On Gimmicks: just poorly disguised weaknesses or insulting cons and crutches?

I’ve been thinking about gimmicks recently.  Such an ugly word, “gimmick.”  It sounds sticky, gummy and like a cheap con.  Well, to me it does.

So what brings this on?  The book I read on Saturday.  I read it till past midnight because I wanted to know not so much what would happen next, but how it would end, period.  But although I read the entire book, and in one day, the reason I rushed through it was that I didn’t want to waste any more of my time reading it—it’s one thing to have done with it that same day, and another thing entirely to waste a second day on it.  I could have leisurely read it all weekend, but it didn’t provide that sort of pleasure.

So what makes a book gimmicky rather than simply “thusly structured or told?”  I guess it’s my sense that I can see the author’s crutches and on top of that weakness (of laziness), he’s also trying to con me or seduce me with cheap thrills.  How insulting.

Here’s examples from that particular book:

  1. Sex that feels like a cheap ploy used because “sex sells.”  By contrast, the protagonist of Shadow of the Wind is a passionate teenager, and his sexual experiences are intrinsically bound to the story and it works.  In Fingersmith the sex is also a great part of the story.  It’s not simply writerly wanking, if you get my drift.  The protagonist of this story, by contrast, feels absolutely fake and a stand-in for the author, and the sex feels like stand-in sex for the author, too.  (Linked to gimmick #3, clearly.)
  2. A protagonist’s unlikely brilliant ability to get out of any fight the winner.  Can we save that for TV?  (This is genre-related, but this book was not a ninja-tale.)
  3. A sense I have, I can’t tell you why, that there’s some gratuitous self-revelation and self-love in a POV character who is meant in some way to reflect the author positively (example: as sexy, sharp, savvy, say-it-how-it-is and important)
  4. Too many useful coincidences, not just stretching but making a joke of a reader’s suspension of belief.  In this book, every chief character is connected in some way to the NYPD, the mob and legal counsel.  (Including the film student working for minimum wage in a bookshop.)  Give me a break.

Maybe, though, if the writing was better (to me, as it’s a New York Times bestseller, something that’s utterly diminished my opinion of that particular accolade), I wouldn’t feel irritated and insulted by those crutches.  But was so obviously plastic.  It felt like a smarmy politician’s pick-up line.   

To feel clean again, I followed that book by reading another one entirely on Sunday.  This one I finished also after midnight, but because it was good and I wanted that closure of staying with the characters, in their mood, until the end.  This one’s also a bestseller, and once again I don’t understand how—but in this case that’s because I feel that it’s way too dense to be that popular.  Proof again that if a society VIP like the New York Times says “this is hot,” anything can sell, whether it’s trash or delicious but an acquired taste.

Anyway, this book did not have any obvious crutches to me.  It also was told through two POV characters, and two rather unusual ones, at that.  At first I felt the one character was too pat—a super intelligent 13 year old girl—but, hey, I accept it.  Because she’s also limited by her age’s didacticism, which is realistic to me, and surrounded by the concerns of her surroundings. 

The first book is The Book of Air and Shadows.  The second is The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

What about you guys—do you resent “gimmicks” or do you consider them simply poorly disguised story skeletons or something else?  And when you read gimmicky books, do you find yourself returning to your own work to eradicate anything smelling like gimmickiness in it, too?  Or do you want to convince me that I’m being petty?

I, for one, feel as if I’d hired someone to build me the Sistine Chapel, and they’d brought me to a plaster-and-chewing-gum-conjoined structure and expected praise.  Is that what I paid for?  Is that what he considers a Sistine Chapel?  No, it’s an insult and it’s an act of self-hoodwinking as well.  Or maybe just an indication of the author’s cheaper taste. 

🙂  Ahem.  And now I’m going to get off my high horse and go to work.

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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
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6 Responses to On Gimmicks: just poorly disguised weaknesses or insulting cons and crutches?

  1. ralfast says:

    So:

    1) No porn

    2) No God-Mode Sues/Stu

    3) See #2

    4)Lack of logical consistency.

    Go it!

    😉

    • sputnitsa says:

      Well, no porn if it’s not porn one’s writing. Again, genre-specific.

      I was expecting so much better from the book based on its blurb and title… And there’s another book the guy wrote which seems so cool and interesting, but from the little excerpt shared at the back of the book, I can already see the Mary Stu in it again. Alas, as if my own new doubts weren’t enough to hedge my bets with the book, that excerpt sure nailed that coffin shut. BLECH. 🙂

      What about you, do gimmicks drive you crazy or are you okay so long as the story’s interesting? Got pet peeves in books?

  2. It’s hard for me to explain what I find gimmicky. It’s a, “I know it when I see it.” And even then, I can forgive something for being gimmicky, if the novel is still well-written and fun to read.

    I’m curious about how I’d find the book. Thus far, you and I seem to have agreed on all the same books we’ve both read.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Yeah, this book was a page-turner despite its gimmickiness, but it was annoying–so annoying–in parts. And stupid, somehow. To me, of course.

      I am planning to get rid of the book, so if you’d like a Berlin airdrop, let me know. 🙂 And you’ll have to tell me, when you do get round to reading it, what you think…

      🙂

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