Imagination isn't enough

One of the key aspects I appreciate in fiction is a sense of a highly creative imagination. If the imaginative aspect is interesting enough, I can forgive much. Sometimes I wonder if I'm too forgiving of works that I find sufficiently imaginative. And yet... Some books prove that imagination alone isn't enough.

Some years ago, I decided to give William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land a try. It's an early work of fantasy, written in 1912, and features a wildly imaginative take on a distant future when the sun has ceased shining and the last remnants of humanity live in a huge chasm miles beneath the surface (but presumably open to the surface). A fascinating and dark future of terrible powers arrayed against the humans.

I gave up.

Somewhere around the third chapter, I just decided that the it wasn't worth it, that what I was getting from the book didn't reward the effort to continue. The decision was in part an acknowledgment that I wouldn't finish the book before it was due at the library (because the narrative style is such that it takes effort to keep reading...). It was also came down to the fact that I wanted to read books that I would learn from, for my own writing. The Night Land is a book no writer should attempt to mimic. The writing is stilted and faux archaic, the structure is awkward, the focus on how many pills he did eat and on how modern readers should perceive the character...wearying, and the treatment of the true love by the narrator abusive and juvenile. It just came to the point where I did wot* that it wasn't worth continuing.

A website devoted to celebrating this book even states, "We think THE NIGHT LAND is one of the most colorful, inventive, and moving fictional worlds ever created. Haunting. Unmatchable. Unforgettable. But the book, as it issued from Hodgson's pen in 1912, is crippled by an unreadable style. For some reason Hodgson cast it in the frame of the future-dream of a gentleman of the 17th century. He attempted to reproduce the language of that period, with scant success."

And yet, I've decided to make another attempt. This time it's not a library book, but a Project Gutenberg text, so no worries about returning it when it's due. And also, I'm not reading it for what I can learn for my own writing, or at least not in the same way. It's a book I'll be glad to have read. The image of such a bleak future is compelling, despite the narrative approach. It feels, in a way, like outsider art, unaware of artistic (/narrative) approaches or conventions and forging onward in its own insular sense of what makes art (/literature) work. Reading it isn't enjoyable exactly, not in the way of other stories, but there is a train-wreck sort of fascination to it, with the reward of a compelling vision of the future.

This isn't meant to be a review (especially as I'm only a little past halfway through the book), but simply a record of a few thoughts as I'm reading. Plus, I came across this line today and wanted to quote it, because of the irony...

"And this is plain to you, and needing not of many words, which do so irk me."

They irk me too, William. They irk me, too.

*Yes, he uses that word, and far too often...


Lauren Michelle said…
I have a bit of a hang-up in the opposite direction--a story can be (I suspect) deeply imaginative, profound, or delightful, but if the author clearly doesn't know how to punctuate a sentence, my forebrain refuses to believe it's worth my attention. As defensible as that reaction probably is, I think there's an extent to which it's detrimental in a big-picture sense. I've had someone (whose taste I trust) enthusiastically recommend me stories that I just could not get through because the copyediting was so godawful. There was a recent one in particular I could tell was self-published before I even looked at the name of the website. I made it to the third paragraph, and there had been errors--real, flagrant errors--in every single sentence up to that point.

If it was some kind of grammatical Flowers for Algernon, well... oops, I guess. I still have it saved somewhere, but at this point I doubt I'll go back to find out.

Sometimes I'm sad about it, and I wonder how many great stories I might be missing out on because I know too much about the "rules" to enjoy them. Then again, I think to myself that there's enough fiction in the world that I can restrict myself in that way and probably not miss all that much. And I also think--barring any sort of non-retentive learning disability--grammar is damn easy and writers should suck it up and learn it. Why wouldn't they? It's like being a professional photographer and not knowing how to clean your lenses. Of course the water spots are going to detract from the picture. Just clean them so no one has to think about it!

Like you, I'm trying to push through this to read a book right now... one I'm likely to enjoy as long as I can turn the editor off. But man, why couldn't they have just gotten a better editor so I wouldn't have to? That would be a win-win, wouldn't it?

(Well, except for their crummy editor who'd be out of a job, but I'd call that a net gain for the universe.)
Daniel Ausema said…
That's too bad the book is full of errors. I've bought a number of books from that publisher and hadn't noticed a big difference from other major publishers. Or maybe I'm just more likely to skim over such errors...
Lauren Michelle said…
You mean Night Shade?

One thing the authors said about the current book at their reading was that the publishers were really pestering them for it. The husband submitted a draft to "show them how it was going," and the editor basically called it good, took it as a final, and worked it up for publishing. They were not happy about this, especially when the wife read out an obvious proofreading error /during the reading/ and had to catch herself. So I think it's possible that, because they know this series will sell, they're more eager to push it out the door than they are to make sure it's had as thorough a vetting as their other books might. But that's just my speculation.

Or perhaps they just had more work to do on this book than they would on the other things they publish, because these two are not prose authors generally. Maybe every other author they have submits nearly flawless manuscripts.
Daniel Ausema said…
Yeah, Night Shade. I wonder how much a difference those points make--greater need to pay attention to copy-edits, since they're not prose writers originally plus less perceived need on the publishers' end because they know it'll sell. Just speculation, of course. I've always felt that Night Shade does a good job choosing their books, though, finding high quality writers whose work might not always be quite commercial enough for the bigger publishers.
Lauren Michelle said…
A reasonable opinion based on a sample size greater than 1? What is THAT about?