Writing Tips from the Reading – Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Every week, I’m going to post some thoughts about what I’m reading—what I see working in a traditionally published book and what I see as problematic. Hopefully, it will give you a chance to learn a few things, both about what I see as an editor and about what to look for when you’re evaluating your work. I’ll stick to books that are by big-name authors, popular, and selling well—books I don’t think I can hurt when I talk about what I see as their flaws.

And lest you get the wrong idea: this isn’t what an edit letter from me looks like. But it’s similar to my notes as I read through a manuscript, and in that I hope you’ll find it instructive.

This week I’m reading Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s the second in his Southern Reach trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, and I’m enjoying this one as well.

What’s working:

– The horror elements. VanderMeer has incredible skill at being creepy when he wants to be. Authority doesn’t feature nearly as much Lovecraftian horror as Annihilation (the first book) did, but when he turns it on, it’s wonderful.

– The characters. The characters are deep. Deep, deep, deep and incredibly well realized. They have long, complex backstories that interact in interesting ways, impact who they are in the moment of the story, and have a direct influence on the plot.

– The high concept. Area X appeals to a whole cluster of primordial fears—that of the unknown, that of the superior, that of malevolent nature—and the second book expands on the first well by showing us what might happen to a bureaucracy created to deal with a threat like it.

What isn’t working:

– Moving in and out of the book. This book might be short enough to read in one sitting, if you read fast and have a big chunk of uninterrupted time. But I suspect for most people it’s going to take a least a few sessions. Every time I come back to the book, it takes me several pages to get back into the rhythm. VanderMeer uses a very jerky style, full of sentence fragments, for stylistic purposes. I’m not sure he’s wrong to do so, but it makes picking the book up and continuing to read more difficult than it could be.

– The environmentalist undertone. It’s taken me several days to figure out why the environmentalist undertone is bothering me. It’s not political; it’s technical. Area X functions as a fear and tension factory. It terrifies the characters, and through them it terrifies the reader. The suggestion that perhaps whatever created Area X is responding to human-caused pollution damages that fear and the tension it creates. Area X is, in some ways, the monster in a monster story. And if the reader finds a way to escape fearing the monster (“Just don’t pollute, kids, and Area X won’t come get you.”), it hurts the monster story.

– The magic. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’m going to be vague about this. There’s a real-life psychological principle that has a major impact on the story. It functions like magic—it moves the characters around and provides them with a tool with which they can affect each other in ways beyond those available to your everyday human being. It featured heavily in the plot of Annihilation as well, and it’s beginning to feel overused to me. The book would be a bit more rewarding if its plot twists didn’t so often feature the same magic used the same way.

Those are my thoughts for the week. Pretty fine-grained criticism, but that’s going to be the norm in this series of posts. Books don’t get to the point of being published and popular because they have huge, glaring flaws—they get there because they’re doing what they set out to. But there’s also almost always something left to reconsider from a technical standpoint, even in a well-crafted novel.

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