Today we learn that if you want to affect a particular historical style, it’s not enough to come close. You have to understand the language you’re using thoroughly. And if you don’t, that tells you what qualities you should be looking for in your editor.
What I gleaned about the story: It’s something of a Victorian explorer drama, complete with fusty old academics being dragged off to Faroffistan in pursuit of glory.
Find the book on Amazon.
Kudos: I love the cover. It captures the essence of the Victorian travel poster or monograph beautifully.
Analysis: Phrases and words have specific meanings, and you have to understand them, and their appropriate contexts, if you want to use them effectively.
The first of the quoted sentences is at cross purposes with itself. In the context of the story, the narrator is trying to say that a group of people are acting in the only way left to them, given the dire circumstances they’ve been forced into. That their very survival is at stake and they have been left with no alternatives. But “taking it upon themselves” connotes an exercise of conscious choice, and “the way they see fit” also implies a choice. So the narrator ends up defending extreme behavior by saying that the perpetrators consciously chose to do it, which of course, is no defence at all. This kind of cognitive dissonance is a real immersion-buster for me. It forces me to stop and examine the text, trying to discern which of the two meanings was intended.
As for the second example sentence, I’m going to assume it’s either an uncorrected typo, or a leave-behind from a sloppy edit. The word “whence” does not mean “when.” It means “from where.” But again, it changes the meaning of the sentence in a way that puts it into conflict with itself, and so I “demmersed.”
Analysis: Again, I’m confused. If his hair is all “matted about,” how is it clear that it was once well-kempt? Again I had to stop and re-read the passage to see if I’d missed some other clue, but there were none that I could find. If the word “clearly” weren’t there, then I’d have happily assumed that the narrator knew the man well, knew that he was normally a fastidious sort, and everything would have been fine. But by adding “clearly,” it changes the meaning, now implying that the quality of his haircut was self-evident. Except that the only evidence we’re given is that it’s a matted tangle. I wondered, how else could a head of hair convey its usual tidiness? So now I was struggling to make this work, and as a consequence, fell out.
Analysis: The look wore an expression? But a look is an expression. Again, this might well have been another editorial leave-behind. But even so, there have been enough of them now that I’m starting to get the feeling of language being used in a slip-shod manner. It’s like the guy who is introduced to me at a party and when he gets my name wrong for the fifth time and I correct him, he says, “Jefferson, Jackson. Whatever.” It gives me the sense that this guy doesn’t take me seriously, just as these kinds of errors in a book give me the feeling that the author doesn’t take his prose seriously. I’m not saying that’s the case – just that it’s the feeling I get when I encounter repeated language gaffes like this. And a reader who senses disdain coming from the author is unlikely to trust him enough to immerse.
Note: The frustrating thing for me is that I think the story here might have been going to interesting places, but as I’ve said before, details matter. Words matter. It’s not enough to intend to say something profound, or eloquent, or clever. You actually have to execute the words that make it so. This could have been so much better with a strong editor on the team. Perhaps one more familiar with Victorian turns of phrase.