Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

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11 comments

  1. A completely acceptable reason to stop reading a book. I’ve also stopped because of what I call “flowery” writing. I know some people like it, but I usually don’t. Words matter.
    You might not want to say, but now I’m curious to know what book you’re talking about?
    (I hate the word utilize!)

  2. Naomi, I’ll tell you, but you have to tell me a couple of “flowery” titles you stopped reading. I’m just very curious how we all react to language. The book was Sweetbitter. So many people have raved about it! There were other things that bothered me, but I didn’t want to pile it on so I didn’t list them. To me it just felt like the author was trying too hard. Not my book.

  3. I very nearly abandoned a book last week because it was relentlessly violent, but I hung in there because I love the author’s other works so much (John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James.) One thing that author’s do sometimes that grates on my nerves and makes me want to ditch a book is go into too much detail about clothing, meals, etc. I don’t need the full menu or a report on what someone wore every day.

    It’s funny, when I read your review, I thought it might be about Sweetbitter! Ha ha! I don’t even remember that particular phrase standing out at me; my eyes glossed over it probably. I did really like that book, but it was almost in spite of myself – I could feel how someone would be annoyed with the character and the situations she got herself into.

  4. Yes, I’ve done this so many times. I bought a book at Christmas I quickly gave to the friend I was staying with because it irritated me so much. I would have given up on that book too, because ‘masticating with eyes’ is poor descriptive language. I’d equate it to me having a rant, rather than something I want to read as a narrative description.

  5. Oh, that’s interesting! You`re right – most of the reviews I’ve seen have been pretty gushy.
    Flowery? Adriana Trigiani and a local favourite around here – Beatrice MacNeil. To be fair, I’ve only read one book from each of them, so maybe it was just bad luck?

  6. Laila, the violence thing would get me, too. And that’s funny about the food and clothing…the author who comes directly to mind for me with that one is Jodi Picoult. There’s a big difference between details that lend to characterization, and details that are just (unnecessary) details. I really have no desire to beat up on the author of Sweetbitter, which is why I didn’t want to call it out in the post. It just felt so overwritten in a way that for me distracted from anything else. Oh well.. plenty of other books out there!

  7. Alice, I only read 12 pages, and there were many examples of poor descriptive language. It’s funny because the book I am reading now is sort of fantastical and could really lend itself to all kinds of overwriting, but instead the author uses straightforward narrative to describe the narrator’s fantasy. It works so well! (Samantha Hunt’s debut novel, The Seas…she wrote Mr. Splitfoot, which was also amazing.)

  8. Naomi, I think Beatrice MacNeil’s titles alone would keep me away. Where White Horses Gallop? Um, no. Then again, I long resisted reading one of my mom’s favorite books, Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith, because I could not get over the title, and the book turned out to be wonderful, so there you go.

    I am not Sweetbitter’s audience. To me, the little bit I read came off as pseudo-intellectual. It’s the same trouble I have with Lena Dunham and Girls, to be honest. She confuses being complicated with being complex. Complicated is angsty and immature. Complex is deep and multi-faceted. I don’t think it’s a Millennial thing, because people with immature views of the world have long confused these things!

  9. I just cracked up because I also started this book and was bothered by this same exact sentence. It wasn’t the reason I put the book down, but it was at least a contributing factor. And yes, I’ve absolutely put books down because they didn’t ring true. I love a striking narrative voice and an exciting writing style, but authors can (and often do) get too cute with it.

  10. Jenny, oh, so why did you put it down? So curious! I too love a striking narrative voice and an exciting writing style, and even if I am not quite the audience for a book, I’ll willingly follow that voice through to the end. The voice in Sweetbitter felt sort of reheated to me, someone trying something on. I don’t know why I keep coming back to Girls, but that’s what it makes me think of…Girls was original enough but also kind of meh, if that’s possible.

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