Every now and then, you pick up a book that hits all the right notes. There’s action, drama, intrigue, romance, danger, all of that. You read the book, turning the pages till you reach the climax, and you think, I’d like to read more by this author.
And then you have time to think about it, and you realize something’s missing. But what is it? You go over it in your mind, and everything’s there. The plot unfolds the way it should, the three-act structure is in place, all the pieces fit together.
But still, something’s missing.
I’ve read more than my share of these kinds of books, some by some pretty famous authors. For me, Michael Crichton comes to mind: good books, thoroughly researched (the man was a demon when it came to research; he spent three years researching climate data for State of Fear), all the right characters to advance the plot…but there’s always something missing from his books.
It’s like walking into a show house. Everything is in its place. All the décor matches, and there aren’t any throwaway pieces of furniture. I remember going to an American Log Homes show house back in the nineties. One of the things about log homes is that most dealers live in one of the homes, and their houses tend to be the model home as well. This one felt a bit like an exercise in lunacy, as each room was totally different to show that log homes could fit into any décor style. Take each room by itself, it was okay. But there was no theme to the home, if you get my drift. And, what’s more, because it was a model home, even though the dealers lived in it, it didn’t have that feel of being a home. Everything was too perfect, too clean.
Books that are that way remind me of when Watson was on Jeopardy! Yeah, he got all the right answers, and he won. But, to me, it felt like a cheat. After all, as good as the two human champions were—and though I’ve never actually seen the episodes Watson was in, I know the two humans were the best players the show’s ever had—there was still the fact they were human. Watson had instant recall. He was never subject to that feeling we often have of knowing something, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, if I can just think of it….
Watson didn’t have that problem. And on top of that, he didn’t have to go through the physical act of pushing the button to say he had the answer. His reactions were faster-than-human. The only real satisfaction the humans could take was that it took a supercomputer to beat them. No mere computer was up to the task. That’s like saying it took a superhero to win the fight against some normal guy.
That’s how these books are: all the right answers are in place, but they might as well have been written by HAL 9000 for all the humanity that’s in them. It’s like you’re reading programming code turned back into English. All the action is there, but the emotion feels fake. Like that model house, there’s no dirt in the corners, no throw pillow out of place, no dirty fork left lying on the counter. The curtains hang just right, the dining room chandelier doesn’t have any burnt-out bulbs, and even the eight-year-old remembered to make his bed that morning.
Grit. Soul. Bottom. Call it what you want, it’s not there. It’s got the rhythm, but it can’t feel the beat.
And yet, for me at least, it’s hard to point at any specific point in the story and say, “Here’s where and how you can fix that. This is where you can put that jazzy feel that gives it bottom.” I can’t do it because I suspect either the writer has it or he doesn’t. And no amount of books from Writer’s Digest will ever infuse his (or her) prose with that all-important feeling if it’s not already there.
Now, we’re all different (duh). So maybe all writers feel that way to at least one other reader out there. You may find Michael Crichton’s books to be full of feeling. Maybe it’s that so many of his characters tend to be professionals of one sort or another, and most of them in fields I know very little about, so I find it hard to relate. Maybe my stories of common folks caught up in webs of crime will feel sterile to someone who immerses themselves in Crichton’s works.
So I can’t offer up a solution. Part of the reason this blog exists is for me to make observations about the reading/writing world, and this is one I’ve made over the years. I doubt there even is a solution, especially in light of the what I said in the last paragraph. I’m simply saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed this. Have you?”
And by the way, I still read Michael Crichton on occasion, and enjoy his stories.