A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
I am not a violent man. In my lifetime, I have never been in a fight. I’ve never seriously threatened anyone with violence, never made anyone feel afraid by my physical presence, never even really seriously considered doing violence to another person.
Having said that, the feelings this book evoked in me were… violent.
Not because Lemony Snicket has written a book where terribly unfortunate things happen to small children – I have no problems with that and in fact encourage it; it builds character. I want to do violence towards Lemony Snicket because he’s a terrible writer who should never have been allowed to have his words put to paper. His pens should be broken, his notes burned, his hard drive wiped and, if possible, his writings should banned by an Act of Congress. The First Amendment can only go so far.
You may be wondering what has roused this level of bibliorage in me. By all accounts, this series is extremely popular, loved by many. On various book review websites, this book routinely gets at least four stars and high praise. It was even made into a movie starring Jim Carry, and if that’s not the Seal of Public Approval then I don’t know what is. It would seem that one of two things is true: Either I’m seriously overreacting to a tiny aspect of Snicket’s (AKA Daniel Handler’s) writing style or the rest of the world is full of blind ignoramuses who wouldn’t know decent writing if they woke up in bed with it after a bender in Vegas.
As a reviewer, I, of course, choose to believe the latter.
Snicket has taken what should be an entertaining story, filled with untimely death, physical violence, extortion, deception, and pedophilic overtones, and corrupted it by treating its audience like a bunch of drooling idiots.
I am, of course, referring to his habit of defining “difficult” words within the text, with no regard for the flow of the story or the necessity of the definition. For example:
Page 2: “…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word ‘rickety,’ you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’ – alone to the seashore….”
Page 13: “…over a dull dinner of boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and blanched – the word ‘blanched’ here means ‘boiled’ – string beans.”
Page 18: “‘Please get out of bed and get dressed,’ he said briskly. The word ‘briskly’ here means ‘quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.'”
Page 44: “…the kitchen grew cozy as the sauce simmered, a culinary term which means ‘cooked over a low heat.'”
And so on.
There are a few occasions where a word is defined well, in context and occasionally in character, and I don’t mind those. But the constant shoehorning in of definitions made me want to take a sharpened number two pencil and work it under Mr. Snicket’s fingernails until he apologized sufficiently for being a hack.
I’ve gotten feedback from people who like this style, especially parents, who say that it saves them from having to put down the book and explain to the child what “blanched” means. Full disclosure: I am not a parent, nor am I likely to ever be one, but I think that teaching a child to figure things out for him or herself – or, god forbid, learn to use a dictionary – is part of what will make her or him grow up to be an inquisitive, intelligent adult. In my real job, teaching English as a foreign language, I find that my students are more likely to remember a word if I make them work for it, rather than if I just tell them what it means.
Let’s face it – if this book is written for adults, then the author should treat his readers like adults. If the book is written for children, which this ostensibly is, then the author has to choose whether to talk up or down to them. In a book where the main characters’ parents die before the first page and where the eldest daughter nearly becomes a child bride to her blood uncle, one would think the author has judged his audience mature enough to deal with these themes. If that’s so, then overtly defining “difficult” words is an insult to his readers, and that is unacceptable to me.
I am reminded of a passage in Terry Pratchett’s book, Wee Free Men, where the main character, a nine year old girl named Tiffany, asks an itinerant teacher about zoology:
“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.”
“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”
I think Mr. Pratchett may have read Mr. Snicket’s book as well.
“If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book.”
– Lemony Snicket