Monday, July 06, 2009

Voices from the House of Tin
A Turd on Every Page: some thoughts on the fiction of Ken Follett


Pity me, gentle reader. Although I have read some excellent books lately, with others jostling for attention on my shelves, I have spent the past week flogging through Ken Follett's World Without End, his tale of Black Death, medieval architecture and humdrum sex. Follett sells a lot of books, so he can live quite happily without my approval, and he's obviously digested the "conflict on every page" mantra*. Incident piles on incident, improbability on improbability, although after a while even this surfeit of action becomes wearisome. Once every couple of pages, breast-fondling occurs: this is the Middle Ages, and men of a certain stamp can't see a woman without lurching into grope mode. Readers will be reassured to learn that breasts in the period ranged from the fried egg profile to ample rotundity.

Perhaps the most ludicrous such moment comes on page 1078 (I really did get that far) in a dialogue of self-parodical risibility:

"I've never been good at breaking news gently," she said. "I'm pregnant."
"Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction. "I'm surprised because you told me..."
"I know. I was sure I was too old. For a couple of years my monthly cycle was irregular, and then it stopped altogether -- I thought. But I've been vomiting in the morning, and my nipples hurt."
"I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. But can you be sure?"
"I've been pregnant six times already -- three children and three miscarriages -- and I know the feeling. There's really no doubt."
"Well, we're going to have a child."
You have to read this several times to savour the full crassness of the passage. "Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction irks with its redundant commentary; had it been necessary at all, it should have been before the exclamation. My monthly cycle has been irregular ... Good God! I am too shocked at the tinniness of this to hold back my reaction. I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. This spectacular non sequitur defies any kind of logic: are painful nipples really so obvious, even in Follett's mammocentric fictional world?

Writing of this standard annoyed me particularly in the context of the book I am currently reading, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. This is a fantasy with prose of relaxed elegance, a pleasantly judged humour and an engaging authorial voice. Yet Rothfuss, a purveyor of mere fantasy, the preserve of maladjusted adolescents, sits on the bottom table in the Grand Hall of Literature, while Follett, though never likely to win the Booker Prize, basks in vast sales and a degree of critical success. Ladies and gentlemen, there ain't no justice.
* the rather more challenging maxim introduced to me by David Isaak, "a gem on every page", has not been fully implemented. Is there a school of creative writing which demands "a turd on every page"? Or indeed "a tit on every page"...


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14 comments:

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yeah, I decided that book wasn't for me on page six. I can't believe you struggled on manfully for so long. Maybe the breasts helped? Boobs as hooks, if you see what I mean.

Tim Stretton said...

I should have given up that early. I don't know what kept me going. It surely wasn't the breasts, a subject Follett rapidly made tedious for a heterosexual male reader - quite an achievement...

Neil said...

Good God! You got to page 1078.

Tim Stretton said...

Neil, I finished the whole damn thing. I don't know why: it was like eating cheap chocolate, even up to the point of being sick at the end...

Frances Garrood said...

'I noticed your breasts when you came into the garden' - I love it! Without wishing to be indelicate, I've been in and out of lots of gardens, pregnant and not, and no-one's ever...oh, never mind. But I'm so glad you did get to page 1078, for all our sakes.

Alis said...

I'm with Aliya - didn't get beyond the first scene. And this is against a background of having read all the way through his other historical, Pillars of the Earth which - though its research was too painfully obvious on many occasions - seemed to be far more accomplished. Altogether too much gratuitous sexuality - often of a quite brutal kind - in that one too.
I agree with you, Tim, about the unfairness of genre-stereotyping which keeps people from reading truly great prose.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, on the "brutal" sex aspect, there is a highly distasteful scene in which one of the characters is raped but "enjoys it really". It's hard to know whether the sentiment was more disgusting or the relish with which the act was described.

One way or another, I won't be reading any more Ken Follett.

Frances Garrood said...

Just out of interest, Tim, how are you on the Da Vinci Code? Did you (a) like it, (b) finish it or (c) neither)?

Tim Stretton said...

Frances - never read it, and never likely to!

I may be missing out on something amazing. Or...

Frances Garrood said...

...not.

Tim Stretton said...

No-one whose opinion I respect has a good word to say about it. Maybe I might read it out perversity one day, but life's too short, and there are too many books I *really* want to read.

Alis said...

OK, hands up, I liked it and was gripped by it. In fact I've read all of Dan Brown's books and been gripped by them all. I'd put him in the John Grisham box, an author whom I also find gripping when the mood is on me. I don't think either of them would claim they're writing great literature but they can both spin a yard like good 'uns!

David Isaak said...

I wanted to read Da Vinci Code. Really, I did. But his writing makes my brain bleed, and little crimson tears trickle from my eyes after only a few paragraphs.

And I say this as someone who has happily read some genuinely bad stylists, like HP Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard.

Maybe it would help if Dan Brown were insane like those two. Insanity has a certain can't-look-away pull for me.

Tim Stretton said...

David, if my eyes started bleeding I'd probably give up too...

There's something about Lovecraft which is compelling because of, rather than in spite of, the overheatedness of the prose. "Insanity" is pretty good shorthand for it...