When one of my dear friends moved away a couple years ago, she Marie Kondo-ed her house and came across a few books that she thought I would enjoy. The first, a non-fiction account of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition which was marred by the H.H. Holmes murders, looked promising. The second, an award-winning science fiction novel about ill-fated Jesuits visiting an alien planet, also looked interesting. I raised an eyebrow at the third, a top-of-the-toilet-tank book that my friend passed on to me only because the title is a four-letter word and she knew I’d be amused. I placed that one in its appropriate place at home and took the other two to the beach.
After three days of really, truly trying to care, I gave up and downloaded some crossword puzzles. Both books committed the sin of giving too much backstory upfront. The non-fiction book thought I should learn about America’s first skyscrapers before I could learn about America’s first serial killer. And the fiction story began in 2059, backtracked to 2019, leapt forward, jumped back, leapt forward, jumped back, and then went back even further to some undisclosed time, perhaps 2009. Both authors wanted to provide context for the events which provided the meat of the story. But I didn’t want to know about the meat’s life on the farm! I just wanted its ribs on my plate!
And yet, I feel I’m in the minority in this opinion. Both books were written by successful authors. The fiction story even has a sequel. My friend liked them enough to share them with me. There’s surely thousands of other readers out there who feel similarly. There’s at least two agents and two editors, anyway.
So this makes me wonder: Is it possible, or even acceptable, or better yet desirable to commit literary “sins” such as beginning with backstory or flashback? Have the rules changed? Do publishers now want you to do all the things you’ve been told not to? Are we breaking the rules now, is that what we’re doing???
Well, those two authors did it and got away with it. And who cares what one sunburned lady on a crowded beach thinks, anyway?
Confess your literary sins to me at Kate@KateLanders.com.