2012-11-16

The Importance of Being Edited

This week, I have read a local author. The book was recommended to me, or no, not recommended, I was informed and a bit warned. My friend said, "I read this book and suddenly I realized that it was set in Piteå, at the School of Music." Which is where she grew up and my husband works. And I instantly knew who had written it, a former music teacher who quit to focus full-time on his writing.

KG Johansson is mostly known for his sci-fi and fantasy books, which are, I believe, written mainly for younger readers. I have seen his work at the e-library, but haven´t really been that tempted. Sci-fi and fantasy is something I was very keen on as a kid, but not so much any more. However, this is a novel for grown-ups, and well, I just had to take a look.

"K√§rlekssekten" (= the love sect), is centred around two young women, who are sisters but not friends. We get to follow them both during a year when a religious sect seduces a majority of the Swedish people. It starts out all love-y and nice, but quickly turns nasty as the sect turns out to really be some kind of cross between the mob, Hells Angels, and neo-fascism. The older sister, Anna, a music teacher at the school, stays firmly out of it, and gets into trouble for that, while the younger sister, Viktoria, gets involved both spiritually and financially, and gets in just as much trouble. As if that wasn´t enough, they both also become involved with the same man, for whom Anna even leaves her family.

The novel is 453 pages. That´s about 200 pages too many. I get the impression it hasn´t been edited at all. Perhaps the author was keen to publish and didn´t let it cool long enough to look at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps too many words are his style. A quick look at one of his sci-fi novels seem to indicate something in that direction. The most common advice given to writers starting out is to "show, not tell". Well, Johansson shows and tells, then explains, then shows and tells some more. I keep mumbling get on with it! to the pages. Very little is left to the reader, and as a result I don´t feel engaged.

Also, the plot is not particularly realistic. Which in itself is ok, I´m fine with fantastical stories. But you have to at least have believable characters, saying believable things, to get away with an improbable scenario like a religious sect converting more than half the population and even turning university professors into biggoted, spineless citizens of the village of the damned. Still, there are some pretty good scenes in here. Only a bit more work would have made this book a lot better.

In one segment of the story, the older sister Anna is assigned a tin-eared accompanist, a student at the school. She complains to her superiors, but is told that "no one else hears that", the idea being that most people in an audience, who are not specialists, will be oblivious to the nuances that separate a quality performance from a run-of-the-mill one. I can´t help thinking that it´s the same with literature. That even a ferocious reader, like a well-practiced musician, isn´t necessarily sensitive to the difference between, say, Umberto Eco´s "Foucault´s Pendulum" and Dan Brown´s "Da Vinci Code".

Again, I think stern editing would have made a big difference. Actually, I think the ability to edit is what make great writers great and most writers not so. One of the most celebrated authors in Sweden constantly says to reporters that he writes "a heck of a lot of crap" and I believe that. Everyone does. A first draft is almost always crap. That´s when the real work starts. And, of course, there is that small matter of taste.

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