Paragraph from Hillary Mantel's Mann Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall:
"But for the while the cardinal is amused, and puts the kittens on a cushion in an open chest, and watches as they grow. One of them is black and hungry, with a coat like wool and yellow eyes. When it is weaned he brings it home. He takes it from under his coat, where it has been sleeping curled against his shoulder. "Gregory, look." He holds it out to his son. "I am a giant, my name is Marlinspike."
Question: Who brings the cat home?
You say, "Surely, it must be the cardinal. He is the only one mentioned in the entire paragraph."
But no! We are to understand, in the world of prestigious Mann Booker Prize winners, the word "he" always refers to protagonist Thomas Cromwell, unless it refers to someone else, and there are a lot of someone else's.
I tell my college students that their job as writers is to make my job as a reader easy and pleasant. That is a bit of an overstatement. Not all ideas are simple. Not all ideas are pleasant. You want to challenge my world view? Go for it! But good writing is like good manners. You need to think about the needs of others. Unless your intent is to be obscure--a noble goal if you are writing a mystery, for example--I should not have to work hard to figure out the basic details. And who is bringing home the cat seems like a basic detail.
For the longest time, I thought: Surely, it must be me! Wolf Hall is praised and lauded! The refusal to say who you mean must be some sort of fancy narrative devise that I am just not smart enough to understand. Oh! The shame! But no! NO! That kind of thinking is why dictators and "Dancing with the Stars" take rule. I am a competent reader, and books that are confusing for the wrong reasons should not win prestigious awards. Privileging such books alienates readers and sends the message that the problem with modern literature is that readers aren't smart when, in fact, the problem with modern literature is that writers have forgotten basic manners.
And don't get me started on how Mantel can't punctuate herself out of a paper bag.
(PS: I'm reusing this picture of my youngest daughter because she knows how to use a fricking pronoun.)
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