I don't know if I hadn't ought to teach novel writing because I discover so many critical issues in the novels that I read. I understand that we read for various reasons and different levels of attention. Still, I think I can make valid points.
I'm not even speaking of such ambitious projects as The Great American Novel (which I'm satisfied that Melville wrote more than a century and a half ago, tho the concept seems still to be alive), but just functional novels that you can wrap some brain cells around. And it's not like I'm such a perspicacious reader. Hand me an Agatha Christie story that I have already read, and I will still need to wait till the denouement for Poirot to meticulously explain who killed Lord Fluffernutter. That has more to do with my ability to work puzzles than my insight into novels. No, really!!! I'm quite the critical juggernaut regarding works of fiction. BTW, fiction is the same as poetry, only we call it fiction. Something about how language transfers to the brain...
Anyway, my current test case is The Hunt Club by John Lescroart (never heard of him before picking up this book). By page 121 (out of 405), we've got a murder, and a protagonist. More like two protagonists, but maybe plot turns and red herrings will settle things more clearly.
The book, and presumably the story, begins in 1992. Wyatt Hunt works for Child Protection Service. That's an unusual occupation for someone we expect to solve a murder mystery. Sensitively written, too. I thought this was quite intriguing. It's a bit of a red herring, as it happens.
Jump four years forward, Hunt manages to remove some children from a bad home scene. In the course of which, he meets up with a long lost old friend, who seems to be the second protagonist, Devin Juhle. Juhle is a cop.
Hunt loses his job by not playing along with his corrupt boss. He and Juhle and Hunt's platonic lawyer girlfriend contrive to bring the boss down. The boss was collecting worker's comp for a fake injury. This caper—they catch the supposed invalid at physical labour—was fun so Hunt decides to become a private eye. Not my first self-query here as to where this all heads.
This brings us to chapter five and the present day. That's a lengthy set up. Hunt has a successful agency with several employees including the now adult children he saved early on. A cluttered scene introduces the “Hunt Club”, friends and associates of the agency. Note how “Hunt Club” has two meanings. It would make a great title for a book.
Most of the main characters sit in on this scene, set at a restaurant, where the repartee flies. Actors, with facial nuances, vocal intonation, and such, could probably say these lines with some liveliness and conviction, but this jazzy dialogue just seems forced to me as I read it, and not as funny as somebody thinks it is. Maybe S. J. Perelman could come in for a rewrite.
I have here identified one problem pertaining to novelists, the belief that what they heard in their head transferred to the page. Okay, all writers, including the one at the keyboard now, wrestle with that one. This scene proposes, I gather, to introduce many of the players in the story. As I discover, these characters appear in most of Lescroart's books, with varying levels of importance. The low-grade snarkiness of everyone's dialogue in this scene does little to help bring these characters to life. Furthermore, Lescroart confusingly unleashes quite a few characters here. I'm having trouble keeping track of them. In this crowd, they don't distinguish themselves. Lescroartt assumes that you've already met these characters in other of his books.
New scene. A young waitress meets a federal judge at her restaurant and eventually they have an affair. They further eventually are found by the judge's wife at the judge's home, shot to death. Saying the wife found them should not suggest that she didn't shoot them herself. That's still to be determined.
A guest at the frothy restaurant scene is a lawyer who appears on a Court TV-like show. She gets sick drunk at the restaurant, ending with her slapping the show's producer who accompanied her to this gathering. Hunt gentlemanly brings her home.
Next day, when she's sober, she makes the world's best spaghetti carbonara (before or after, I forget which, the de rigueur rumpty bumpty). This is a chance for the author to show off, and it gets a bit weird. Lescroart describes her process in detail, as if it were some culinary miracle. You must know the miracle as well as I do: fry bacon, boil spaghetti, smush some eggs, grate cheese, mix together. There's room for genius there, I suppose, but I am sure that I had basic ability in those skills by age eleven. Andrea, the character, calls it her patented recipe. The author's just showing off.
There, I have identified a second problem with novelists: they can find themselves showing off. Scheming to make an impression, that is. Lescroart does some name-checking, for instance. I think Ian Fleming may have invented this sort of thing, to illustrate James Bond's hipness. At any rate, there's some product placement here: Jordan cabernet, Hendricks gin. Doing so seems more about the author than the character.
Presumably, Lescroart knows his San Francisco. I don't have a San Francisco, but I can see enjoying the references if I did. Local settings have a tingle, no doubt.
Juhle, until further notice, seems to have a happy marriage. Hunt lost his wife and child in childbirth. One of those looming pasts to bring up at odd moments in the storytelling. This sort of thing savours of two-bit pop psychology. That's right, not just plain pop psychology, I wrote two-bit. Too neat, and really just superfluous.
I really liked the essentially unneeded beginning of the book with Hunt as child protection agent. The story has devolved to police and lawyer procedural. Early on, I thought maybe there might be a dark side to Hunt and/or Juhle but now I realize that they are two poles in the investigation, assuming investigations have poles, and basically two pals of the author, both of which points I here do assert. Juhle takes the by-the-book route while Hunt can be loose with the rules.
What the story has come down to, then, is a lot of scene changes that instigate a lot of questions. Not very lifelike, if that's a goal, and quite stodgy in its narrative movement. We're just rooting for the good guys, at this point. Come on, denouement!
Which bring the question: What does Dear Reader want from a novel? Is it just catching the perp, in this case, and in general, the feelgood plot? I think everyone responds positively to the notion of good or at least okay endings for the protagonists. Frodo destroyed the Ring, tho with a grey tinge to the happily ever after. Etc. Justice served.
I like that shit as much as anyone, but I also like the journey . Or I should say, I want to. (Tolkien managed his journey with intricate depth: it can happen!) I don't want to notice the writer's art so much. I don't want to realize that characters are machines, automatons acting out the writer's schemes. I do notice that stuff. The stuff between the periods interests me. I regard the scheming overlay as distraction.
Keats noted it two centuries ago, the Egotistical Sublime. The author gets in the way of the words. Blake noted it, the Authors are in Heaven (and the corollary implication that the author is on earth, mere earth). Author as essential hero. I say no. The author is a sieve, here to collect some interesting bits.
The lift of novels, according to me, is not from plot development and character realization but in the telling language. Yes, novels that go the way they should offer a pleasing sensation. I read (am reading) that way now. The real scene of interest, however, occurs in the sentences beckoning meaning. Language is poetry when we get to that point, even in novels. Otherwise, a novel becomes just more messages from Our Sponsor.
I'm still reading The Hunt Club so I can give nothing away. It wouldn't matter if I could. It represents a gesture towards completion that doesn't really apply to anyone. It is the sort of book, finally, that you'd like, if you like that sort of stuff. That's not a condemnation, but it does suggest the insular park we are content to stroll in.