This Top Ten Tuesday has been brewing in my mind for a while and then last week my bus route completely failed and I had to walk home so I spent the walk composing this list. The forty minute walk whizzed by. After years of hanging around in bookshops, trying to work out how many books I could budget, blogging has very much changed the book acquisition process. Between Netgalley, direct submissions and writing for magazines, I get sent a lot of books. This is wonderful. But it has made me realise far more what are the things that can annoy me into slamming the book shut (or more often, closing the Kindle file and submitting icy feedback to Netgalley). To be clear, I am not fussy and I am not a snob – a colleague recently asked me what was my favourite genre in reading and I felt slightly mystified. Favourite? Pick just one? I am omnivorous and can find something to enjoy in every genre but these are the tropes which crop up in all genres and which seriously try my patience. I would state before all of this – my peeves are entirely personal, occasionally irrational and should not be taken as any kind of criticism of the individual works mentioned, merely as a further explanation of my own reaction to the same.
1. Americans Explain It All
To be clear, I have a lot of American friends and I am not just saying that in a condescending way – I did Camp America a few years ago and met some fantastic people of the ‘friends-forever-whether-we-meet-again-or-not variety’. I live in Oxford which is a fairly international place and have met more than a few North Americans who are also fantastic people. What I am referring to here is that trope in story-telling where the American travels over to the UK and fixes everything, as if the whole of the United Kingdom is some kind of god-forsaken Cold Comfort Farm and the American Nation is peopled with Flora Postes. As a teenager, several of my friends were interested in fan fiction, more than a few of which featured Hermione’s American cousin who started at Hogwarts and saved the day, generally giving poor Hermione a makeover in the process. But while these can be forgiven as most likely being written by teenaged American girls sitting in their bedrooms dreaming of crossing the pond to see what it was all about, there are other examples which are far less excusable. The first sign I had that The Dark is Rising film adaptation was going to be awful was the discovery that Will Stanton was no longer going to be from Buckinghamshire but was in fact going to be an American come over to visit, and then get hauled into the whole battle between Good and Evil thing. I was right to be concerned – the film is a travesty.
More recently, I was sent The Madwoman Upstairs by Netgalley, which featured the American cousin to the Bronte family who had come over to Oxford to study. Admittedly, there were factors piled against the author on this one – I live in Oxford and used to work for one of the colleges so the idea of the central character being given a room at the top of a tower with no windows and stone walls made me seethe from a residence management point of view. It would just never happen. The fact that ‘Samantha’ meets her ‘tutor’ in a pub for the first time was also ludicrous, as was the fact that the author named its exact street location, which was impossible because there are no pubs there – I hated it. Long-suffering Samantha traipsed about being knowing and American while the British bowed down to her greatness and wisdom. Don’t get me wrong, I feel a sympathy for the impulse – it’s not uncommon to feel a sense of ownership over the books – and even the authors – whom we love, and the impulse for Americans to ingratiate themselves into UK history is reasonable enough – but it pulls down even quality writing far from the reaches of credibility.
Exception to every rule: How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
This one beats the trope because Daisy is actually a fleshed-out character who is interesting in her own right. She is not defined by her American nationality – indeed, I rather felt that it was just an excuse for the fact that she had not been around her cousins. There are some harrowing and fascinating passages in this novel and it is one of the most intriguing dystopian novels that I have ever read. The point is that there’s nothing wrong with having an American principal character if you can do something with her that is actually interesting.
2. Love Triangles and Adultery
Yeah – I know that love triangles are a classic story trope and that they can present the perfect dilemma to give a story tension but … I don’t buy it. It is possible that at this point, I am speaking with my grandmother’s voice. I was fairly young – probably around eight or nine – when she explained to me that when someone claims to have two or more people who they’re interested in, it means that they actually don’t have strong feelings about anyone. As a disclaimer, my grandmother met the love of her life when she was fourteen years of age and tended to view those of us who had a more chequered route to happiness with a weary impatience as we clearly weren’t trying hard enough. However, I tend to agree with her on this. I explained at length in my review of The Hunger Games why they just don’t work and I don’t want to bore everybody rigid by going through it again – but basically, as I see it, in fiction (eg. books, movies, TV series), love triangles tend to represent more of a personal struggle within the central object of the triangle concerning their own identity. As in, it’s not about actual feelings for the other two people, it’s about an actual lack of self-knowledge. And if you don’t know yourself, you probably shouldn’t be dating.
The other major issue I have with love triangles is that if you’re in one, you’re cheating on someone or other and I have despised that behaviour for as long as I remember. Again, there is a chance that I have been influenced by my grandmother’s outlook. In films and televisions, adulterers tend to be punished with public humiliation and general ruin but in books, the same sleazy behaviour is treated with far more glamour. Marriage is for people with fluffy jumpers whereas truly exciting people escape the confines of marriage because monogamy is just too boring. It’s not boring, but it does take effort. It’s this whole idea that it’s romantic to make bad choices for ‘passion’ or that amor vincit omnia – I think it’s incredibly unhealthy in encouraging people to think that the heart somehow rules all and that we are incapable of making choices that will be healthy for our long term futures. Sometimes it is not ‘boring’ or ‘cowardly’ to stay safe with the good person who loves you – sometimes it is simply lovely.
I’m not into designer gear – as you may have guessed, my main financial outlay is on books. Old books, new books, that book I heard of once but have finally tracked down to an Amazon third party seller and need to buy right now. Designer labels in books tend to mean that the reader is supposed to be impressed and since they do not impress me in real life, they similarly fail in function in fiction. One example is in My Best Friend’s Girl where we are supposed to realise how impractical Adele is because she is wearing a Dolce and Gabbana t-shirt in a hospital bed. I wondered why she was spending money on that when she was a single parent – not criticising her shopping choices, just wondering how she’d budgeted (n.b. I am from a lone parent family so I know how tight things can be). I also wasn’t imagining how lovely she must look in said t-shirt. The worst, worst, worst example of all of this though has to be Fifty Shades of Grey. The designer clothes get more screen time than the sex does – whether Ana is being bought Louboutins or a $750 swimsuit, we are supposed to be very excited by all this expensive stuff she’s getting. Then Ana continually explains how she’s not interested in the money, it’s the guy that she likes. But then goes on about the stuff some more. This is all a fantasy about being swept off one’s feet by someone rich enough to shower the recipient with designer gear. But what does designer even mean? It’s emptiest term ever – it doesn’t mean it’s higher quality or that it’s been made more ethically or that a designer white t-shirt won’t go transparent after you wash it once, it just means that it was expensive. So what’s the point of it?
As a follow-up, I was also annoyed back when I used to read Jacqueline Wilson (my advice – don’t bother) as a child since she also drops labels like they’re hot. Not so much designers although there is one novel which features the daughter of a fashion designer, but just labels that the child readers are clearly intended to get excited about. Whether they’re Carand’ache felt tips, or fancy make-up, Jacqueline Wilson is keen to raise another generation of consumerists and as someone who always tended towards obliviousness in this direction, it didn’t catch on. I think the main issue I had though was that it jolted me out of the imaginary world that I was attempting to construct and back into the real one where I had to picture the product she was talking about rather than being allowed to imagine something of my own. I guess that maybe with the cheaper products she was just trying to make her books seem relatable with recognisable references but it still annoyed me. I would even rather fictional characters stated that they were going to the ‘supermarket’ rather than specifying ‘Asda’ or ‘Tesco’ – it doesn’t advance the plot and it gets on my nerves.
4. Fake Readers
This one is a rising fashion – leading characters will be ‘great readers’ but the only book that they ever mention having read will be Jane Eyre. Or sometimes Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is annoying as I actually haven’t read this one. Not wanting to hate too much on Fifty Shades, but Ana is a classic example of this. Christian tells her that she is the most widely read person that he has ever met … but she doesn’t appear to have read anything published after 1850. I don’t judge people for their reading and I hope that they don’t judge me for mine but I don’t think that you can read within quite such a narrow range and then get to be ‘widely read’. What I also find strange is how these supposedly bookish little waifs gain a kind of sensuality from their reading as well as being supposedly unaware of this. It’s all a bit Pamela for my tastes, with the dark and dangerous older man who finds her reading and learning very attractive and who wants to access her innocent mind. There is something about the image of a woman reading that is supposedly attractive – she is thinking thoughts that a man cannot access, she is demure, she is ‘deep’ – but as most ‘true’ readers know, it’s often not that dignified. When I am reading, I go off into my own little world, I operate on a delayed response time when my boyfriend tries to talk to me and I get irritable when I am interrupted. Ana and her ilk are free to enjoy these two books that they have read and enjoyed, but they are not welcome in any book club that I am a part of and nor are the dark and forbidding men who trail after them.
5. Chortling and Chuckling and Cooing
I am about to make a confession. Five years down the line writing this website and now we’re getting to the personal stage of the relationship. I have issues with words. As in, there are certain words that irritate me beyond all reason. If one of the words I hate is in a book synopsis, I am immediately put off reading it. However, even if I am several chapters down the line and the word ‘chuckle’ crops up – that’s it, we’re done, book closed, Girl with her Head in a Book is out. Chortle isn’t that great either. Chuckle to me is one of the bitchiest words in the English language – it means laughing at someone but since it’s got such gentle phonemes, you’re not allowed to get annoyed at the person who does it. I remember a colleague at a Christian summer camp sneering about how it made her ‘chuckle’ that people listened to the advice of our other colleague C. In Sex and the City, Trey buys his infertile wife Charlotte a cardboard cut-out of a baby since he hopes that it will make them ‘chuckle’. Chuckle is a horrible word – at least snigger is open about its cruelty, chuckle tries to sneak past you without owning up. And I have only just forgiven JK Rowling for letting Harry chortle in The Philosopher’s Stone. And as soon as a female character coos to another (The Tudor Princess was particularly bad for this), I instantly lose all sympathy as they are clearly lacking in sincerity. I should make clear here that I am not stating that my peeves have any validity in fact, this is just how they make me feel. There are lots of other words that annoy me too – picnic is one of these. I can happily eat outside or indeed al fresco but I refuse to have a picnic. The sounds annoy me. Pick. Nick. Urrgh. Maybe it’s the ‘ck’ sound. But yes, books with these words in are unlikely to favour with me.
6. Totally Awesome Heroines
You know the type. They’re like really pretty but like they don’t even think they are and they are like really nice to everyone but it’s like not even a big deal and they’re like really smart and really good at some form of martial art or maybe they just have like a special power but they know that this doesn’t even make them special or anything and they fight for liberty and justice for all. Yeah. This kind of character does tend to annoy me. This is another reason why The Madwoman Upstairs failed to appeal – Samantha showed every sign of being one of these, although her special power was being distantly and unconvincingly related to the Brontes. Notable examples are Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen and that incredibly infuriating Minuette from The Boleyn King trilogy. Paige from The Bone Season treads a tightrope on this issue and various of my friends have taken against her for this very reason. Still, I tend to forgive her because the rest of the writing is well done and also because she’s not omnipotent. And her character behind the awesomeness is less of a blank than the average. The Totally Awesome Heroine exists outside of the literary universe – I watched the first episode of The Vikings with my boyfriend and watched as a Viking matron battled off various would-be home invaders with a long stick. Unimpressed with these unlikely skills, we debated who this heroine is intended to impress. He felt that she was an example of political correctness, that stories have to present a female character who is able to handle herself. I felt that she was aimed at men, that she is an example of the Cool Girl who Amy ranted about in Gone Girl, happy to down a horn of ale, fight off a bear and then have wild sex all night – essentially, a guy with mammary glands. I’m actually not too sure but I think that on the page, the reader is often invited by the character’s very blandness to imagine themselves in her shoes. Yet I prefer my characters with a degree of credibility – I love Lyra from His Dark Materials because although yes she can read the alethiometer (truth-telling device) and can tell lies that bring down kings, she does have flaws, she is vulnerable and the only reason that she is so tough is because she was brought up like a little savage. I may wade through a book with a Totally Awesome Heroine, but she will not stick in my mind long afterwards.
7. Navel Gazing
I’m not a great fan of philosophy, I don’t spend my time wondering whether we are real or if life has a meaning – I just assume that yes we are and yes it does. It’s for the same reason that I try to avoid books with strong themes of nihilism. I didn’t take to The Stranger (put on some sunglasses and go home) or Waiting for Godot (he’s not coming, just go home) and I never really sympathised with Hamlet’s endless dithering. It’s also why I have never taken to Sylvia Plath – as someone who had their own (and private) issues with depression, I really don’t see what I would gain by reading something which analyses further what it means to be unhappy. I read Samantha Ellis’ fantastic How To Be A Heroine where she mentioned that she abandoned Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as one of her favourite books since she was struggling with a chronic health condition at the time and realised that Esther was not going to be the heroine who would pull her out of it. It is true that we will all die one day but I do not choose to climb into a coffin to await the moment with glee and books which analyse the futility of life are ones that I return very quickly to the shelf. Does this make me a shallow person? Someone who wishes to avoid the darker side of life? If so, that is quite all right by me. I am willing to read books of tragedy, warfare, disaster and unhappiness – but I will not read one that tells me that life has no meaning.
8. Historical Characters Being Done ‘Wrong’
As a history geek, I have a masochistic thing going on with historical fiction. I love imagining the lives of those long dead people who fascinate me – but I hate, hate, hate it when I feel it’s done with disrespect. I don’t want to have a long rant here about how much I hate Philippa Gregory because let’s face it, I think I’ve said everything that can be said on the subject (use the search bar afterwards in the top right-hand corner if you’re a new visitor) but she is a particular culprit. This is potentially a cross-over with the above Peeve about ‘chuckling’ etc. I don’t like it when characters who do seem to have had their allotted share of common sense whilst alive are reimagined as ‘simpering’ or ‘giggling’ or ‘preening.’ This happens most specifically to women – Elizabeth Woodville, Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth I – they had tough lives which they could have easily found foreshortened, so being rewritten as morons seems unfair. I suspect this is because a lot of historical fiction tends towards the romance genre which is not really my scene – I found it similarly irritating when a book starring Elizabeth Plantagenet spent a page and a half with Elizabeth describing how romantic her own face was. Surely there would be a more subtle way of achieving the same outcome? Another perfectly valid theory though about why this is one of my peeves is that I find this breed of coquettish behaviour quite alien to me in real life so seeing it transplanted onto characters whose real life counterparts I respect is just an affront. All the same, I do feel that authors should recognise that they have a responsibility towards the real people whose voices they are appropriating in their work – I remember the closing pages of Wolf Hall when Mantel muses via Cromwell about how we put words in the mouths of those who are dead – is it morally wrong to fictionalise those who are unable to defend themselves? In The White Princess, Philippa Gregory writes Henry VII as a rapist – that would be libel, a vile calumny if he were around now. But he is not, so nobody cares. Yet somehow now it is offensive and wrong to label his near contemporary Richard III as a child murderer. A couple of years ago, a funeral was actually staged for Richard where people wore black and looked somber even though the man had been dead for half a millennium and we had all managed to adjust. It’s a double standard and one that I find particularly annoying when it affects the depictions of people who I would otherwise be interested in!
9. Authors Who Won’t Leave Me Alone
I tend to be for fiction over form, by which I mean that I would rather a book tell me a story rather than it be clever. So if an author wastes valuable narration time showing off – the chances are, you’ve lost me. And at this point, Virginia Woolf, I’m looking at you. Breaking the fourth wall may be very innovative and intelligent, but it also breaks the illusion and makes it very difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. I am aware that there are people out there who struggle to read fiction since they know it isn’t real – I am not one of these. But when reading Virginia Woolf, I can see what they’re talking about. Woolf isn’t the only author guilty of this by any means but I do think she is the master of getting between a reader and a story. I completely respect that for people who are more into the ‘form’ side of things then yes, this is very clever – for me though, it reminds me of the time I was trying to eat tea with a very kind family friend who kept asking continually if I wanted a cup of tea. I couldn’t enjoy my dinner because I was being continually interrupted and finally just had to give up. Any kind of author intervention is something of a jolt for me – I remember how surprised I was when reading Little Women, in the first chapter Alcott enters to explain what each of the March girls look like since she knew that ‘readers’ liked to know. Readers – she meant me – Alcott knew that I was there! The author is omnipotent but like the best deities, I prefer it when I can view their work from more of a distance. Woolf herself claimed that Austen was a great author but who was ‘difficult to catch in the act of greatness.’ Austen’s interventions in the text are rare, her prose is seamless and I love her work the better for it.
As an opinionated person, I can’t bear other people’s opinions. What I hate even more is when they weave them into their work – for example, in every single one of her books Philippa Gregory (her again!) has one or other of her characters remark on how stupid people must be to believe that Richard III had anything to do with his nephews’ death. Yes, we’re all morons to think that the man who had physical custody of them and who was supreme ruler of the land they were living in might have had some sort of role in their mysterious disappearance. Of course it must have been the other man who was on a different land mass at the time or else his mother who was hundreds of miles away and under house arrest. How foolish of me. Oops. But even when characters mention that they think Jane Austen is ‘heavy’ or that Harry Potter is ‘just for children’, I hate it. I also hate it in real life. So please, don’t let any of my peeves put you off anything that you happen to enjoy reading – this has just been a cathartic post for explaining why I hate the books I hate and which are the plot points which are never going to please. Please don’t chuckle.