Are there any standards at all by which a novel can legitimately be judged? Or is the entirety of literature truly a flat and featureless plain on which each reader, and each writer, can with equal justification embrace his or her own tastes and perceptions, free of the need to grapple with anything that is difficult or uncongenial?

This is not an easy question to answer. I’ve been reading The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth. It’s tough sledding — sometimes thought-provoking but sometimes baffling. In the opening chapters, he deconstructs in an erudite and painstaking way some of the claims that have been made over the last century about what an author must, or must not, do in order to produce a great work. His thesis, to the extent I’ve been able to grasp it, seems to be that a novel has to be judged by its own standards, and not by too narrow a set of pre-ordained criteria.

Reading what Henry James, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky said about literature is worthwhile, certainly. If their view of literature is too narrow, it’s still far better informed than my own. But what would they say about a truly bad novel? What are the failures that will drag a work of fiction down — that will make it unreadable? I don’t mean failures of grammar, though those are distressingly common. Given that the sentences are reasonably constructed, what is it that makes a bad novel cringeworthy?

I’m going to propose that, at the core, what makes a novel bad is that it fails to depict the human experience. It falsifies. This can be done in several ways, I’m sure. Maybe later I’ll make a list.

I spotted this red flag tonight, or perhaps it was a red cape to charge at, as I was using Amazon’s lovely Look Inside feature to take a quick glance at a self-published fantasy novel. I would never have thought to look at this particular novel, and would have been happier, I’m sure, but someone (perhaps the writer herself, using a pseudonymous account) was promoting it on a Facebook group where I sometimes hang out. The promotion was flagrantly inept, and that piqued my curiosity. Could the book itself possibly be as inept as the promotional effort?

Yes, it could.

In the opening pages of Tansey Morgan’s The Labyrinth Queen, just published today and already “a smash hit” if you believe the promotion, Cailyn is about to be auctioned by her father to the highest bidder. We don’t know how old she is, but apparently she’s of marriageable age.

This could be a gripping moment. But alas, the tone of the opening entirely fails to confront the fact that young Cailyn is about to be raped by a stranger, and knows it. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Cool, autumn air rippled across the open window, pushing a handful of brown leaves into my chambers. The cool gentle breeze caressed my arms, causing my skin to prickle all over. I shut the window to keep the chill from invading my room any further, but it had made its mark on my body already, aggravating the unease welling in the pit of my stomach.

Tonight was the night of the auction — my father was going to sell me to the highest bidder from a room full of nobles and dignitaries — and I wasn’t ready.

On the other side of the window, beyond the palace walls, the town of Swiftstorm was beginning to come alive for the night’s festivities. Chimneys puffed tresses of white smoke, lanterns all around were being lit by the townspeople, and small store owners were setting up strings of flowers, lanterns, and wreaths in anticipation of the guests that would be arriving from far away castles and cities. Above the black roofs, clouds pregnant with rain threatened to split open and pour themselves out onto the land; surely a blessing for farmers, eager for the final harvest of the year.

The prose in this passage is not good. Note the repetition of “cool” in the opening paragraph, the fact that the breeze is blowing across the window rather than into it, and the unlikely business of a cool breeze on Cailyn’s arms giving her goose bumps “all over.” (She is wearing a corset. Goose bumps under a corset are, shall we say, not very likely.) Note the author’s failure to understand how farming works: I’m pretty sure farmers don’t want it to rain just before a harvest. You really don’t want your grain crops sodden. Note how the viewpoint leaves Cailyn in the third paragraph to tell the reader things she can’t possibly see.

Further on, we’ll learn that Cailyn’s father is the king of Swiftstorm. It’s not a nation, not even a city — he’s the king of a town. And Cailyn is getting dressed for the auction in a lovely gown, but there are no servants to help her. A princess with no servants?

Setting all that aside, however, the real failure of this opening is that the imagery is overwhelmingly positive. We have “gentle,” “caress,” “come alive,” “festivities,” “puffed tresses,” “strings of flowers,” “wreaths,” “pregnant” (!), “blessing,” and “eager.” Yet Cailyn is about to be sold by her father to a stranger, after which, we can be fairly certain, she will be raped.

And what is her reaction? “I wasn’t ready.” This is not ironic understatement. It’s a thousand-watt beacon shining down on the fact that Tansey Morgan is failing to depict Cailyn’s real emotional experience.

Morgan seems to want to have it both ways. She wants a dramatic, suspenseful opening that will draw the reader into the story, but she also wants to write a fluffy romance suitable for readers who are probably young and have a limited range of interests and experiences. As a result, the real emotional impact of being sold and raped is nowhere to be found.

Cailyn does seem to be not quite convinced about the whole business. She has “unease” in her tummy. But the unease is plainly less important to the author than the fluffy teen romance angle. Being raped is being portrayed as a romantic adventure, complete with corsets.

Think I’m overreacting? Here’s the description of our imperiled heroine:

I stepped up to the long mirror and inspected myself. I was the tallest sibling, taller than my sisters. Back [sic] hair fell around my shoulders like a cascade of darkness itself, perfectly framing my sharp, elfin features, almond shaped eyes, and my supple, supple lips; all qualities I didn’t feel deserving of.

Goes to show, you can’t trust spell-check. Her back hair is falling (upward?) around her shoulders and, in the process, framing her facial features. Is her face on her shoulder? And those supple, supple lips! She doesn’t think she deserves them, but I’m here to tell you, those supple lips are going to come in handy before long, one way or another.

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