Sometime in the late 90s, in my third or fourth year teaching high school, I thought I would be a novelist. I was emboldened by Stephen King’s experience, how he wrote his first works in the evenings and summers while he was teaching, but the true tipping point was when I read the last book I would ever read by Dean Koontz. I vividly remember turning the last page, closing the cover, and thinking, “Well, if this hack can do it…”
After about a week, I gave up. This pattern has persisted for nearly twenty years. Every so often I’ll get a brief jolt of inspiration, sit down to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), struggle manfully for a few days, and then realize I don’t have much to say. I still think I can write at least as well as Koontz – and I want to make it clear it’s not because I think I’m that good but that he’s that bad – but the crucial difference is that he has more faith in his shitty writing than I do in mine. I always find the act of trying to write a novel to be an interesting experiment, but I soon find myself frustrated and depressed – which I know proves to some degree that I actually have the perfect temperament to be a writer.
But my own forays into failed novels always make me wonder how horrible writing gets written. (Side note: I never wonder how it gets published. There’s always been a huge market for poor writing.) Let’s take Andy Weir’s bestseller, The Martian. It’s a compelling story told in the most graceless, self-conscious prose I’ve read since encountering Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book whose artlessness I blame at least in part on the translation. But Weir’s writing in English, which makes its clunky stabs at humor and obsessive attention to scientific detail even more unforgivable. Did he ever doubt himself along the way? Did none of his friends have the nerve to say, “Um, Andy, your main character is a dolt and the supporting cast are speaking dialogue that appears to be beamed directly from some early 1960s Coleman Francis b-movie”?
But I get ahead of myself.
Like I said, it’s a compelling story. It’s going to be a hell of a movie when Ridley Scott’s version hits the big screen later this year, and it’s the white-knuckle nature of the plot that drags the reader across the book’s bumpy stylistic terrain. To describe it simply, astronaut Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars. The rest of his crew believe him to be lost and fatally injured in a freak dust storm, and they must evacuate the planet’s surface before they’re killed, too. Watney wakes after they’ve left and makes his way back to the small command center, called the Hab. The rest of the book details his struggle to stay alive until NASA can rescue him.
Good stuff, right?
It would take multiple problems to botch such a set-up, and that’s exactly what Weir’s given us. Let’s start with the Watney character, since that’s who we spend most of our time with. Much of the book is told in Watney’s voice, in the form of logs written on the planet’s surface. We learn that Watney, a botanist by trade, was chosen for the mission for his professional prowess, but also because he’s a whimsical scamp who likes to keep things light. This means we’re treated to some of the most insipid first-person narration ever recorded. It happens early and often. My first eye-roll happened on page 6:
I stumbled up the hill back toward the Hab. As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad: The Hab was intact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!).
So impossibly twee. And this is the kind of sub-Wes Anderson monologue we’re treated to throughout the book, where Watney bitches about disco and, rather than repeat the phrase “kilowatt-hours per sol,” decides to call them “pirate-ninjas” instead. Because that’s wacky, see? And Weir is all about the wacky.
Except for when he descends into byzantine science-talk, which I think he thinks is supposed to be fascinating and show the detail with which Watney must attend to his own survival, but it’s excruciating. Try this on for size (and do your best to stay awake):
I hope you like drilling. The drill bit is 1 cm wide, the holes will be 0.5 cm apart, and the length of the total cut is 11.4 m. That’s 760 holes. And each one takes 160 seconds to drill.
Problem: The drills weren’t designed for construction projects. They were intended for quick rock samples. The batteries only last 240 seconds. You do have two drills, but you’d still only get 3 holes done before needing to recharge. And recharging takes 41 minutes.
That’s 173 hours of work, limited to 8 EVA hours per day. That’s 21 days of drilling, and that’s just too long … The drills expects 28.8 V and pulls 9 amps. The only lines that can handle that are the rover recharge lines. They’re 36 V, 10 amp max. Since you have two, we’re comfortable with you modifying one.
And on and on and on until you want to scream, “I don’t need to know this!” Virtually none of this scientific detail is crucial for the reader to know, and it happens a lot. From the number of Joules in one food-calorie (4,184) to the exact formula he uses to determine how much oxygen is in his space suit (which he describes in five paragraphs lasting an entire page), no stone (no tedious, extremely boring stone) is left unturned.
Matters don’t improve when the action shifts to Earth. The characters at NASA are virtually interchangeable. Mitch, Teddy, Kapoor, Rich, Mindy, Annie – who’s speaking? It doesn’t really matter, because they all sound the same, speaking in variations on Watney’s snark, and where we’re supposed to believe one of NASA’s supervisors would actually utter the sentence, “Sorry if I’m grumpy, I got like two hours sleep last night.”
I’m not against stylized dialogue, but if it’s not going to reflect the way in which real people speak, it better be entertaining (see my recent review of Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 for evidence of what I mean). Weir’s characters, however, are unbelievably and unlikably sarcastic dummies with a penchant for spouting off unnecessary scientific details. It is, in the end, this contrivance that got to me, which eventually extended to the plot. I don’t want to see an author’s flop sweat. If I notice the contortions of your writing, it’s not working. As the book continues, Weir throws so many obstacles in Watney’s path – another dust storm, an emergency depressurization, a failed rescue launch, a near-electrocution, and so on – that after a while you can see the strings. It reads less like a genuine story of survival than an author saying, “Let’s see how much shit I can throw at a character to pad this baby out to 400 pages.”
I haven’t even discussed the book’s main structural flaw (that some of Watney’s logs read like they’re happening in real time even though the central conceit is that he’s recording them after the fact), but even if the narrative form worked, there are so many other problems that it wouldn’t matter. And so the question for me becomes, “Does an interesting story trump good writing?” Or, put another way, is idea more important than execution? In some cases, I think it must. How else to explain the publication and popularity of The Martian (or Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey or any of the Nicholas Sparks books, etc., etc.)? In those moments when my authorial confidence falters, I need to figure out how to tap into whatever hubris is fueling the people that keep writing the stuff that doesn’t need to be written.
R.E.M. – Green (1988)