Monday, May 24, 2010

Snobs, Bums, and Liars: Part One

Roxy the cat wasn't the only creature dozing her days away last week. Cut down in my tracks by a nasty case of the stomach flu (seeing as how I can only guess as to what kind of creepy little bug invaded my digested tract, I figure that's as good a name as any for what ailed me), I spent a whole lot of time curled up either in bed or on the couch, sometimes sleeping, most of the time reading.

I've been on a Terry Pratchett jag lately, totally immersed in the doings of Discworld and its inhabitants. Pratchett's latest, Unseen Academicals, was so satisfyingly funny that it almost made me forget why I was lolling about on the couch with a heating pad on my stomach. I finished it way too quickly, though, and found myself staring at the bookshelf, trying to decide what to read next. I generally have a non-fiction book going at the same time I'm reading fiction, but given the condition of my stomach, I didn't feel up to tackling chapter six of Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce. Instead, I turned to three mysteries I'd recently bought but still hadn't read. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th books in a series I'd begun reading last year, the novels were pleasantly cozy in structure while well plotted and nicely paced. None of the three disappointed me, but I did find myself occasionally grinding my teeth in frustration at the author's smug, if not downright snobbish, attitude towards those of us who don't share her Southern heritage.

Now, I've enjoyed many a mystery novel set in the South. Anne George's Southern Sisters' series was a joy to read, mainly because the main characters were genuinely real; with their individual mannerisms, eccentricities, and foibles, the two women could have been anyone's sisters. Carolyn Haines' Bones series is just as delightful because, again, it's easy to emotionally connect with Sarah Booth Delaney and the other series characters.

Like George did with her novels, Carolyn Haines lets her affection for the South show in her writing. Neither Haines nor George, though, ever resort to belittling or stereotypical descriptions of non-Southerners to prove that their region of the country is better than all others.

Unlike George and Haines, the author of the three books I was reading seemed to take real pleasure in portraying Northerners as rude loudmouthed Yankees who stupidly failed to understand that the Civil War was less about slavery and more about the loss of individual Southerners' rights. As a Midwesterner and an avid student of history, I found the author's attitude offensive, and I was put off by the internal dialogue of her main character when it repeatedly mirrored such snobbishness.

Have you ever read a book where the author seemed compelled to continually flex his or her "superiority complex" muscles? Did you put up with it for the sake of the story, or did you find yourself hurling the book into a convenient garbage can while forever banishing the author from your TBR list? Let me know how you handled such an issue. I'd be interested to hear your story.

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11 comments:

  1. This happens to me all the time. I find it a lot in legal thrillers and in mainstream books. I get character development and I understand that certain characters have definite motivation for what they say and do, but I agree that it is very annoying when the author is blatantly bitch slapping the reader who does not agree.

    Karen
    http://klsyed.com

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  2. Fantasy has quite a lot of it. It's a good medium for bringing up some very deep topics, with the unpleasant side effect that many authors feel allowed to have a character define 'the meaning of life' as if it were gospel, or go on every fifth chapter about why humans are so stupid, etc.

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  3. Well, I tend to have an issue with French in books. I haven't seen it as much lately, but for a while, there were French phrases, untranslated, as if we all knew French. I have to say, when the author has a superior attitude, I won't throw away the book, but I'll probably never pick up the author again.

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  4. I read a book recently where the protagonist was morally self-righteous. This particular character equated piety with virtue (an iffy equation in my experience) and deemed people who didn't belong to X religion as morally unsound. This really bothered me, being not a member of X, but feeling usually pretty moral.

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  5. Marc,you're the fantasy expert here, so I'll believe what you say. I have to recommend Terry Pratchett for all fantasy lovers. He's tongue-in-cheek satirical about many things in life, but he's not snobbish or smug, which is probably why he's sold millions and millions of books!

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  6. Lesa, I'm with you when it comes to all those untranslated French phrases. Gimme a break already! We're not all French masters, nor do we want to be!

    And Jenny, I'm right there with you when it comes to religious one-upmanship in books. I read a mystery where the protagonist was a Jewish ex-con ex-lawyer who'd spent time in jail for defrauding his company of some big bucks. He'd also lost his wife because he'd been sleeping around with several women. Nevertheless, he was portrayed as the good guy because he went to temple every day and said the prayers for the dead. The bad guys were all Irish or Italian politicians (read Christian/Catholic)and really morally depraved. It was pretty obvious that the author had a bigotry problem and was taking out his dislike for Christians in his writing.

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  7. I know just what y'all are talking about. It seems nowadays that EVERY female character has to be all big-time Assertive and Strong and Never Weak or else critique groups will yell, "We hate her! Make her strong!" But sometimes a character (just like a real person) will start the story having a flaw and will "grow up" or "wise up" and figure out how to deal with her weaknesses. I think this makes characters so much more appealing! The "MARY SUE SUPERWOMAN" stuff is very condescending to the reader who reads between the lines--"I the author am so much more cool and so much wiser than YOU are"--and it turns me off.

    The most egregious example of this is when they make the FAT PEOPLE (oh HORRORS) (I mean, "quel horreur!") have these slobby traits, or always be chomping down on bagels and dougnuts, or whatever. Fat is the final frontier of prejudice. But I hate it when all the cliches are pulled out and a fat character is used to show people laziness or flaws in character. Selma Eichler used to have a mystery series starring a plus-sized detective, and although the books weren't Pulitzer material but light reading, I loved them because her heroine did not apologize for her size and didn't talk about how she ought to diet and how SHAMED she should be. (The fat-shaming culture of today has made people absolutely nuts about what is actually a predisposition that one has to fight the best one can . . . and not everyone has a fast metabolism or tiny bone structure.) It was positively refreshing. (She didn't advocate being fat or not working out or not being healthy--she just acknowledged that the character can be the heroine and still look like Roseanne did when she had her sitcom.)

    On a different note, my current mystery series pays homage to the wonderful, funny Anne George "Southern Sisters" series, but my sisters are in their thirties. I get notes telling me that the writing is wonderful and that the characters are charming, but that "ultimately I didn't love it enough." If anyone out there would be interested in reading a chapter or two and telling me what you think (for free!), please let me know by commenting here or at shalanna.livejournal.com to tell me you'd like to see for yourself. I'd really appreciate any suggestions. . . .

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  8. Good post.

    On a related note, it bugs me when TV writers get their characters to spout snide political remarks.

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  9. Good post.

    I may finish the book but it would also finish the author.
    Lately I've 'left' some highly recommended authors because for some reason they felt the successful woman is hard-nosed, foul mouthed (more really foul language in the first chapter than regular words!), a secret alcoholic and sloppy. -- No, I didn't get beyond the first chapter because the language was detracting.
    Maribeth
    Giggles and Guns

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  10. Carola Dunn had problems posting her comments here. She wrote to me privately and had this to say about the blog: "Almost all books written in the 1920s/30s (of which I read a lot), not to mention earlier, are full of snobbery. I put up with it because of interest in the period, as long as the characters and plot make up for it.Writing mysteries set in the 1920s, I have to steer a careful course between showing the attitudes of the times and putting off modern readers."

    Carola's remarks highlight a mistake I made when I wrote this blog: I failed to mention -- but should have -- that the author in question was writing in the first person, which is the main reason why I took exception to what I perceived as her snobbishness.

    An author can easily distance herself from the attitudes of her characters when she's writing in the third person. She can portray her character as being a snob without indicating to the reader that she herself is one. That's not so easy to do, though, when the author writes something like "I rolled my eyes at the stupidity of the Yankee tourist who thought the Civil War was all about slavery." It's the use of the first person narrative that changes everything for me, especially when remarks similar to the one above are repeated throughout the story .

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  11. Thanks to Maribeth, Jon, and Shalanna for sharing their thoughts on what turns them off to certain novels and, in Jon's case, to certain TV shows.

    It just goes to show, it's not easy to become a financially secure writer; unlike a lot of mid-list authors, those who pen bestsellers generally don't offend anyone with their writing!:)

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