Under my byline

Yackety yuck

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 10 April 2010


Many more books come to the office for review than will ever figure on our pages. Those that don’t immediately vanish into the hands of reviewers get divided into two lots. One lot consists of books which might make short reviews somewhere down the line. This lot goes into a locked cabinet. The second lot, books which don’t seem good enough, sits in a stack on the desk and gathers dust.

Some books are dismissed for dullness of subject, slightness of content, badness of prose and/or worthiness of tone. That apart, two observations from the winnowing: 1) the reject books are often, though by no means always, by first-time authors, and 2) these authors often choke their own works with an excess of ill-composed dialogue. It must be a rookie mistake.

Here are a few examples, from books which I shall not name.

“Hey baby… off to an assignment?” I actually was running late but I cannot ignore her presence.
“Ah… yeah… remember I am supposed to meet that theatre guy who just launched his own Broadway musical theatre in London?”
“Oh… you are talking about R—, right?”
“Yup… so I have to meet him at his place. I better rush, J— must be waiting. You know how cranky he’s becoming lately.”

Too informal, too informational, way too many ellipses. Or this:

“That was purely speculative in nature anyway,” thundered Mac.

You try thundering that sentence. Or this:

“Was M— not keeping well lately? What happened to him? How did he die?”
“Recently in Pondicherry, he started coughing, which gradually became worse. I got him a cough syrup, but it didn’t help.”

That is an exchange between a woman and her servant about her late lover. Does it read right?

I’m not cherry-picking. The flaw in each case runs through the whole book. Yet in no case was the basic idea behind the story itself faulty — the problem was the author’s decision to tell the story through dialogue.

Long stretches of conversation are exceptionally hard to pull off in prose. Even established novelists generally steer clear. The few examples of outstanding brilliance at dialogue will include such writers as Elmore Leonard and Agatha Christie — both of whom, not coincidentally, have written crime fiction (Leonard is also a screenwriter, and Dame Agatha was also a playwright). Characters in crime thrillers are not loquacious (unless they are the intended victims); they are terse and economical. The lead characters hold their cards close to their chest. They do not speak in complete sentences. They don’t have time to explain, not until the very end. They are not demonstrative in manner — they simply “say”, they don’t “tease”, “say innocently”, “snigger”, “gibe”, “sneer”, “flay”, “reply” and “stress” all on the same page (as one of the newbie novelists excerpted above makes her characters do).

As for literary fiction, which depends on characterisation more than plot and is typically text-rich, one example is the subtle, skillful Ahdaf Soueif. She is an Egyptian-British novelist who writes in English, almost in the classic 19th-century mould. In her 1992 book In the Eye of the Sun sizeable passages of third-person narrative are separated by crystal-clear little spoken exchanges. They might be as short as:

“What do you want to drink? There’s Sport Cola or water.”
“Water, please.”

But they work.

Like Soueif, Indians writing in English face a double challenge, because they are also doing translation. Most of us are capable in more than one language, but perfectly at ease in none. Our speech reflects this. We also navigate, from moment to moment, a number of social and cultural levels. We talk to colleagues, mothers-in-law, shopkeepers, servants. The flexibility which our languages give us is not easily reproduced in English.

Moral of the story, especially for new writers: show, don’t tell. You’re more likely to realise the flaws in your story that way, and we reviewers may be less likely to ignore it.


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  1. […] Rrishi Raote’s Under my Byline – musings on literature and history (along with some general features) by an excellent writer (Latest Post: OVERLEAF 69) […]

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