I’ve been having issues lately with my leisure reading. Part of it is certainly lack of time—instead of immersing myself in high adventure, slick passages, throbbing stalks and Love Conquering All (and by “all,” I mean 350 pages of limp conflict and the hero’s ability to think with things other than his fiddly bits), I’ve been drowning in the endless procedural minutiae of the federal courts, which is just about as fun as it sounds, and also arguing whether New Jersey barring Philadelphia from shipping its garbage into its borders is constitutional, which is, weirdly enough, a great deal more fun than it sounds. (The term “gerbil jurisprudence” actually came up while discussing that particular issue, which is one of the many reasons why I enjoy my Constitutional Law class immoderately.)
So yes, law school is fun and challenging and HOLY FUCKMONKEYS a lot of work. But besides the paucity of reading time, I find myself feeling very restless and impatient with the fiction I picked up in recent months. What has been galling me, in particular, has been how distressingly predictable a lot of the stories have been.
I’m not complaining about overarching structure here, nor about genre requirements. Knowing there’s going to be a Happily Ever After at the end of a romance does not, and likely will never bother me. Neither is knowing that the mystery will be solved at the end of a detective novel, or that the hero will survive mostly intact (if not necessarily mostly sane or healthy) at the end of a thriller.
What I’m talking about is my current ability to see plot twists and character fates writ large on the wall. It’s sort of the equivalent of having a very large, very loud person walking up to a tree, poorly concealing himself behind it and yelling that he’s not really there, and there’s really no way I can ever guess his location, oh no, because he’s a clever one, he is.
I don’t mind a certain amount of predictability in my fiction, but when it comes down to it, I am most truly delighted when I have my expectations quite thoroughly fucked with. It especially fills me with glee when an author take some sort of shorthand that we’ve all taken for granted and turns it upside down or just molests it in unspeakable ways.
For instance: I am sick unto death of picking up a certain sort of genre work, encountering a male character in the military who has a wife at home who’s just had a kid, and knowing just from those facts that he’s a) a Good Guy, and b) going to make it through the book in one piece. Just once, I’d love to have that guy die painfully and pointlessly, or have him reveal some sort of genuinely horrific perversity—the Goebbels, for example, genuinely loved their children and killed them out of loyalty to Hitler and to spare them what they thought was an untenable future. In short, I am sick of many things, and one the biggest peeves I have right now is how being a good guy means loving kids and puppies and kittens, and being a bad guy means being child molesters and puppy kickers and kitten killers. Not that I can imagine a good guy being physically abusive towards the weak and vulinerable, but one can dislike something without acting violently to that dislike, just as one can love something soft and cuddly while being a thoroughly evil bastard.
We’ve talked before about how there’s a tendency for this sort of shorthand to stand in for actual characterization. Is your hero dark-haired and large? Odds are high you have an alpha on your hands, whee! Is your heroine redheaded? Then please choose from either the Awkward or Feisty variants. If there’s a psychotic killer on the loose, just look for the one character who gets significant airtime in the book who a) doesn’t have a sense of humor and/or b) is not especially attractive. If you’re the Other Woman? Expect to be older than the heroine, being fond of orgasms for their own sake and considerably more savvy about make-up and nail polish.
Certain plot conventions also tend to have shorthand resolutions. Have an impotent heroine? The hero’s super sperm will save the day and bless her with many bouncy bairns, guaranteed. Identical twins? The True Lurve is the one who can recognize the difference with no apparent effort. Is the hero surly and jealous, and is there a more easy-going male secondary character who becomes a good friend of the heroine’s? There will almost definitely be a blow-up in which the hero will accuse the heroine of being a dirty, dirrrty hoor.
I don’t like the implications of some of these standards, but mostly, I get really goodamn tired of them when they crop up over and over and over again. That’s not to say that talented authors can’t create convincing, nuanced iterations of these archetypes, but it’s so good when somebody takes the norm and deliberately, thoroughly flouts it. For example, when the protagonists don’t want children, as in a couple of Jennifer Crusie books, I just about keel over with glee. Loving And Desperately Wanting Children is such a marker of being a Good Person, and enjoying fucking without some sort of greater Family and White Picket Fence agenda lurking in a background is usually reserved so much for the villain that characters who are about to violate those particular conventions tend to get automatic props from me, if only because they don’t seem to rely on what seem to be somewhat lazy character-building methods.
In short: right now, I want something to surprise me, and surprise me good. I don’t want to read a book and be able to predict the character and story arcs for just about every damn thing within the first 50 pages or so. The enjoyment I get from being right is a poor substitute for being delightfully surprised or having my jaded expectations thoroughly fucked with.