Immoderation and the pitfall of the superlative

Currently I am editing (very slowly, because I hate editing) Brown Bread Boys, and reading Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, and contemplating something I find off-putting in fiction, in order to prevent myself from deploying it and putting other, like-minded readers off.

In grammar, the superlative is the form of an adverb or adjective that expresses a degree of the adverb or adjective being used that is greater than any other possible degree of the given descriptor.

Thanks, Wikipedia

By this I mean: the most, the best, the worst, the least, the dramatic bookend of the spectrum of whatever quality is being discussed. The greatest prize-fighter the world has ever seen; the most beautiful love interest; the worst catastrophe. The kind of demarcation the news, circus barkers, and people who write adverts for beer are enamoured of. As I’ve previously written while trying to explain litotes, I’m not keen on the use of hyperbole unless it’s ironic: standing in front of a zoo containing three animals and bellowing that it is the most exceptional selection of wildlife the world has ever allowed to congregate in one urban environment, for example, is both funny and sad. It’s a wonderful, almost cruel humour. Using it with sincerity just strikes me as over-saturating every colour until none of them stand out, providing no effect at all.

Hyperbole isn’t the only offender: we all know that flawless characters are unforgivably tedious, and far more coherent writers than me have waxed lengthy about which particular “flaws” are most often wheeled out in order to disguise someone having been written as off-puttingly flawless (clumsiness, inability to sing, and being ‘plain’ by nomination but not by description for female characters; being unable to fight, bad at relationships, or functionally alcoholic to a point that does not damage their health in male characters; and “aloof” for both genders). Sometimes a character can be rendered boring by simply being too good at things.

The real problem comes when, after the author has taken pains to make their characters different, and their settings three-dimensional, and they are still naggingly dull because everything is the most. The worst dive, the best restaurant, the best fighter, the worst crook, the cleverest scientist, the greatest defeat, the biggest victory. Peril fatigue happens often in serial fiction (televised or comics) when every drama is the end of the fucking world yet again (particularly when you know the world isn’t going to end because they’re coming back next week).

This kind of amplification of features is understandable in fairytales, where the story itself is required to be big and bold and in broad strokes, the characters easily-transferred archetypes, and the moral of the narrative is the most important part. You are not being asked to suspend your disbelief in talking wolves in order to examine the character growth of Little Red Riding Hood, but because the story “be careful with strangers and things may not be as they seem” is an important lesson.

When we come to adult fiction, the point at which childhood reliance on big bright colours and “VERY GOOD” and “VERY BAD” is supposed to die away, narratives need to focus on personal importance: when we grow up, we understand that our personal dramas do not have global importance, but that they are also still worthwhile and have value to us (and that other people’s do to them, too). Stories reflect this change by giving us validation as adults: your non-superlative life still matters.

What I find is that this is somewhat undercut when there is no one in a story who isn’t a caricature, or no situation that isn’t life-or-death. And saying “well these people lead more interesting lives” doesn’t cut it, either: real life spies have quiet days, real life soldiers have long periods of boring nothingness, real life astronauts have to do mundane reporting duties (and brilliant videos of them singing in a space station), real life explorers have moments in which they twiddle their thumbs and wait for the weather to change. Of course the purpose of stories is to bring form and heightened feeling to reality, but it’s hard to believe in a story where everyone is conveniently the MOSTEST BESTEST EVER, particularly when the setting doesn’t lend itself to that. There have to be people who aren’t the best but are good; there have to be people who aren’t the worst but are lousy, in the same way that muted shades allow for a more engaging picture, with deeper shadows and lighter highlights no long baffling or blinding or robbing all meaning.

This is not, despite what it sounds like, to suggest that world-saving narratives have no value. I enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as the next person who loves watching a bunch of giant robots punching a bunch of enormous interdimensional monsters.

But right now, I’m reading a book which is so full of self-consciously “cool” ideas that it’s beginning to grate. The characters are all wonderful, but they’re the same kind of wonderful, with the same kind of sparkly, witty, circumlocutive dialogue. They all have an excess of snark, even the few not blessed with Harkaway’s thesaurus-filling vocabulary, and it occurs to me that what I want from fiction is recognisable characters. I want people who make dumb mistakes or aren’t the best but are the best you can get at short notice. They can’t bend the world to their will, they just think they can. I don’t mind delusions of perfection from a character PoV when the reality of the story is showing me they’re full of shit: I mind when the author believes them. I mind when someone shows me a palace of proportions perplexing and perfection untold and there are no scuffs on the skirting board.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up on Pratchett. Terry’s writing has always carried in it a good-humoured but sharp-edged first-hand appreciation of poverty. There are consequences, levels, and depths in his characters even when he’s taking on dark vs light world-saving narratives (and as his writing matured, the frequency of those narratives diminished rapidly. Most of the time the dramas are small, personal, or at best civic and national; Terry champions throughout all his work the importance of individuals); people are almost never the best in the world and even when they are they don’t win by being “the best”. They win by luck, or desperation, or a momentary reprieve. They win, often, by being unflinchingly human: Douglas Adams used to pull of the same trick, of the heroic mediocre and the banality of evil.

Perhaps it’s because I’m post-war British, and I simply don’t believe in big moral narratives, and I can’t make myself. Perhaps I just have too much cynicism thanks to errant brainwaves making me observe that even the greatest athletes do fucking stupid things and the people in positions of political power get there by lying, cronyism, nepotism, bribery, and more lying. Perhaps rationalism and materialism, two terrible habits I have developed too late in life to do me any good (where were these things when I was being dragged around homeopaths while my mother tried to cure me of my personality?), refuse to allow me to take the idea of a quantifiable Best Person; perhaps too many sociology essays and discussions about cultural bias and classism have taken their toll and I can’t take seriously the idea that the person labelled the “best” is actually “the best” (rather than the recipient of privilege, luck, or a biased measuring system).

Evolution allows mad things to pass through the net of extinction simply because they managed to not die. And if evolution by natural selection doesn’t require that things be the best, and various religions require only that individual souls try to be the best that is possible for them, I am pretty sure that narratives don’t need and are diminished by their constituent characters being the unquestioned superlatives of their category.

For more effectively worthless opinionated writing advice, why not buy “How Not To Write“? It’s cheap.



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