Monday, June 13, 2016

Charles Williams is a Bad Writer

So, okay, a few weeks ago I reviewed two of CW's novels. Now, I gave All Hallow's Eve a  chance, and -- well, okay, let's be blunt. Over and above any eye-roll-inducing supernatural themes Williams may endorse, I've come to the conclusion that he's just an awful stylist. I was still on the fence with his first two novels. Although I didn't really enjoy either, I gave him credit for a talent for characterization, and I got through the relatively plotless Descent into Hell by skimming the long prose passages. But my patience finally hit a wall with All Hallow's Eve. I couldn't force myself to read more than half of it and, after two and a half novels, I feel confident in grading Williams's style from mediocre to bad.

The Good

  • He does have some lovely diction and phrasing
  • Strong mixture of sentence structures
  • I do like his deftness in interweaving literary and biblical references

None of that, however, overcomes . . . 

The Bad (and the ugly)
  • long, long, and long (and tedious) prose descriptions of mental states and so forth. Dialogue makes a book sound snappy, but Williams always subordinates his dialogue to these dense passages of prose.
    • In fact, these passages can get very confusing, the natural effect of skipping over small sections of text that contain plot-important details. Several times, I had to re-read sections just to find out how I got from Point A to Point B.
  • A truly weird mix of authorial omniscience (i.e., Williams's point of view) and focalizer (the point of view of some character, although usually as seen through the author's position"outside" the character's consciousness, though not always). He goes from one to another without any apparent consistency
  • Abrupt switches between focalizers. Sometimes the narration will be focalized through Lester, then abruptly it'll be focalized through Evelyn, then the evil magician, and so forth. Even if you're paying closer attention than I am, the effect can be jarring.

The absolute worst, however, is 
  • a fatal reliance on weak verbs

I had a hard time, at first, pinpointing why I found his prose so unreadable. After all, he does have some very nice rhythms to his sentences. Then I did something that I only do for my freshman students -- I went through his text and counted the "to be" verbs. Flipping open pages at random, I counted 10 on the first page, 12 on the next, and goddamn 18 on the final. Great Samuel Johnson's ghost, how does anyone incorporated 18 "to be" verbs on a page only 400 words long in the first place? Partly, that's Williams never writing "helped" when "were helping" will do, but you basically have to employ a "to be" as your main verb in just about every sentence. Even when he avoided the is's and the was's, he'd often use a weak verb such as "had" or "has."

I will never, ever read another Williams novel. 

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