Thursday, June 10, 2004

Aquiline Jaw?

I read a lot of "gay fiction"... the sorts of things that come up at Amazon and Powell's when you click on the "Gay & Lesbian" links, or which occupy the "Gay & Lesbian Interest" aisles at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Much of the time I get a beautiful read, characters I can relate to, gorgeous prose, wonderful storylines, or even just a hot bit of erotica; but other times I get crap. And I'm starting to notice that, when the book turns out to be crap, it has already been described as "light-hearted."

Who publishes these crap books, though? That's what really bothers me. I mean, it seems there is somebody in a publisher's office somewhere who thinks that if a story is supposed to be funny or light-hearted, they don't need to actually edit it. Why is that?

I'm currently reading Going Down for the Count by David Stukas... it has a colorful cover and purports to be a "mad romp," "high camp," and "layers of froth [piled] onto the sturdy frame of a clever, intricate whodunit." It is, furthermore, similar in concept to the books I am trying (half-heartedly) to write, i.e., a high-life mystery with a trio of unlikely and generally inept sleuths. It got good reviews, at least from others who bought the book from Amazon, so I figured I'd give it a try.

I am only sixty pages in (and I got there in just one hour, it's printed in twelve-point font, with three-quarter-inch margins), and am already discouraged — I have found so many lapses in verisimilitude that I am half-tempted to put this silly tome down and go back to Eats, Shoots & Leaves, or skip ahead to my other recent Amazon purchase, The Concrete Sky (which looks a little more serious).

For example, there is a main character called Count Seigfreid von Schmidt who is often referred to as "royalty"; now, I know the value of a funny-sounding German name (having once giggled myself sick upon the invention of a character named Olga von Hohenstohl), and I know that there are very few people likely to read this book who know German or who have actually leafed through the Almanach de Gotha and understand the styles of Germanic titles and names (as I do, to some extent)... but really, von Schmidt? That translates into "of Smith."

There is no place-name in Germany called Schmidt, and all noble German family-names are place-names (as are all French noble names). And if, by some bizarre miscarriage of reality, a person named Schmidt was ennobled with the honorific "von" (a familiar practice of the Kaisers was to honor artists and industrialists in this manner), he could not have become a count and certainly would not have any royal lineage.

I may be pre-judging, there might somewhere along the line be an explanation of this idiotic name (such as that the count isn't really a count but an impostor), but I somehow doubt it. And I'm sure the name of the count is not relevant to the story, but a name like that bespeaks a laziness which I find hard to stomach.

I mean, one story I'm working on features a character I initially named Princess Madeleine von Hohenstaufen-und-Anhalt; but I had to scratch that when I discovered that there are extant Princes of Anhalt walking around loose. There's no such thing as a Hohenstaufen, as far as I can tell, though... I just took the old Bavarian royal family name of Hohenzollern and the German city of Staufen, and blended them a bit. That's how you come up with authentic-sounding Germanic names. (I just now discovered, though, that Hohenstaufen is a real name, a royal German name from the city of Staufen, but it went extinct in the thirteenth century so I am pretty safe with it).

To return to the topic, though, there is further cause for chagrin: on page 32, Stukas describes a male supermodel as having an "aquiline jaw." A what? Aquiline means "like an eagle"... do eagles even have jaws? In all the pictures I can find, eagles don't even have necks. What in the world can an aquiline jaw look like?

Now, I can kind of understand how he got to this... people misuse the phrase "an aquiline nose" to describe noses that are better described as Roman or even Italianate... meaning somewhat large and with a pronounced arch to the bridge; but an aquiline nose should properly be shaped like the beak of an eagle. Following the misused style, I can understand that a jaw which is large and has pronounced corners might be mislabeled as "aquiline." But doesn't this guy have a dictionary? And doesn't his publisher employ editors who have access to dictionaries?

When you write a story, there are places you're going to stub your toe in creating scenes, characters, and actions, no matter how knowledgeable and careful you are... sometimes one's imagination outstrips one's own knowledge in either speed or content. I have caught myself (or been caught out by others) describing impossible things: morning sunlight streaming through the front windows of a Fifth Avenue apartment (which would face west across Central Park), men watching a football game on Father's Day (though the NFL does not play in June), or giving the character Valerien de Séguemont the title of Baron de Ballêtre (though I later learned that French styles of nobility, unlike their English equivalents, always have the family name in the title, and so he would properly be Baron Valerien de Séguemont). These things happen, and even the best authors will make mistakes, so one should go easy on second-timers like Stukas (and the entirely unpublished, like me).

But allowing such errors to survive uncorrected all the way into a hard-bound printed book with a $23 price-tag that will be bought for $16.10 plus shipping at Amazon by people like me who notice things like that... well, it's just bad authorship and bad editorship. Didn't they even do a galley-proof revision? I am so irritated by this David Stukas person that I feel like writing him a letter of complaint.

I won't, of course. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and I have never managed to even finish a story, much less get it to an editor who may or may not spot my mistakes in fact and authenticity. To criticize Stukas (to his face, anyway... doing it in an obscure blog doesn't count) would be to invite, via karma, criticism to myself. If I ever did get published, although I am pretty conversant on my styles of nobility, I am still kind of shaky on the whole "that or which" problem, which far stickier sticklers than I would jump onto with carnivorous glee.

In the meantime, I am going to finish reading Going Down for the Count in the hopes that it will redeem itself in plotting where it has fallen down on the details. And if it doesn't, I am just going to have to avoid novels that hype themselves as "light-hearted"... and hope like hell that nothing I write in the future will ever inflame someone like me into writing a contemptuous blog-entry about my persisitent use of "which" when I really mean "that."

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