I’ve been on a Kindle science fiction reading binge for several months now. I think it was triggered by reading the YA novel “The Hunger Games” with the free Prime borrow that came with my Kindle Fire. I ended up on a quest to read through all the free SciFi novels from the current generation of authors on Kindle, the vast majority of which were Book #1 of a series. I’ve read through fifty or so of them by this point, I didn’t keep close count. I generally steer away from criticizing the style of other writers, but there are a few observations I can’t resist making.
Smirking is not an acceptable substitute for a smile. Not for a sad smile or a wry grin – not for grim smile, a crooked smile or an uncertain smile. Smirking is an objectionable habit that will get your bell rung if you try it in front of the wrong person. The only thing a smirk expresses is “I’m a jerk.” You see? Smirk, jerk, they even rhyme.
So I was shocked to find that nearly every one of the fifty novels I read featured smirking. I don’t remember ecountering any smirking in literature before reading this batch of books. It’s one of those words that irritates as much as the actual act, so I think I would have noticed if it had seen broad use before I gave up reading modern fiction in favor of 19th century authors.
I have three possible explanations for the plague of smirking in this freshly minted science fiction. First, some of it is being written by people in their twenties and thirties who grew up smirking and never got smacked because their parents and teachers were petrified of getting sued. Second, all of these books have been copy edited by some insane person who adds smirks in the theory that smirking makes the books better. I came up with this theory after the characters in one novel smirked a couple times in the first two well edited chapters, after which the book was full of typos and they never smirked again. Maybe the two chapters were a trial run for the editor before the author went broke or ran out patience with the gratuitous smirking. Finally, there may be some cannonical fiction text read by the current generation of authors in which the characters all smirked their heads off. I didn’t read the later Harry Potter books, perhaps Harry became a big smirker as a teen.
I finally got so fed up with all the smirking in one book that I used the Kindle’s search function to count them up. The characters smirked thirty-three times. On the other hand, I just checked two novels which featured top notch writing and imaginative settings, “Smallworld” by Dominic Green and “In Her Name” by Michael R. Hicks. “In Her Name” came back clean, and the single smirk in “Smallworld” appeared in a “wipe that smirk off your face” context. An author after my own heart.
Another issue for many of these novels was political correctness. Yes, authors like Heinlein had some “advanced” views about the roles of the sexes, which unfortunately morphed into writing unreadable android porn by the end of his career. The political correctness problem I’m talking about is one of gender equivalency, ie, you can only tell the male and female characters apart if the author chooses to use “man” or “woman” in the description somewhere. It brought to mind some of the teens and twenty-somethings I’ve come across over the last decade who treat their girlfriends like guys who happen to have babies if somebody forgets to do something.
“Is it my kid?” he asked with a smirk.
“I didn’t see anybody else’s bike in the hallway,” she smirked in response.
Now they’re a few years older and they’re writing novels. One thing you can say about most of these books is that they aren’t derivative of the SciFi classics. Instead, the major influences on many of these authors appear to be Hollywood movies and the science fiction cable shows of ten or fifteen years ago. There’s a lot of “Babylon 5″, “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” peeking through the digital ink.
The last thing I’m going to rant about is ignoring the old rule about writing what you know. Authors who write legal thrillers usually study up on the law and authors who write medical dramas submerge themselves in all that nasty biology stuff. Unfortunately, some of the new science fiction authors seem to figure that the whole point of writing SciFi is you get to make it all up. This results in references like other galaxies found less than ten light years from earth when the closest is probably a dwarf version over 25,000 light years away.
Then there’s the occasional author who chooses to write about gifted characters, scientists and fleet commanders, from the perspective of a couch potato whose greatest achievement was getting all the high scores on a Nintendo system that nobody else is allowed to use. Authors don’t need to be geniuses to write books, but if you aren’t real bright and never held a job, you’re better off writing about cosmic slackers than trying to project your personality and conversational style onto the crème de la crème of a galactic empire.
“Dude! The aliens are going to blow the whole Cigna system.”
“Whatever,” smirked the fleet commander.
Come to think of it, maybe writing what they know IS why so many authors are choosing to write from the perspective of a teenager. And I thought they were just imitating “The Hunger Games”.