If you like Wilbur Smith, chances are you’ll be partial to Ron Rash also. But if you’re partial to either of these writers then, frankly, you’re partial to trash.
Serena is, unsurprisingly, the story of Serena – a tough-as-old-boots orphan who has married Pemberton, the owner of a saw-mill in depression-era America. When Serena isn’t proving that she’s the equal of any man, it’s a fair bet that you’ll find her hunting, or training an eagle, or ‘coupling’ with her husband.
That’s right: ‘coupling’. Rash seems to be quite fond of this verb – he must be, or he wouldn’t use it so often.
Anyway: when we’re not hearing about Serena’s latest ploy to overcome penis envy, we’re immersed in the lives of various other characters who have some connection to the logging camp. There’s Rachael, who was knocked up by Pemberton and orphaned by him too – and all in the first chapter: what a man he is! Rachael struggles to scratch a living on the periphery of the camp. Then there’s the illiterate lay-preacher McIntyre who thinks that every comment he makes is a quotation from Revelations, and (this inclusion being almost compulsory in any story involving an isolated working community) the cynical and washed-out doctor: Cheney.
The action really starts, however, when Serena discovers that she’s barren – perhaps her infertility is a judgement on the fact that she wears pants.
Considering that he’s semi-literate, Ron Rash can spin a pretty good yarn.
But you need to keep the ‘semi-literate’ thing in mind.
Serena raises the interesting question of editorial responsibilities. And since it has been judged ‘book of the year’ by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and Amazon (and has sold rather well) it raises rather less interesting questions about the reading public.
Have a look at this sentence:
‘Dunbar, the youngest member of the crew at nineteen, looked towards the porch incomprehensively.’
First: wouldn’t this sentence be better (and more meaningful) if it read ‘The youngest member of the crew at nineteen, Dunbar looked towards the porch’? Then at least we’d be certain that Dunbar was definitely looking at the porch at this moment in time – rather than looking at the porch only at the age of nineteen, or at nineteen-hundred hours – without having to make assurance doubly sure. Realistically, however, we don’t need to know how old Dunbar is, and we don’t care: his age doesn’t really add anything. We could, therefore, do without the whole sentence. But Rash isn’t finished: the real, prize-winning clanger comes at the end.
So, Dunbar didn’t look at all of the porch? Did he glance at it quickly and then look away? Or is he myopic?
Rash and his editors must certainly be myopic to have let this one slip: le mot juste is ‘uncomprehendingly’. That at least makes sense. This glaring screw-up is, however, not particularly surprising in the context of Serena as a whole: Rash clearly doesn’t know what function adverbs serve, so on the rare occasion that he realises that an adverb is called for, it doesn’t come as too much of a shock to note that he puts in the first one that occurs to him.
We can be certain that the author doesn’t know what adverbs are by looking at another little segment of Rash rashness: ‘Pemberton’s pulse still beat quick, and he knew Serena’s did as well.’
There’s such a thing as poetic license, but you have to be able to write like a poet to qualify for one. Perhaps Rash thinks he’s writing tough prose – stripped of niceties and smelling of the stables. But I think he just doesn’t put enough effort into it. And that destroys my trust in him, and that makes him hard to read.
When I read a novel, I don’t want to encounter mistakes that some of my ten-year-old students would be ashamed to make. I want to be transported by a master of the craft. I don’t want to have to edit something as I’m reading it.
Now get out your notebook, Mr Rash, and take this down: the word you’re attempting to modify with ‘quick’ in this case is a verb: ‘beat’. But ‘quick’ is an adjective, and adjectives modify nouns and pronouns only. You should have tried ‘quickly’. Because modifying verbs (and adjectives and other adverbs) is what adverbs do.
I don’t feel at all like a curmudgeon when I say that having high standards about how the English language is used is very, very important. When we pay to see a film, we don’t want to see grainy footage shot with an obsolete mobile phone by someone in the last extremities of delirium tremens and edited by an infant on Windows Movie Maker. And when we read a book – a published, edited work – we shouldn’t have to put up with sub-standard prose. We ought to demand prose that is not only precise, but surpassingly beautiful also. Give me goose-bumps, or give me some other book.
Pete Townsend spent a lot of time smashing expensive and rather lovely electric guitars. Jimi Hendrix once set fire to one. But Townsend and Hendrix took the trouble to learn how to play the guitar to exceptional standards first. Reading Rash is the literary equivalent of watching a spotty adolescent stutter through three power chords on a vintage Les Paul before dashing it to matchwood on the floor.
In 1946, in an essay entitled Politics and the English Language (an essay that ought to be required reading for any aspiring writer) George Orwell explored the various means by which prose can fall short of the ideal. There were two problems he had in mind especially:
‘The first is staleness of imagery: the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political language.’
Orwell drove his point home by showing what happens to great prose when it is put through the wringer. First he gives us Ecclesiastes:
‘I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’
Then he shows us how it might be rendered in grammatically accurate, but less than beautiful English:
‘Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.’
What Orwell demonstrates here is that the English language can be employed in such ways as to render it beautiful, bestial or the many gradations in between. That, if care and attention is lavished upon it, it can caress the reader as a highly skilled courtesan might. Rash is most emphatically not a highly skilled courtesan. He’s the one on the corner in torn fishnets, sporting syphilitic pustules and whining ‘Hey big boy, gotta light?’
Where have all the acute and careful editors gone? Where are the authors who give a damn about how a sentence should sound? And where are the authors who are prepared to check a dictionary from time to time?
There’s no excuse for the infelicities that riddle Rash’s prose. He should know better, and his editors ought to be in other jobs.