…

Bear in mind that Auel has been writing for well over thirty years, and once set in a mold, writers have their own habits which they find hard to break. As long as your fans are oblivious to it, and the books are selling, why do anything different?

Readers are not that well informed about writing and literary style. They simply don’t care. They do know what they like, and that’s the only thing that is important to them.

What I don’t much like is the following:

After a pause, Jondalar said, “We can both lay claim to him, only our spears reached him, and only yours killed this female at his side.”

I would never do that, and yet I really can’t explain why. It just bugs me for some reason. Higgins does it too, as I outline below.

More serious criticisms might include:

Though the bones and teeth of cave lions—felines that liked to den in caves, which preserved the bones they left behind—were the same shape as their descendants that would someday roam the distant lands of the continent that lay far to the south…

Question: how in the hell would Ayla or any other cave man/woman know what the descendants of lions would look like, and how in the hell would a cave man know about a continent that lay far to the south?

If I was your editor, I would never let you get away with this. It would be too easy to simply cut that line out of the book, or make you rewrite it.

I quit this book at about page 28. The reasons are mostly personal. There are a bunch of cavemen and women standing around talking about who just had a baby, who is going to have a baby, who has a baby, and who hasn’t had a baby, who wants a baby, who might have a baby, and it goes on like that for some time. While I agree that the birth of a child would be important to almost any human being, modern or prehistoric, I can get this sort of thing at a family reunion, cocktail party, or simply running into an old acquaintance at the mall. Call it the perspective of a middle-aged male who has never had kids of his own and we’ll leave it at that. Maybe cave people, like us, really didn’t have that much to talk about!

It bored me. In some ways the whole thing was a little wooden. This means nothing to Jean Auel fans, who are for the most part women. The book is essentially romance disguised as a heavily-researched (I have no doubts on that score) historical speculative fiction, laden with description and suitable for those who know nothing of the geography of France and even less about Neanderthals (Mousterian man) and Cro-Magnon. For them, the descriptions are probably necessary.

Cave art from Lascaux, France. Courtesy Professor Saxx.
The cover art is good. The cover has a soft feel to it, it’s very tactile, with a bit of a tooth like the paper water colours are done on.

Because I didn’t finish it, I see no reason to rate this book good or bad. Auel’s fans will no doubt rate it at five stars, and why not? They love the characters and world she has created, and ultimately that’s all that really matters to readers. The book is marked at $8.99 in the U.S. and $10.99 in Canada which for a book published in 2011, seems like a good price. For members of the bourgoisie with household incomes of $150,000 or thereabouts, the price seems a reasonable one, and considering your limited knowledge, literary tastes, expectations and prejudices, you might like this book very much.

Now we come to Jack Higgins, author of “The Eagle has Landed.” That’s a great film starring Robert Duval, Michael Caine and the late Larry Hagman among others.

The book ‘Without Mercy’ has the shittiest cover I’ve seen from a major publisher for some time, and that’s really saying something in an industry that so often takes a nice image and then plasters it with text. I’m fairly certain that the picture is of a person, possibly walking across Red Square judging by the onion dome of an Orthodox church in the background. The cover is shiny, with a much smoother feel to it—perhaps a commentary on the mostly male readership for his books.

The pace of the book is relentless. The thing goes by so fast that you really don’t have time for critical judgments. The title is a good one, for the body count adds up fairly quickly. I’m not going to rate this book either, but it’s more the sort of thing that I read. He uses a minimum of description which is fine as I know what England and Ireland look like. I’ve seen a gun, I know what a fishing boat looks like and a small seaside village in Ireland (or Eire) is pretty easy to visualize. Higgins’ book is listed at $9.99 U.S. and $13.50 in Canada, and was published in 2005.

The real lesson for a writer here is just how little description you actually need in order for a reader such as myself to see pictures in my head and visualize the actions in the book. If you really stop to think about what’s going on, it’s pretty obvious that intelligence really isn’t done that way. Higgins lived through the IRA campaign of terror in the U.K. and they didn’t worry too much about killing and spilling innocent blood. The authorities probably didn’t worry too much about the morality of hitting back. I will grant you that. However, the whole notion of the ‘license to kill’ and ‘off the books’ intelligence operations without any political or civilian oversight is a bit over-blown. If any reader honestly believes that they can summon government jets, shoot anyone they like and leave a trail of dozens of bodies all over Europe, just try it and see how far you get…and I don’t care who you’re working for.

If you think about the sort of films being made today, realism, or even reality, isn’t even in the equation. Let’s face it, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ got rave reviews, and there’s a new film out about Jack and the Beanstalk…I’ve already predicted that there will be more summer ‘block-buster’ films such as Rumplestiltskin and who knows, probably Rapunsel. They will get rave reviews from some people—you can pretty much bank on it.

It’s all about entertaining unsophisticated people, with a little too much money in their pockets, with what are essentially fairy tales.

Higgins also uses three different styles of dialogue. With tags, without tags, and the exposition followed by dialogue, including:

When he was finished, Ferguson said, “Totally mad and also quite brilliant…”

What I found really odd was when a chapter began with a line of dialogue. They’re using a big first letter, and they dropped the first set of quotation marks. It looks like this:

So what happens now?” Mary Killane had asked after Bell had gone.

As an independent author, editing my own work, I just don’t have the nerve to do that—and I think we all know what would happen if I did. As independent authors, we must become better than the mainstream of authorship, simply to overcome the prejudice, misinformation, and negative propaganda that spews out of a million sources on a daily basis.

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  1. "f any reader honestly believes that they can summon government jets, shoot anyone they like and leave a trail of dozens of bodies all over Europe, just try it and see how far you get…and I don’t care who you’re working for."

    Gee. Don't ever read one of the James Bond books then. (Don't ever drive one of the Bond cars either.)

  2. The original Bond books had some small basis of realism. The early movies were fun adventures. More recent Bond films are way over the top. This is what the audience wants, and the industry delivers. You're not telling me that this is the way it's really done, right? I kind of like those early Astons. The racing cars were beautiful. Who knows, maybe if I play my card right, I still might get a chance to drive a nice machine...thanks for your comment.


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