Yesterday’s Literary Triumph Is Today’s Badly Written Yawner

wind

Though a popular book in its day, and remembered fondly by older adults well into the mid 20th century, the children’s story, The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame reads today like a prime example of how NOT to write.

The style is what someone of our time might call “overwritten”– extremely so. Caught up in his own descriptions, Grahame sometimes borders on the hysterical.  And the tone is annoyingly, cloyingly shiny-happy throughout — even when a character is being sentenced to a twenty-year prison term!   I mean, there’s chipper and then there’s chipper, and I think even a child would find it difficult to resist the urge to tell Grahame to put a sock in it if the opportunity presented itself.

Grahame obviously considers the repetitive listing of synonyms or near-synonyms as the height of descriptive prowess.  A brook for Grahame is not just babbling, it is “babbling, gurgling, bubbling.” I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps every time Grahame was stuck for a word while writing his story, he reached for his trusty thesaurus and figured, since he had went to trouble to use it, he might as well use all the words the relevant entry provides.

And my-oh-my does our author love the adverb.  Nothing runs, but that it runs “quickly,” and no one whispers, but that they whisper “quietly.”

This reminds me of a literary game that writerly types used to play, but which I think has fallen out of fashion. The object of the game is to come up with the best (meaning often, worst) adverbs for dialogue descriptions…

Examples:

“Don’t squeeze me,” said the marshmallow, softly.

“Squeeze me!” said the bread, ryely.

That game is named after some author who was notorious for the mis- and over- use of adverbs in his dialogue scenes, but I cannot remember who it was. But back to Grahame…

When fleshing-out (or should I say flaying?) a character or scenario, Grahame so frequently strings together three, and exactly three, appository phrases, that it almost brought me to tears– not because it was so bad, but because I was shamed. Yes, shamed. You see, I am aware that I, myself, tend to favor descriptions tethered into trios, finding them inexplicably pleasing in rhythm and sound. Perhaps in example is necessary here…

For instance, in describing a car racing along a high precipice, I might write something like: “The burning wheels scorched the earth along the cliff-edge, fishtailing dangerously at every patch of sand, jolting airborne at every rock or uneven patch.” I almost can’t help myself; I just love the sound of it… In my defense, many writers and orators seem to find the three-part description euphonically pleasing– I noticed recently that Cicero often employed this method. However, stylistically, any method used too often becomes hackneyed and irritating, and Grahame’s work is no exception. I have to say, Grahame’s work may be catalogued under Juvenile Fiction, but I consider it a cautionary tale for writers.

An idiosyncrasy of Grahame’s which is a bit more interesting is the vocabulary he uses. Today’s parents reading aloud the story to their children may find themselves giving pause each time Grahame calls someone an “ass.”  There’s also several scenes of drinking and smoking that may seem odd, if not just plain wrong, for a children’s book of our own era.

The story of The Wind In The Willows is really just a collection of stories jammed together– not at all uncommon during the first few centuries of he developing novel. One story I found bizarre was one which centered on addiction. The book’s most interesting character, Toad, has an addiction to that new-fangled invention, the automobile. This addiction leads him into terrible troubles, and his friends stage an intervention– a severe one, including the forced restraint of the addict. This section rings with the most truth of any section of the book, and I came away wondering if Grahame had possessed a friend with an addiction-problem in real life.

Lastly, I found the following amusing: every time one of the characters says, “Bother!”, I would mentally substitute the word, “Fuck!” Seemed like there is really no difference between the two words, semantically speaking. Of course, you may not want to do this if you’re reading the book aloud to the kiddies.

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