Monday, December 12, 2011

Fads, Let Me List Them

I generally listen to the news as I grin-and-bear (more bearing than grinning) my daily commute, however, one morning I was so out of it I just left it on the rock&roll station that is my husband's choice of ear food, and I noticed something about current music. I should place this in some context. The rock&roll station he listens to has an eclectic mix of current offerings, classic rock, and some blues thrown in to show how cool they are. Although owned by a huge media conglomerate, it has wisely realized that pre-programmed shows in this market won't work, and it seems that the DJs actually have some choice in what is played. So the other day I'm listening to a Beatles song and the next song up is something "today-ish," which is a nice way of saying I don't know who in the hell is singing.

What struck me throughout my entire drive is that current music and current style of writings are dove-tailing each other. Wildly popular music (and I even include Adele in this although I do adore her voice) is essentially notenotenotenote, different two notes, notenotenotenotenote. I assume this is due to the influence of rap, but there is virtually NO melody. However, this lack of melody is always compensated for by a kick-ass percussion background. I don't know enough about rap to make any sort of intelligent statement about it other than to me, personally, it's more spoken word, with a kick-ass beat to it.

Books these days are more or less the same. Little characterization for the main protags (or in some cases NO characterization--where's the "melody"), however, we do have kick-ass world-building (essentially the percussion of the novel), and the minor characters seem more thought out than the main characters. To me a book doesn't move forward unless the main protagonist is somehow affected by what happens in the book. All the world-building in the world can't save a book for me unless the main character moves.

This is why writing a mystery series is, inherently, limiting. Because aside from solving mysteries, your main protagonist needs to move emotionally, and how many personal epiphanies can one character have? I think you can have five books of epiphanies, and after that you either stop the series or the book becomes basically a soap opera with a mystery included. The mystery in a novel fulfills the same role as world building does in the fantasy novel. It is key, but it's not *key*, if you get my drift.

Fantasy novels are easy to pick on because world building is so integral to their structure, and even as I wade through popular reviews of such books, many of their readers *only* care about the world-building, so maybe the authors are writing to their readers; I don't know. I think a lot of mystery readers really only care about plot. The classic mystery's roots are embedded in Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who never age and never change. Not that I haven't torn through the entire Christie oeuvre; I have. But in general, such one note protagonists don't work for me. A number of books I've read recently just don't *go* anywhere. Oh, physically they do, as in lots happens, and I can't say they aren't well written, because a lot of them are, but the main character stands still while everything happens around them. It's not a personal journey, which, at heart, I think every book needs to have at its core.

Or if it doesn't, then it's a comment on the character's existential crisis (and I don't usually throw those sorts of terms around because, well, how pretentious, but here I really do mean this). Two writers who pull this off are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Frankly, most of the books I've read who have a moribund protagonist are *not* using this character as emblematic of modern existential angst, they are just being lazy, but indeed the whole point of Chandler and Hammett's novels *is* the existential centerlessness of Marlowe and Spade. So, yes, it can be done and done beautifully, but it must be part of the whole concept, not because, wow, the world building/plot so shiny, ultimately so hollow.

Time to re-read The Long Goodbye.

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