Ken Follett has a new book out, The Evening and the Morning. This post is not about that book. I have not read it and I probably won’t. This is about Follett as a writer.
Even though I find Follett’s writing to be annoying to one degree or another, depending on the book. I have read six of them in the last few months, one after the other, like eating potato chips. Over the years, I’ve probably read a dozen of his works. These tomes are as nourishing to my mind as potato chips are to my body.
Considering how I feel about Follett’s writing, why do I continue to read his works? They’re immersive. With current events as they are, immersion in a different era is just what’s called for. Also because I have his books at home. Libraries are open only for curbside pickup. It’s a hassle for me to get to the library. If it’s onerous to get to the library, I want to browse, not just pick up books I ordered online.
Critics call Follett’s books “page-turners.” Sometimes I do keep turning the pages to see what’s going to happen next. Other times, I turn pages to see how close I am to the end of the chapter or scene. I don’t always read as far as the scene or chapter break. I read until I get bored, even if it’s in the middle of a scene. I put the book down because I’m tired of excess details and paragraphs that resemble brick walls. Even in scenes that are supposed to make readers hold their breath in anticipation of the next development, he sticks in tedious detail that slows the action. Does anyone really need to know about latrine pits? I stopped reading Pillars of the Earth just as a fire broke out. Eventually I resumed.
The older and more famous Follett gets the more self-indulgent he gets, the more bloated his books get. Too many characters. Too many subplots. Just when I think the book is finally finished, there’s another gratuitous plot twist. Too much repetition. He doesn’t trust readers to remember something that happened on the previous page. Other times characters pop up seemingly out of nowhere and he doesn’t bother to identify them, leaving me wondering “who was that?” His more recent books would benefit from being cut by at least thirty percent, or more. Preferably more.
By reading so many of his books so close together, his flaws become glaringly obvious. Pillars of the Earth and World without End, the most recent two books I’ve read are part of the Kingsbridge series, which is set in a small English town during the Middle Ages. Both books demonstrate that the author is running out of ideas. No wonder. His career spans more than forty years. In both books, part of a cathedral collapses and is re-built. In World Without End, the second book in the series, a bridge also collapses. Babies are born out of wedlock in both books. Women accused of witchcraft show up in both books. Small, slight geniuses are the heroes of both books, It’s hard to tell them apart.
I frequently want to slap some sense into the main female characters. Not many of the too many main characters are likable. The secondary characters often have them beat in likability. Although set in Medieval times both books have implausible road trips. In World Without End, two nuns chase after the king of England who is with his embattled army in France. In Pillars of the Earth a lone woman, with her infant in her arms, chases after her lover, the child’s father, to France and Spain. Apparently, no one told her that Spain is a big place. She tracks the lover from San Diego Compostela to Salamanca to Toledo, then back to Paris. Despite the heroine’s travails, I wanted the young Saracen girl he met in Toledo to get him. I like her better.
Follett’s good at creating vile villains, so vile that I want to tell him, “I know you need to keep the villain alive until the end in order to maintain suspense, but couldn’t you just maim him somewhere along the way? He badly needs maiming.” Yet I felt sorry for one loathsome character Follett killed off. Go figure. Maybe it was the way the bad guy died.
One of Follett’s thrillers that’s set in Afghanistan has a scene where a woman gives birth. It goes on for pages and pages. There’s enough detail that it might as well be a midwife’s handbook. I really didn’t need to read about every single contraction. Yet in Pillars a woman has her baby under the rubble of a collapsed cathedral roof. No details whatsoever–the kid’s just there. Who cut the umbilical cord? Who knows. It’s not mentioned.
No doubt it’s too much to expect that a thriller writer be a prose stylist, but Follett could be way more careful. I don’t expect him to be Chaucer but he could forgo his constant use of anachronisms. They drive me nuts. The words, suburb, boyfriend, girlfriend, employee, technology, among many others he uses, had not been coined in the Twelfth Century. His writing is so clumsy that I won’t bore you by citing any more examples. Except that I have to mention that there are many hearts in many mouths. Why bother to come up with new images when you’re a best-selling writer?
Usually, I don’t skip pages when I read for fear of missing something interesting or consequential. But I skip over the gruesome, intricate details of flaying, bear-baiting, torturing cats and other atrocities. The people-meat-pies in Titus Andronicus are nothing in comparison.
Follett’s books remind me of Rube Goldberg machines. Goldberg was an American cartoonist who drew intricate machines, with too many moving parts, which perform simple tasks. The drawings are funny and fun to look at. Books with too many moving parts make for turgid reading. True galloping through a book at breakneck pace gets tiresome, readers need slower-paced sections to catch their breath. However, the slower parts should not be hundreds of pages long. Good writing includes good editing.