On Sloppy Writing: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”
Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”, published in 2009 and “The Magician King”, published two years later, are best-sellers and critically acclaimed. Grossman is an alumnus of Harvard and Yale. He’s a senior writer and book critic for TIME. With all those credentials, it’s natural to expect that his writing would be nothing short of virtuosic. The first hundred pages of “The Magicians” left me unimpressed.
Grossman has a wealth of talents. He has well developed story-telling muscles and a powerful facility for Language. However, there is so much sloppiness early in the novel that I can’t help but wonder what he has learnt, if anything, from being a book critic on a stage as big as TIME.
Cliches, weak metaphors and adverbs
Cliches are metaphors that have been overused to the extent that they have lost their capacity to communicate anything. They have lost that power because they have long been separated from their original meaning. When I say that I avoid peanuts “like the plague”, it’s obvious what I mean but using it doesn’t really emphasise the extent to which I avoid peanuts. The reason is that The Great Plague (1665–1666) is not something anyone alive can relate to. The emphasis is muted.
Weak imagery is related to cliches in every way except that an image might be somewhat novel or uncommon. But poorly chosen, an image is dishonest: It may not be plausible that a character would describe something in that way (e.g. If an Eskimo describes an unnatural Arctic heat as being “as dry as the savanna”) or it may be that the image chosen is one that makes a reality more abstract rather than concretising it. A bad image increases the intellectual distance between the reality of the book and the reality of the reader. At its worst, a poorly chosen image signifies nothing. A well chosen metaphor, as James Wood reminded us should make one think, “I have never thought of it that way, but that is how it is.”
Lev Grossman has a fondness for both cliche and weak imagery. Examples are in order:
Quentin slow-motion walked into the den. (page 11)
His stomach was a suitable round hump, his hair a crazy Einstein half-noggin. (12)
“He must have been a drinker” She made a drinky-drink gesture. (13)
The weight of them was dragging him back down the gravity-well of the ordinary world. (16)
With its ownership a black-hole of legal ambiguity it had been taken over years ago… (17)
He felt like an overdressed English explorer trying to impress a skeptical tropical native. (20)
If this is a hallucination, he thought, it’s pretty damn hi-res. (23) (It is precisely the nature of hallucinations that they are indistinguishable from reality. In that sense they are always “hi-res”.)
There is no way to study for [this examination], though it would be equally true to say that you have been preparing for it your whole lives. (26) (Not an image but a cliche of ideas. In movies and pulp fiction, there is a decisive moment before the hero is launched into a new life. He/She is always told some variant of “you’ve been waiting for this moment your whole life.”)
Everything snapped into very slow, slow motion… (39) (Grossman loves to depict a scene by referring to movie tropes or other cultural objects rather than doing the heavy lifting himself. A moment before a punch is “a freeze frame moment”; a chequered garden is “an Alice in Wonderland garden”; at the end of a book, “Fin” is written in writing that is, “like an old movie”.)
The butler arrived with a tray crowded with covered dishes, which he busily uncovered, like a room-service waiter. (45)
…a fat sheaf of closely handwritten paper that looked like a treaty between two eighteenth century nation-states. (48)
…a massive stone demonstration table that had been scorched, scratched, scarred and scathed within an inch of its life. (60) (A stone table was never living. The metaphor means nothing.)
His mind buzzed with a caffeine-cocaine fizz. (68) (The protagonist, a teenager who has never even had a cigarette somehow knows what a hit of cocaine feels like?)
All this Quentin picked up with the speed of a sailor cast away on a savage foreign continent, who has no choice but to learn the local language as rapidly as possible or be devoured by those who speak it. (70)
He was experimenting cautiously with the idea of being happy, dipping an uncertain toe into those intoxicatingly carbonated waters. (50)
I was willing to consider that this is an early Grossman novel (he’s written two others of allegedly dubious quality) and that his writing improves in later novels but in The Magician King we learn about Julia that, “If all else failed she had the power of the bathroom handjob, and she wielded it with an iron fist.” * A careless sentence that is pure nonesense. One can almost imagine the author nudging the reader and giggling while shouting, “Get it? Get it? Hand job. Iron fist. Get it!”
It was only until I read The Magician that I realised why editors ask writers to cut down on adverbs especially those with the suffix “ly”. They are a convenient but lazy short-cut to description (and if you use them in your draft hoping to correct them later, you never will). What makes them evil is that they force sentences into the simplistic pattern that is typical of the output of high-school creative writing classes. In The Magician Quentin looked cautiously back, the bird chirped languidly, he thought lucidly, they attempt magic under “smotheringly close supervision”, the air was thickly charged with charms, she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.
Obviously adverbs aren’t inherently bad but the moment they are used as the machinery by which significant details are described, the author is exposing his endless capacity for sloppy writing. It is such patterns that lead to sentences completely devoid of evocative power such as: “The panes of glass were wiggly with age.” (36)
Adverbs work as intensifiers. They exaggerate whatever they modify. They have been called the mark of a writer lacking confidence in his writing style, and so when Grossman writes, “It was sunny but terrifyingly cold, and the insides of the tall, panelled windows were permanently iced over” we can only wonder why “terrifyingly” is in that sentence when the extent of the cold is obvious by the frigid state of the windows.
Then there are the minor Americanisms (and colloquialisms) which grate on me no end. Phrases such as: “His ass hurt” (It’s “arse” damn it. An ass is a donkey/mule.), “the sword waggled in place”, “he scooched his chair forward”. If someone in later pages scrunches her face is disgust, I’ll summarily incinerate the book. I won’t even comment on the preponderance of clumsy compound adjectives (nothing galls me more).
I’ve read but a quarter of the book and already the same sloppiness Grossman shows with words is being exposed in the details of his mythology as well. When Quentin arrives at the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, we discover that “as it turned out there were ninety-nine other students enrolled at Brakebills divided into five classes.” (59) Later, while having dinner we are told that, “oddly enough there were only ten Fourth Years, half the usual number and nobody would explain why.” (70) Then, when Quentin and two others are offered a promotion to the next class, he thinks, “He had a point. It was an immutable fact of life at Brakebills that there were always twenty students per class, no more, no fewer.” (73)
Perhaps this numerical discrepancy will be solved later and with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, I expect it shall but even so, if ten students are missing then how are there a hundred enrolled students? And if those ten students are missing then why do Quentin and his friends wonder how space will be made for them in the class to which they will be advanced? Isn’t it obvious? Unless the rule isn’t immutable in which case, what is the point of repeating that it is?
I was also bothered by the jejune fantasy fulfilment that is prevalent early in the book. When Quentin runs into a paramedic, who happens to be his first encounter with someone directly associated with the magical world, “the woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty…unreasonably lovely.” So we have this hot girl in this crime scene and at this moment you can almost guess the rest. She’s probably in six inch heels. When she speaks, he notes that, “by her accent, she was British.” Why, of course.
This woman is incongruous with the scene and his reality (he says as much) because she is sexy. She is the one who gives him his letter that then leads him to Brakebills and more magical pedagogy. His entry to the world is through a beautiful woman.
The fantasy fulfilment mania continues because his private tutor, a female lecturer, Professor Sunderland is “a pretty young woman…she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy” and he instantly has a “ferocious crush” on her and “the radiant slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts.”
The Hermione of the class is diminutive, shy and patently cute, so much so that he feels he has to protect her. The girl, Julian, whom he left in the real world, was equally lusty.
How much more juvenile can the story get? Is it that the only women who register as significant are those who are attractive? Where is the sense of proportionality and realism in all this? A land where all the girls are sexy, or else unseen extras on the set. Really?
It was Neil Gaiman, I believe, who said that the reason that witches perform magic naked is that the stories about witches are written by men.
Words, words, words
Lev Grossman simply doesn’t love sentences or appreciate words. Sometimes he shows genuine insight and puts forth a metaphor that rings true and original. But all too often, his selection of words seems arbitrary, rushed and impatient as though he couldn’t take the time to read each sentence and make sure that each word chosen was as close to being perfect word as his abilities would allow. Perhaps its due to his long stint as a journalist.
In a review of James Wood’s “How Fiction Works”, Grossman says, “We dutifully make the rounds of narration, dialogue and so on, topics that inspire in even the most passionate reader a special, pure kind of boredom.” * His whole analysis is tendentious; he feels the book has little to offer a reader. But Wood’s work isn’t really for the Reader but for the Writer. In the preface Wood explains, “I hope that this book…asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” How Fiction Works is an eminently practical guide for the aspiring writer.
Instead, Grossman concludes the review by saying, “The great pleasure of Wood’s book lies in the examples, not the points they prove, and the lessons lie in watching him read, not think.”
It’s a pity because Grossman could have gone much further with The Magicians had he paid attention to his own thinking and not just the forward movement of his pen. All the lessons he needed were in Wood’s book but both his review and The Magicians are a vehement rejection of every single one of Wood’s valuable points. What a tragedy.