When Good Authors Write Bad Sentences

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel"
Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel" (via Vimooz.com)

A 5-hour plane ride with a two-and-a-half-year-old, if you’ve never tried it, is kind of an Olympics-level parenting event, and I’m still recovering. So forgive me if this post lacks the normal verve and panache due to mental and physical exhaustion.

The orgy of cultural consumption has continued unabated since my last post. I read The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta, a middle grade novel called When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage and also saw the movie Coco Before Chanel. Phew!

So, I think Tom Perotta is well on his way to becoming a favorite author for me.  The Abstinence Teacher is about a high school female sex ed teacher forced to teach an abstinence-only curriculum and a recovering drug addict who’s been saved by his conversation to evangelical Christianity. It’s a great story with a lot of compassion, heart, and humor. You get the sense Perotta is coming from a secular point of view, but in this novel wanted to experiment with putting himself in the shoes of someone who thinks in a way that’s entirely opposite to his worldview. This strikes me as an extremely worthwhile thing to do, both as a writer and as a human being.

The book did have a few sentences near the beginning, though, that were so clunky I almost stopped reading. E.g., this one:

Defying the Sex and the City stereotype of randy, uninhibited single gals dishing colorful secrets to their friends, the three women rarely spoke about anything but work and movies.

Or is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this sentence is horrible? If this had been a new author to me, I might have given up on him then and there. But since I’d enjoyed Little Children so much, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and am glad I did, because things picked up after that. And that bad sentence was balanced by a wonderful one later on:

With three soccer-age kids, John spent his Saturdays rushing maniacally from one field to the next, driving like he had a freshly harvested liver packed in a cooler on the front seat.

*blissful sigh*

Now there’s a sentence. But Mr. Perotta, if you’re reading this, next time be sure to let me take a look at your manuscript before it goes to press so we can make sure we don’t have any horrible clunker sentences like that “defying the Sex and the City stereotype” one making it past your editor again. Thank you. Incidentally, this all goes to prove my point that no detail in writing fiction is too small to sweat over. One out-of-place comma can ruin a sentence, one poor word choice can spoil a paragraph, and one ugly sentence can alienate a reader forever.

The Rebecca Stead book was okay. I’ll talk about Committed next week, because I’m going to a book club meeting on it tomorrow and maybe will have interesting comments from other people to report on.

I liked Coco Before Chanel a lot—it’s about the life of famous fashion designer Coco Chanel before she became famous. The two major relationships she has in the film with men are both really interesting (and I must admit, I thought the one with Alessandro Nivola was totally hot). But perhaps most interesting of all was the way Audrey Tautou, the actress who plays Chanel, almost never smiles. It becomes exhausting to watch her, because you keep waiting for her to break down and smile, but she keeps up the serious expression all through. Somehow that made the movie for me, if only because it was so unusual. It was like I was almost forced to take her and the movie seriously because of her seriousness. The Chanel character doesn’t just break down all the assumptions about femininity and ornament in dressing, but also breaks down our expectations about women as inherently responsible for being sweet and smiling and entertaining. Instead her attitude is: I am who I am, what I see matters to me, I am not just here to please you.

Sorry, words are totally failing me here. But I really liked it.

Lastly, you know how I was going on last time about character likeability, character likeability, character likeability? Well, then I came across this really interesting post by a writer who likes unlikeable characters. I have to think more about this whole likeability issue and how important it is to good writing. I won’t attempt to talk more about it right now as my brain is so muddled, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts.

Here are some songs to send you on your way, this week’s theme being A Few Totally Random Song I Just Happen To Like:

4 thoughts on “When Good Authors Write Bad Sentences

  1. have you seen “l’auberge espagnole” and “les poupees russes”? if you have, i’d love to hear your opinion. if not, GO my child! audrey tautou has a secondary role. romain duris is the lead.

  2. Hi Josh! I did see L’Auberge espagnole, but not Les poupees russes. I liked the first one – I think Romain Duris is a good actor, and the story was funny and engaging. However, I did think it was all a bit self-conscious (as in, “hey, look at me, I’m this geeky writer dude who wants to be cool like all the free spirits who lived in this one house in Spain, but in the end I’m still a geeky writer dude …”) My favorite character was the English red-headed girl, or maybe his lesbian roommate! 🙂

  3. Though I do not have to do olympian battle with a toddler to make it from place to place, I do understand the discordance of a mind rattled by too many things to control.

    Your reflection, “You get the sense Perotta is coming from a secular point of view, but in this novel wanted to experiment with putting himself in the shoes of someone who thinks in a way that’s entirely opposite to his worldview. This strikes me as an extremely worthwhile thing to do, both as a writer and as a human being,” got me thinking about how uncomfortable Perotta’s story made me and how fun it would be to see you creep into another skin and write from there. Have you done that before? It does seem extremely worthwhile and you would be good at it.

    I cannot watch Audrey Tautou without the expectation that she will break out in an Amelie smile.

  4. Hi Emily! I haven’t tried that creeping into another person’s skin thing, but I’d like to some time. I think it would be a great learning experience and help me grow as a writer …

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