Counterfeit Paper: A Valuable Teaching Tool

          If I were to teach an upper-level college writing class, I’d use this book as the foundation for my semester.

          Just as secret service agents need real, expertly crafted, counterfeit bills removed from circulation and brought into their classroom to learn how to identify bad paper, every writer needs a counterfeit novel which made it into circulation and received praise.  Through deconstruction of this book, I could teach almost everything writers shouldn’t do.

          Hundreds of places the author could have ‘shown us’ with suspense, but instead ‘tells us’ with weak boring sentences.  For example, this is all we are told about our main character being attacked by a mountain lion:
  ...In the end there was bad luck, because Ish missed his shot and instead of killing a lion merely raked it across the shoulders, and it charged and mauled him before Ezra could get another shot home.  After that he walked with a little limp...
          And this, I believe, is the author’s failed attempt at suspense, which results in confusion (I’ve omitted nothing): question, he knew, that they had not yet faced, and now she brought it forward.
“That would be fine!” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, it would.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You mean you don’t like it for me?”
“Yes.  It’s dangerous.  There’d be no one else but me, and I wouldn’t be any use.”
“But you can read—all the books.”
“Books!” he laughed a little as he spoke.  “The Practical Midwife?"...
          The first sentence was probably supposed to read:  …and now he brought it forward…  But even without the typo, this is not only horrible dialogue (in a book desperately short on dialogue) as well as massive misuse of exclamation points (three times on every page minimum) but an example of the authors incessant self-censorship and avoidance of certain words and descriptions.  He avoids reference to human intercourse, birth, death, pain, anger, hatred, bigotry and bloodshed.  In a story detailing a handful of human survivors in 1949 California after a planet-wide plague—avoiding those topics (or glossing over them) becomes a herd of white dinosaurs in the room.

          There are thousands of poorly constructed sentences (like this one, which contains a large word-proximity hiccup):
…He began to temporize, just as he used to do when he said that he had a great deal of work to do and so buried himself in a book instead of going to a dance.
          Factual errors, which could have been avoided with a small amount of research, are prevalent (here are two):
…batteries with the acid not yet in them...they made the experiment of pouring the acid into a battery…put it into the station-wagon. It worked perfectly… (I guess in 1949, putting battery acid in the battery charged it too!)
…The clock was run, he knew, by electrical impulses which were ordinarily timed at sixty to the minute. Now they must be coming less often… (AC power is 60 pulses per second).
          This book contains a main character and dozens of secondary characters we never grow to care about.  On almost every page a situation unfolds which could be easily re-written to involve the reader in the action, infuse the character(s) with depth and emotion(s), or add suspense to the plot.  Instead, the story centers around an emotionally dead man who preaches to a bland cast of less-than-ordinary idiots about their failure to reach for a fraction of their potential, while he wallows in an uncomfortable rut and never lifts a finger to attain any of his own potential.

          Aspiring writers and educators should use this counterfeit paper, available for less than the price of a cup of coffee at used bookstores, as a valuable learning/teaching tool.  In a time when there are so many books filled with examples of great writing—it's nice to have something chock-full of such a concentrated and vast range of terrible, boring, writing to weight down the other end of the scale.

No comments: