A couple of years ago, I listed the first installment of my Bookish Peeves. This was very cathartic but over time I’ve realised that I just wasn’t done. I have more thoughts. I always have more thoughts. When one churns through books at a rate of knots, one does start to notice that certain plot devices crop up more than others. And some of them are really, really annoying. Sometimes these can be specific to a particular author. I remember how in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, every book included one character saying to another, ‘You never wrote me once during the holidays and I wrote you pages!’ Every. Single. Book. Or else we have Jacqueline Wilson who always explains how her lead characters like ‘witchy’ make-up, this being an obvious sign of how cool they are. There are other tropes though which turn up across genres and I wondered if anybody else had noticed the same. Which are the loathsome literary cliches that refuse to die?
Having an affair with the English teacher
Fiction has always had a tendency to romanticise student-teacher relationships. In real life, it’s a gross abuse of power and trust as well as being a one-way ticket to a lifetime ban from the profession and a possible prison term. Still, what irritates me most is how it almost always the English Department who does the dirty. One of the many loathsome cliches in The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman was that her teacher-lover taught English. In Pretty Little Liars, again it’s the English teacher who has a fling with one of the liars. The middle son in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is a literature professor who has had an affair with a student. J.M. Coetzee’s The Disgrace? Poetry professor. Death of the Black-haired Girl? Literature professor again! Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal has it be a music teacher but that really seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Essentially, educational practitioners in the Science and Maths faculty get off very lightly in the realm of fiction. Is that novelists are less likely to have enjoyed these subjects in school and so do not feel the need to fantasise about the instructors in fiction? Or is it maybe all the book and poetry chat which is supposedly getting their students’ pulses fluttering? I really don’t know. In the real world though, Jeremy Forrest who was imprisoned for running away with his fifteen year-old pupil actually taught maths.
Beginning at the End
You know what I mean, the book starts around something terrible and awful and then flashes back to explaining how the terrible awful came about? I didn’t mind this one at first. It’s just been done so many times now (Little Fires Everywhere, The New Mrs Clifton, Skippy Dies, the list goes on and on and on) that it no longer feels like an innovative and quirky way of framing a narrative. It just feels a bit tired. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed books that used this device but I do find myself wondering if they perhaps started out with a linear narrative and their editors suggested that they change it to match current fashions. I also wonder if it is a sign of our short-attention-span society that we have to be given a sneaky peek of the ending to slog through an entire book. Some authors are able to do something genuinely clever with the format. I’m thinking here of Iain Pears with Stone’s Fall and An Instance of the Fingerpost. On the whole though, it feels like something that authors currently feel obliged to do, whereas a nice linear story would work just as well while also avoiding the niggling worry of whether we are going to match up with the other end of the story in a convincing way (this is not always the case).
Describing yourself in a mirror
As soon as an author settles their lead female character down (and it is always the female) in front of the mirror, I roll my eyes and have to fight the urge to hurl the book down. Like most of us, I have a quick glance in the mirror on my way out to work in the morning, generally to check that I haven’t got any porridge left on my face. For that more mornings than I care to admit, it is a good job that I checked. What I don’t do is sit down and ruminate on all of my physical features at length while also pausing to consider what these reveal about my inner character. I have enjoyed a lot of Anne O’Brien’s historical fiction but she is a major offender in terms of the Mirror-Description passage and it is very off-putting. I am not a reader who cares to be given a great deal of physical description. One of the big reasons that the only soap that I enjoy is Radio 4’s The Archers is that it leaves me free to imagine the characters. Still, even if I did need to be told, I really hope that an author could pause to find a more organic way of supplying this information rather than the Mirror-Description. This is a cliche that really needs to die.
Nanny Goes Nuts
I never had a nanny, I went to childminders instead. Still, I have a great deal of respect for those within the childcare sector. They work very hard and generally have a high standard of professionalism. So why oh why do they get such a tough time in books and on television? Fiction is fascinated by the figure of the frenzied nanny, from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to Mother Island to this year’s bestseller Lullaby. Whether the nanny tries to seduce the husband, steal the children or even flat out murder everybody, the message seems to be that you invite this woman into your home at your own peril. The lack-lustre teen soap One Tree Hill included a nanny who did all three of these. It was not convincing. It’s as if we are saying that that there is something unnatural about a woman looking after another woman’s child, that she must surely harbour ill will. Or, more probably, popular culture cannot allow a mother to set her child down and go to work, so we have to plant a fear about the horrors she will unleash if she does so. What I would like to see is a realist (e.g. not Mary Poppins) piece of fiction that depicts a paid care-giver going about her business and looking after the children under her supervision in a professional way, since this is the typical experience for most people. I would guess though that this would be rather dull and likely not sell very well. Shame.
As a History Geek, this one is particularly close to my heart. When someone writes a piece of historical fiction and plonks a character in the middle of it who Won’t Follow The Rules, I die inside. And then I go and read a non-fiction biography to cheer myself up. What drives me crackers is this assumption that everyone from the days of Ye Olde Times was just wandering about waiting for someone from the twenty-first century to teach them How to Live. I try to forget that I ever read The Boleyn King and I avoid books like it but even in supposedly more serious novels such as One Thousand White Women, you still get these characters who speak and act like someone from the modern era and this is intended to impress the reader. Jane Austen spin-offs tend to attract a lot of this kind of character too, as if Austen did not know how to write a character who could talk back. A lot of Young Adult franchises also fall into this trap; it was this which put me off Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty. Strangely, Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy manages to work all right despite the titular Sophy’s rule-breaking but the point there is that although she is outspoken, she follows the norms of etiquette with aplomb. The over-familiarity in a lot of recent historical fiction smacks of laziness more than anything else. It feels like writers who have failed to do their research and who are only interested in making use of the period costume.
Hair Symbolises Personality
Similar to the Mirror-Description passages, this one is the curse of the female protagonist. A girl’s hair defines her destiny – just ask Rapunzel. If she wears it modestly plaited, she’s a good girl. If she has it in a bun, she’s a serene elder sister type. If she wears it loose, she’s probably a bit loose herself. Worst of all though is how the wild heroine has to have hair that is unruly and out of control too. It also tends to be ‘flame-coloured’ too if she’s a bit on the feisty side. This fantastic post in the Guardian fumes on the same topic, even going so far as to provide a Google Books search on the prevalence of the phrase ‘unruly auburn curls’. Hair is just hair. It does not show the truth of someone’s soul. I understand that authors are creating fictional beings and are looking for anything that can signal their character’s personality rather than just flat out saying ‘a bit of a lively one here’, but it’s been done so many times. Can we not find an alternative?
There are two prongs to this particular cliche. The first one is just how difficult certain authors find it to write realistic children. Game of Thrones has had to age up the children by an average of five years apiece to make it in any way credible that they are having the experiences George R R Martin has written for them. Bran was originally supposed to be seven years old. Even claiming he was ten in the television series is a major stretch. Martin himself has admitted that on reflection, the ages were a mistake. While this is just one of many plot howlers in that particular series, Martin is far from alone in making the mistake. A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven is a fantastic novel but the children are again aged around five years too young to be seem realistic based on what they were talking about. Even Emma Donoghue, who wrote two very believable children in Room and The Wonder, managed to create Sumac in The Lotterys Plus One. Where the second problem of this cliche comes in is that the author frequently uses the overly-wise child to drop insights which the adult protagonist can then use to Achieve Clarity. Seeing into the mind of a child is not an easy task from adulthood but expecting people to accept pellets of philosophical wisdom springing ‘from the mouths of babes’ is just stretching credulity. All too often it ends up looking like this:
Violence for Titillation
Can. Of. Worms. I don’t like violence in fiction. It doesn’t strike me as clever or interesting. It is on the rise though and not just in crime fiction. A recent example is My Absolute Darling which saw multiple instances of violent incest and rape committed against two separate children as well as an extremely detailed scene of a dead dog’s intestines being ripped out. Last year, I read The Marsh King’s Daughter which dealt with a number of similar themes, albeit minus the incest. These things happen. I know that they do. It’s just that I don’t like what I see as the appropriation of these horrific experiences by authors wanting to show how Bold they are in depicting them in fiction. It seems to have started with Emma Donoghue’s Room but where that novel focused on survival, since then the emphasis has steadily shifted towards the shock factor until we ended up with Absolute Darling which keeps its attention on the abused fourteen year-old protagonist’s genitals. I don’t mind confronting tough topics in novels. I do object to an author trying to use pain to excite the reader.
Women who Hate Women
You know the type, the central protagonist isn’t like ‘normal’ girls. She doesn’t dress in a ‘girly’ way. She doesn’t even like hanging out with other women. Women cause so much drama. The ironic thing is that she crops up a lot in chick lit. The woman who hates women and is ‘one of the boys’ seems to be on the rise. In The Cows, one of the female leads is repeatedly (just about every appearance) described as ‘spiky’ and has no female friends while another is hated by all of the other mothers at her daughter’s school since all their husbands fancy her. Ugh. Of course they do. Jacqueline Wilson’s books have heroines who refuse to wear dresses, try to look ‘witchy’ and defy gender norms. Why do ‘strong female characters’ have to despise femininity and their fellow women to show their backbone? How is it feminist to show misogyny?
Plain Clumsy Heroine
Another female protagonist character trope here, but this one is close to my heart. As a dyspraxic female, I have to report that being clumsy is not the endearing quality which it seems to be in fiction. The fact that my partner feels the need to offer constructive advice on how I chop vegetables is embarrassing, particularly since I know that he is entirely within his rights given how often he has had to patch me up. From Twilight‘s Bella to Fifty Shades‘ Ana (although these two are basically the same character), the clumsy heroine trips adorably into the arms of the brooding hero. In real life, you just land on the pavement, rip your tights and probably crack your phone. Please retire this cliche! Having run Brooding about the Brontës earlier this year, I started thinking about the beginning of the Plain Heroine cliche. The main reason this one irritates is that it feels disingenuous given that said plain heroine generally ends up with the incredibly handsome man anyway. It reminds me of the scene in Mean Girls where they all start insulting their own appearances so that they can compliment each other. It seems we are supposed to like female characters more if they denigrate themselves. In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, he wrote that a person’s thoughts can affect their appearance, so that the beautiful person who thinks ugly thoughts becomes hard-faced while ‘if you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will look lovely’. The more people I meet, the more true I believe that sentiment to be. If we all do better by thinking good thoughts, how about we stop forcing heroines to describe themselves as ugly?
Further suggestions of bookish peeves are warmly welcomed for the third volume – which other literary cliches need to be shoved out the door?