Now for something short but not so sweet. This review of Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R. Green was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 167, July 2002.
Simon R. Green is a New York Times bestselling author. Or so the blurb tells us, and a book jacket wouldn’t lie, now would it. I’m not sure that Drinking Midnight Wine itself is a bestseller, but a close reading of the book should surely reveal to us some of the secrets of a bestselling author’s craft.
Having given this book as close and careful a reading as I could stand, I have formulated the following rules for writing a bestseller.
1) Use cliché, not just sporadically but with gay abandon. If you say there was ‘neither hide nor hair’ of someone, be sure to cap it within three lines by adding there was ‘neither sight nor sound’ of them.
2) Be imprecise, never describe anything if a vague generality will do. Why go to the effort of describing anything if you can capture the atmosphere of a countryside with which you are intimately familiar by saying: ‘There were animals in the fields. Cows and sheep and sometimes horses’?
3) Be banal, trite, soporifically dull. You are allowed odd moments of humour so long as they are tired and unlikely to raise a belly-laugh in anyone. Thus Thor’s great-great-whatever grandson has inherited the hammer Mjolnir, but it’s getting old and crotchetty and won’t come back when he throws it. You are allowed a gentle world-weariness (aren’t the trains awfully overcrowded?) so long as it doesn’t amount to genuine bile or, heaven forefend, satire. You are allowed a little mild sado-masochism to show how bad the baddie is, so long as it is not actually arousing.
4) Foreshadow. We are told so often by the all-seeing characters in this book that ‘something’ is coming that one wants to scream at them, ‘if you’re so prescient, why can’t you see what it is?’ Several times a page, it seems, our hero, Toby, is told he is a ‘focal point’, and our heroine Gayle is given heavy hints about ‘who and what she could be, should be’, without ever getting any more specific than that. Of course this is playing for time, it gives the author the chance to get most of the way through the novel before he has to decide what any of this actually refers to.
5) Be safe, be familiar. So much of this book reads like other books — the human who accidentally crosses into Faerie (here called ‘Mysterie’), the ordinary man suddenly forced to play the role of hero, the run-down godlings who happen to be living in some insignificant town (see Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or just about anything by Tom Holt for a much better variation on this theme), the great cosmic battle between good and evil that spills over from Faerie into the real world — that you know exactly what is going to happen the moment you start reading. And, true to form, Green does not spring a single surprise anywhere in these 290 pages.
Let’s be honest, all these rules can be compressed into one simple directive: be lazy! This is a drab, listless, careless piece of work. Green can use words, he just doesn’t make the effort to do anything fresh or interesting with them. Green can tell stories, he just doesn’t bother to make the stories new or involving.
The only surprise about this book is how something so bland and banal can make me so angry!