We’re told that bad writing can knock a reader out of the text, spoiling the flow of a story. But I realised this week that good writing, if it’s not consistent, can do the same thing.
I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. As you’d expect, it’s really rather good, with an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and flowing prose. But there were a couple of points early on when that prose took a strongly Pratchett turn, where his authorial voice took over for a paragraph, and it jolted me right out of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Terry Pratchett. I have nearly all his books, even the couple of sci-fi ones he did before the Discworld. I enjoy his whimsical authorial voice – one of the most distinctive in modern writing. But that’s the problem, it’s very distinctive. When you’re reading a book that’s just by Pratchett, that voice is there the whole time, its wit and wonder woven through the story. It makes you more aware of the author on your shoulder, pointing out the absurdities of the world, but that’s part of the ride.
Most of the prose in The Long Earth is more transparent. It’s well written in the way that makes you forget it’s there, letting you be completely absorbed by the story. So when I hit a Pratchettism, even an excellent one, the sudden authorial presence comes as a shock, and a reminder that, to point out the obvious, someone wrote this.
It’s the same problem I had with one of the stories in Joumana Haddad’s Madinah collection. Except there the author made himself so prominent, and there was so little story, that it was just a dozen pages of irredeemable annoyance. At least in The Long Earth it’s a piece of something good that, by being unexpected, unfortunately disrupts the flow of the other good stuff.
I’m still loving The Long Earth, but we often learn from flaws. I guess my take-away from this is to aim for consistency. Also to go back and read some more Pratchett, because wow but Pyramids was awesome.
Has anyone else come across examples of this? Are there other authors where you’re very aware of their distinctive voice? What effect does that have on your reading experience? And am I right about Pyramids or what? Share some thoughts below – I know my opinion, I want to hear yours.