Pitt the Pits

The Los Angeles Times today published a scathing review of the BLACK WIND, the latest Dirk Pitt novel. 

But Cussler’s prose is uniformly and relentlessly awful. Not just in the occasional howler ("You have an annoying proclivity for survival, Mr. Pitt, which is exceeded only by your irritating penchant for intrusion"), but sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it’s hurried, sloppy, ungrammatical, clichéd.

We finish "Black Wind" with profound relief — that the world has been saved once again, and that we don’t have to read more.

I haven’t read a Dirk Pitt novel in years, but the following story point is enough to keep me from ever reading this one:

Cussler, assisted by his real son Dirk, is a good mechanical plotter. Every few chapters, he puts the Pitts or other good guys in seemingly hopeless predicaments — shot out of the sky in a helicopter, trapped in deep-sea wreckage with air running out, imprisoned in a sinking ship, tied to a platform under a rocket about to be launched — and dares us to guess how they’ll escape. Once, for the fun of it, he cheats. Dirk Junior and Summer, swimming a five-mile-wide river, chased by thugs in a speedboat, are rescued by a restored Chinese junk piloted by … Clive Cussler himself.

I hate it when real-life authors literally insert themselves into their fictional stories as characters… it’s very, very rare when an author can actually pull it off without making the reader cringe (I understand Stephen King manages to make it work in his latest book).

But this review also points out a pet peeve of mine… the rampant use of cliches in bestselling novels. Aren’t editors editing any more? I found the following cliches on just one page of a recent, bestselling thriller:

  1. Let’s rock and roll.
  2. They had all the bells and whistles.
  3. He took one look at her and wanted to head for the hills.
  4. We got down to the nitty-gritty.
  5. Close but no cigar.
  6. He entered the picture and swept me off my feet. He was my knight in shining armor.

How could any author write that last line, in particular, and not hit the delete key? One writer I know defends using cliches like those above by arguing "That’s how people talk."

To me, it’s just bad writing… and more and more of the most successful writers in the mystery-suspense field are doing it and that saddens me, particularly when it’s one of my favorite authors. Perhaps its the pressure of turning out a book a year that’s making them sloppy… or perhaps it’s hubris, getting so big they think they’re "beyond" editing any more. I don’t know. What’s your take?

6 thoughts on “Pitt the Pits”

  1. I suppose it depends on where and how often they’re used. “Close but no cigar” and “All the bells and whistles” are pretty much invisible shorthand. On the other hand, I’m convinced “Let’s rock and roll” jumped the shark after STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. James Cromwell is the last living person to be able to get away with that, and only because it was in a certain contact. (With Steppenwolf about to blare out of the cockpit speakers, there’s no other possible line.)
    And whoever wrote that last line should be shot.
    OTOH, Les Roberts and Victor Gischler deliberately write bad lines of prose. The beginning of CLEVELAND LOCAL has Milan Jacovich musing that spring cold on Lake Erie is “as urgent and as palpable as the throbbing of an infected hangnail.” With a WTF moment like that, you almost have to read on. (And the book is one of Roberts’ best, btw.)
    And finally, sometimes complaining about the cliche becomes an even bigger cliche. I have reserved the right to bitch slap the next person who whines about the phrase “at the end of the day.” This includes Geroge Carlin, who’s up to a 2×4 to the head now. At the end of the day, no one cares if anyone’s offended by “at the end of the day.”

  2. I think all the reasons you mention have led to bad writing. If more people read good writing, they’d notice the difference. Unfortunately, a large portion of the culture only notices the bestsellers.
    Since fiction is about pivotal moments, I think of most characters’ dialogue as what we wish we would’ve said in those crucial moments. Some dialogue is mundane, of course, but too much of the ordinary and you risk boring the reader.

  3. It was a generalization I didn’t catch in time, Bill. I’ve often heard, “How many books has s/he sold? How much money does s/he make?” when I tell people a writer is good.
    Anyway, here’s my list of bestsellers who don’t represent the best writing out there: Tom Clancy, Nelson DeMille, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, recent Robert Parker, Anne Rice.

  4. As a book reviewer of limited standing I’m constantly astounded by what the major publishers send me in the mail. Gerald, you mentioned Evanovich; Metro Girl is written almost as badly as Bergdorf Blondes. Hour Gane by David Baldacci was laughoutloudfunny but not intentionally. The Kellerman’s Double Homicide reads like a brochure from a real estate company. Robert Parker is on autopilot. I’m utterly baffled by Yiddish With Dick and Jane, but, at least, it’s intended to be a laugh. Thankfully there’s stuff from Kevin Wignall, Robert Ferrigno, Jum Fusilli, Denise Mina, Karin Slaughter and Gregg Hurwitz, to name a few, or I’d be carried off the field on a stretcher.

  5. I’ve decided there are two types of crime fiction:
    the first is meant for those who hardly ever read books, let alone genre. The writing ranges from all right to sucking badly.
    The second type is meant for those who read widely and do not suffer fools gladly. Generally, the quality is better.
    Sometimes you get a fluke book that crosses both camps, and those are the ones, IMO, that will be remembered the most in later years.
    As crazy phenomenally successful as THE DA VINCI CODE was, do we honestly think it’ll be remembered in 50 years except as “that bestselling book?” It’s hard to predict which books will be around for posterity, but somehow, I doubt that’s one of them, at least from a content standpoint. As for the marketing and the success, there *has* to be a book all about that…


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