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Moby-Dick Stinks

The Invincible Spud

The first ever Invincible Spud Award of Mediocrity goes to Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. (In my opinion, it qualifies as either science fiction or fantasy, but that's not a condition for the award. Anything's eligible.) Reasons I decided to give the award to this novel:

1. POV shifts

In a first-person story, too. "Call me Ishmael." Well, the first few chapters were consistent, and then when they set sail for the open seas, it all got fuzzy.... Maybe there's something symbolic in that, but I don't get it. In various chapters, the point of view skips around to Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, etc., including several chapters where Ishmael is not present and cannot possibly overhear what happens.

2. Lack of a clear protagonist

Presumably Ishmael, possibly Ahab, title suggests Moby Dick, who knows?

3. Lack of protagonist involvement

(if Ishmael) In my opinion, Ishmael wasn't involved in most of the events in the book, with the exception of the first few chapters, which are the relative epitome of good writing, as far as the rest of the book is concerned. Once they got on that ship, everything got fuzzy....

(if Ahab) Okay, there's involvement here, but Ahab doesn't change. At least, not in my opinion.

(if Moby Dick) Lack of presence. Period.

4. Bad title

The title is Moby-Dick. The whale is Moby Dick. What's with the hyphen? It doesn't appear in the text at all.

5. Unnecessary description

More info about a whale's anatomy than any sane person would want to know.... I think this novel can be cut to one-fifth (or less) of its length.

6. Infodump

(goes with #5) Yep. Seems like Melville is saying, "Hey! Look at me! Look at all this research I did! Look at all the sources I used [which were basically various sources cited in just one book that Melville used]! So I'm just going to throw it all into my novel so you readers can see how much work I did!"

7. Lack of reader-friendliness

Maybe it's the point, but Ishmael's word choice is just too complicated. In fact, in several instances other characters requested easier-to-understand rewordings.... Definitely doesn't work.

8. Unnecessary digressions

It's got a few of those...ugh. No point.

9. Meaningless change of tone

Oh, yes. Chapter 40. It looks exactly like the script for a musical, with incredibly lousy racial stereotypes thrown in without any apparent reason. And other places in the novel that didn't stand out so much.

10. Unnecessary stuff at the beginning

Before you get to those famous words "Call me Ishmael," you have to slog through: One page containing several definitions of "whale" and the word "whale" in various languages. And after that, ten pages of quotes about whales. Self- explanatory.

11. Bad plot

Except for the first few chapters, there wasn't any plot, as far as I can tell. Once they got on the ship, everything got funky. It just went on and on and on, and nothing really happened. Again, maybe that's the point, but it didn't work for me.

12. Lack of a satisfactory conclusion

The last three chapters are about chasing the whale, and then, just like that, Moby Dick completely trashes the Pequod, and only Ishmael survives, which is related in a very short epilogue. Very very short ending to a very very long novel. Definitely not conclusive.

No wonder almost all the critics trashed Moby-Dick when it came out. I'm not sure what made people revive it in the 1920s. In my opinion, this is the ideal book to study to see what to avoid in your own writing. Read it, scream at it, and think for a moment, and maybe you'll learn something.

First published online at the Asimov's Forum, 2002.

Copyright 2002 by The Invincible Spud.