I admit that I am a fan of more narrative styles of writing. An example of this might be Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series, where the story is sewn through with little side stories and bits of information. Adams was a genius at dry humor and witty insight. Terry Pratchet is another, similar writer who achieves the same results.
What I’m not a fan of is blather, or those meandering passages that tell the reader nothing, but are thrown in because the author thinks he or she is being clever. Case in point: I was reading something given to me several months ago. In one paragraph I’m reading about a grown woman from Utah, but a few moments later we’ve flipped to a teenager from Michigan. In the span of two pages we’ve gone from extra-marital affairs to junior high awkwardness, only the transition isn’t nearly that good.
In a decent narrative style, the interruptions and shifts in time seem smooth and interesting to a reader. When not handled well, it’s like being jerked backwards through a knot hole in the fence.
In Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” the author will occasionally backtrack to some point in the past to clarify an aspect of the story, such as why a character is struggling with a particular point, or why the reader should pay attention to a given detail. When the author is blathering, like the one I mentioned above, there is no point to the information other than the author is afraid the reader won’t get it any other way. In other words, the author thinks the reader is stupid and can’t be trusted to understand. Either that or the writer just doesn’t have a good enough technique to handle the presentation of information in a more complex writing style.
Blathering also occurs when a writer likes the sound of his or her own voice. They think they are funny, entertaining, or somehow intellectually stimulating, and they want the reader to think so, too. They want it so much that they will drive home this point by meandering endlessly on side information that contributes nothing to the actual story, but sure looks perty to them in writin’ and stuff.
Blather is a common problem to the beginning writer because they don’t trust the reader enough to let go and just write. The reader may not “get it” or might misunderstand if the newbie doesn’t spell it out for them. Books like this are not only boring, they are painful to wade through. Traditional publishers are usually smart enough to stay away from them, so the author resorts to either self-publishing, vanity presses, or presses that no one has ever heard of before.
Unfortunately, even big publishers are occasionally fooled. Sometimes it’s a big name author who doesn’t get a proper dose of editing (check Alice Walker’s “Song of Solomon” for evidence of this); and sometimes an editor is asleep at the wheel (or keyboard, rather. Check Jackie French Koller’s “A Place to Call Home”). In either case, a decent story is overwhelmed by self-conscious prose, too much evidence of the author, and unauthentic voice, and lots of blathering across the pages.
Unless you are writing a memoir, the author should be invisible to the reader. The characters should sound real and alive, not like a mouthpiece for the person who created them. The actions should ring true, motivated by the choices of the characters, not forced to perform like trained seals. Blathering is up to the author to eliminate, to prevent from happening in the first place, but most definitely to remove when discovered during revisions. To do otherwise, to fail to eliminate your presence from your story is an ego problem that borders on narcissism. It’s a cardinal sin in writing.