Current non-read: The Land of the Painful Shame
Okay, the real title is The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel. I am going to link you straight to the reviews, just so that I’ll never stand accused of encouraging anyone to buy this.
Like many of you, I loved Clan of the Cave Bear. For its flaws, it presented prehistoric people as…people. Good, bad and somewhere in between. It painted credible cultures based upon significant archaeological research. It took some liberties with SoD (that’s a cool kids’ acronym I learned at a Radcon panel about Suspension of Disbelief), but none so grotesque as to detract from a fun story. Over the years, it turned into Cro-Magnoporn, getting progressively worse. Lots of tasting her ‘tangy salt’ (I always wondered if Jondalar actually brought a primitive herbal salt shaker to his oral sex sessions) and homing in on her ‘nodule.’ (Anyone ever heard a woman scream for some hot nodule attention?) Nodules and prehistoric condiments aside, it was never this bad.
One might also consider what it means for me to write this. I may be only the bathroom attendant in the writers’ club (‘here’s your towel, sir…ah, very generous, sir, thank you kindly’), but my badge at least gets me in the servants’ entrance. Consider, please: what if I were to one day meet Jean Auel, whose latest book I’m impaling with one of Ayla’s atlatls? I once came close to that painful experience, sitting in a panel where one of the panelists seemed familiar. Finally remembered that, on Amazon, I’d given her book meh out of five stars. Squirm, squirm, squirm. No one, therefore, can imagine me fundamentally eager to alienate Ms. Auel without good reason; that would be insane. If I thought I could do the book justice with kindness and tact, I would.
Can’t. This is just bad. It’s so bad, I don’t think it’s Jean Auel. I could not force myself past page 73.
It is mostly tell rather than show, one of the most amateurish bugaboos that editors have to beat out of writers. We get paragraphs of “Ayla felt….” No, no, no. Don’t tell me “Ayla felt…”! Don’t! Show me how she feels and what’s on her mind through her actions, her dialogue, others’ reactions to her. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care if you establish that when Ayla is nervous, she has a bad habit of inserting a finger up each nostril. “She eased two fingers into her nostrils” beats “Ayla felt nervous” every time.
Then there’s the dullness problem. Now, I grant that if you love herbalism and scenes about making tea, this might not be so dull. If you like long rehashes of past events, maybe it’s not that dull. And I recognize that after waiting ten years between books, some backstory is needed because we’ve forgotten some of it (or perhaps never read those books, never slurped on their tangy salt). We don’t need this much. The dialogue is wordy and uninspiring, with everyone spelling out everything, leaving nothing for the reader to infer/discover. It often feels like expository or technical writing.
There, that’s the big problem. It doesn’t feel like fiction. It feels like expository writing. It sometimes feels like a software manual. I can take some guesses as to what might have happened:
Guess #1: Auel, being contractually shackled to the publisher for X number of books, was required to write another one before she could be manumitted. No one said it had to be a good book, and she realized full well that her name guaranteed a certain number of sales, thus automatic profit, and that’s why the publisher insisted on it. That’s what publishers do with big names: once it’s clear that the Name guarantees a profitable release, they get it locked in for a series of books. You owe us one more, bucko, or you can retire, but you can’t write anything else until we get it. So she phoned it in, getting it over with, and trying her best to make sure they wouldn’t want any more.
Guess #2: she somehow ran out of money and had to do something. I find that highly unlikely, as Auel has made enough money on the series to buy me and sell me into slavery, but folk have written books for stranger reasons.
Guess #3: she got real offended by all the readers who threw tomatoes at her Cro-Magnoporn, and decided to torture them. (Laurell K. Hamilton seems to be doing it. You no likey my porn? Okay, you get twice as much, that’ll learn ya.)
Guess #4: she forgot how to write good fiction. Kind of hard to imagine, because we don’t really start going backwards until our minds start to turn to muesli, and even then, usually that shows up in other ways. Very rarely does a capable writer suddenly revert to second-year college English student.
Guess #5: it got farmed out to ‘lancers. I am sure that’s what happened with Herbert and Anderson’s latest Dune monsterpiece and it wouldn’t surprise me if several other big names/franchises were also doing it. A lot of stuff gets hired out to freelancers. We work cheap, and a lot of us make real livings as tech writers, which makes our writing sound like vacuum cleaner manuals. It is not inconceivable that they just paid someone, or someones, several grand (no royalties, bucko) to write this. I suspect this because the writing is too amateurish to reconcile with what we know Auel is capable of. Well, maybe it ain’t her at all. I can just see it: “Look, you owe us another book. You don’t want to write it. Fine, so don’t write most of it. Write the parts you like, sketch a storyline, and we’ll hire some literary mercenaries for flat fees. We’ll sign them to NDAs that will allow us and you to confiscate their duodenums if they talk. Win/win/win. Oh, sure, the readers will be hosed, but they have no taste anyway.”
You don’t think the publishing industry would do that? If so, you do not know them. Some publishers would not, and those I respect. Some would, faster than you can say ‘slurp her nodule.’ Never underestimate what someone will do for a guaranteed income stream.
I can’t say with certainty what happened here. All that is mere speculation. What I can say is that 73 pages left me wanting less. Life is too short to finish this book, but it’s not too short to warn others away. The kindest, tactfulest, mercifulest thing I can say is that I don’t think Jean Auel really wrote this.
Gods, I hope not.