Literary Pet Peeves #3: The Constant Fashion Show

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Let’s get the important caveat out of the way: how much description of clothing (or anything) is present in a story should be a balance between genre expectations, necessity, and authorial preference. How readers respond to what level of description they’re given is also a matter of personal preference. I say this because the first review I got of Fifty-Five Days had good things to say about the story, but dinged me on not describing stuff enough aside from one particular chapter where I was introducing an entirely new setting in detail for story purposes. The reviewer would have preferred more of that throughout the novel, and you know what? Totally fair. I accept that I could have done better on that.

But in recent months, as a reader I’ve been subjected to a few books that I found heavy-handed when it came to including clothing description–I even called one book “a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.”

Knowing what characters are wearing is important, certainly. It says a lot about someone if they show up on a first date wearing a tuxedo versus jeans and a flannel–either could easily be the wrong thing to wear, for different reasons, and that will tell you something about the character. But do I need to know the color, cut, and detailing of every piece of clothing a character is wearing in every scene? Absolutely not.

So how does this happen? I’ve discerned a few possible reasons, based on where I’ve encountered these literary fashion shows.

Teenage characters/YA fiction: I often see an emphasis on clothing in contemporary American high school settings, where the author uses the dress style to establish what kind of character they are in shorthand. Quirky character? Mismatched or atypical clothes. Nerd? Glasses, sweaters, etc. Geek? Superhero t-shirts. Jock? Letter jackets. And to some degree, that’s all fine. But as with anything, it can be overdone; I don’t need to get an update on every outfit a character wear with every scene change, just give me an idea of their style and let my imagination take care of the rest, unless the new outfit is important to the story somehow (like formal wear for a dance, or a costume, or anything else out of the ordinary.) Most recently seen in: Labyrinth Lost.

A focus on clothing for fantasy world-building: Attire is a key aspect of any culture, and going on at length about food and customs and whatever else about a created fantasy culture without ever mentioning their clothing would be odd. But if it’s the most important thing, or even the only thing that’s focused on, then you get the fashion show taking over the story, when it’s more important that I know the villain is now wearing her purple robes instead of her green ones, when I’d rather get more insights into her motivations. Most recently seen in: The Bone Witch. Also I seem to remember this being constant in Sarah J. Maas’ work, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of them.

Clothing as routine mundanity: Yes, I still need to know what characters wear even if it’s not special and they’re living normal, boring lives, but don’t harp on it to make a point about how dreary their existence is, and don’t focus repeatedly on any unusual details to try to make one character stand out. Yes, The Bridges of Madison County, I’m calling you out, you and your freaking suspenders. But other “literary” works I’ve read over the years are just as guilty.

Undoubtedly there are more I haven’t thought of, that may become clear to me in time as I read other books that stop every few pages to tell me all about what a character is wearing. Rant over, for the time being, while I bundle my complaints internally into a lesson on how I do not want to write about clothing.

Literary Pet Peeves #2: Misleading Titular Characters

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Alternately, the post title could have been “Why Did the Title Make Me Think This Book was About This Character When They’re Irrelevant, or They Don’t Show Up For Half the Book.” But that was too long.

It doesn’t happen often: I think the first time I formally complained about this in a book review was after reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender back in 2016, but it’s come up again a lot this year: The Miniaturist was, at best, a randomly mysterious but ultimately unnecessary minor character in her own novel; The Necromancer wasn’t primarily about Johannes Cabal; The Hangman’s Daughter was barely present in the book named for her and was usually a plot object rather than an actual character when she was present; and perhaps mostly surprisingly, I got hit one more time with a nonfiction book, An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew, where Ms. Tew was little more than a narrative thread barely holding together a succession of historical vignettes about the men in her life.

I’m peeved every time. I get that titling books can be difficult, believe me, I do. But if an author puts a character in the title–the most visible, prominent thing about a book, the very identification that differentiates it from other books–isn’t it reasonable for me, a reader, to expect that the book is about that character?

Am I wrong in my disappointment? Should I stop expecting a titular character to be a protagonist, or at least a villain if that’s applicable? Should I stop squandering my expectations?

Of course, it’s not universal. I’m so irritated by it because it keeps happening, but it’s far from every book. Coraline was clearly about Coraline. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a wholly accurate title for its contents. Even if I didn’t end up enjoying the book, The Bone Witch was about a bone witch. I could go on, but I’m not actually interested in titles that get it right. I’m questioning why it seems so many titles get it wrong.

(It would be a fun exercise to look up general title-writing advice and try to re-title the books that have irked me in the past according to that advice. I think I just created a new Writing Homework post for later this month!)

I’m hesitant to ascribe a single, reductive motive to all these poor titling choices; it would be easy, but useless, to simply say “these authors were lazy.” In some cases, it might be publisher pressure–character titles are memorable, and titles are one of the things that can get changed in the publishing process (though I have no hard information on how often that happens, obviously. You just hear things.) In others, the author might truly think they gave their work an appropriate title, and I happen to disagree. In yet others, I’m sure there are reasons I haven’t considered for why the title is what it is, and I’ll have to accept that those titles set me up for disappointment.

But it has become a literary pet peeve of mine, and the point of this post is to whine about it, not fix it. I can’t fix it. I can only hope that writers reading it will take my whining into account when they someday publish their books that I might someday read, so that I (and other readers) won’t be disappointed next time I pick up A Book Clearly Named for One of its Characters.

Literary Pet Peeves: Describing People with Food

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[This may or may not be successful post series, but I had an idea, let’s give this a try.]

In researching how to respectfully describe characters of color, I’ve encountered many voices saying “Don’t use food-related words for anything about them, especially hair, skin, or eye color.” (I’m paraphrasing from several sources, but as this concept is not at all my idea, here are a few to check out.)

That got me thinking about how common food is as a descriptor for people in general, and in more ways that the color of any given body part. Heck, I grew up with the term “pear-shaped” as an acceptable way to denote my body type, and the older I get and the more I read, the more irritated I am at the constant likening of people to food, even outside of racist connotations.

I don’t want to be “pear-shaped” anymore, not in reality, but in the way another writer might describe me or a character resembling me.

One of the worst offenders I’ve seen is the old, tired “her breasts were like apples.” I’ve seen it in older fiction, I’ve seen it in modern romance novels; I’ve seen it from male and female authors alike. This one in particular irritates me to no end because I’m immediately pulled out of the story every time I encounter it, by the image of an otherwise flat-chested woman with two red apples stuck to the front of her. I’ve never seen a breast that looks even remotely like an apple.

This vague idea I had for writing a “no food words” post was sharpened by a recent Tumblr thread about the “just-pressed olive oil” description of a character in Song of Achilles, which I have not read. The author mounts a compelling defense of her intentions in using it, and how it relates to ancient perception of color: totally worth the read. But I can’t help but think, much like apple boobies, that it’s such a jarring image that it’s not helpful in the story and doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. (Its “silliness” is a complaint I found in several reviews of the book that turned up when I was trying to find the post I remembered seeing and hadn’t saved.)

Where am I going with this? Well, mostly spouting off about how I’ve grown to think that nobody should be described with food terminology. What food color would my own skin be, anyway? Under-done bread? The lightest part of a tortilla? Nah, neither of those are pink enough–I’m really pale, which means I generally look pink or even red, thanks, sunburn/rosacea. I can’t think of a single flattering way to liken my skin to food, though I’m less insulted by “wheat-colored” hair for my blonde-ness.

You don’t have to take my advice to heart, of course. (I do suggest you listen to the people of color telling you not to compare them to food, still.) But the other aspect of this is that it’s so common, and it’s so easy, that even when it’s not done in a racist way, it’s still lazy! Why describe your characters the same way everyone else does? Why not stretch yourself to do something different by not relying on simple food comparisons?

Rant over, at least until next time I have a new literary pet peeve, with sources, to gripe about.