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All the Light We Cannot See

This Netflix series is just barely over the threshold of watchability. The characters are sweet, but cloying, often to the point of being irritating. The dialogue was some of the worst I’ve encountered in a long time. Most of the scenes are about 30 percent too long. It’s one of those stories that tries to manipulate us into liking it, usually by being sentimental.

The novel All the Light We Cannot See was published in 2014. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

How, I kept asking myself, does mediocre material like this win a Pulitzer Prize? I found my answer in the Wikipedia article. The novel is written in the present tense. This is a proven technique that the very worst of writers figure out: If you develop some sort of quirky and irritating style of writing, then many people including critics will think it’s good writing. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was published in 2009. I strongly suspect that Anthony Doerr was copying Mantel’s gimmick of writing in the present tense, though Doerr is less opaque than Mantel. (I read a sample of Doerr’s novel on Amazon. As for Hilary Mantel, I tried to read Wolf Hall and flung it after about four pages because the writing was so obnoxious.) Writing like Mantel’s accords with bad writers’ notions of what good writing sounds like. After all, that stuff wins prizes, doesn’t it?

Doerr’s dialogue is what I call lazy dialogue. That’s when the characters say the obvious thing for carrying the story forward, as the writer cranks it out. Good writers will see to it that their characters rarely say the obvious thing. Good writers put far more effort into dialogue that not only carries the story forward, but that also amplifies characterization and that adds color to whatever situation the characters are in.

And then there is rhythm. The rhythm of Doerr’s English sounds like a woodpecker.

I know I’m testy on the matter of bad writing that passes itself off as good writing. If it were merely bad, it would be easy enough to ignore it. But that bad writing wins prizes is an insult to the many better writers who remain more obscure, and an injustice to good editors who see bad writing for what it is but for whatever reason have to let authors get away with it. I have a fantasy of having someone like Hilary Mantel or Anthony Doerr trapped beside me on a crowded train so that I can berate them with what they never hear — that they are terrible writers badly in need of a fearless editor, from whom they might learn a great deal.

All that said, All the Light We Cannot See does contain a warm and edifying story, though a story that could have been much better told. And Doerr was very wise in choosing the medieval town of Saint-Malo, in Brittany, as his setting. Saint-Malo is an extremely picturesque walled town that was occupied by the Nazis in World War II and liberated by American forces in 1944 in battles that nearly destroyed the city. Saint-Malo was carefully rebuilt after the war. It’s now a tourist destination. According to Wikipedia, the population is under 50,000, but in tourist season there may be up to 300,000 people in the city. There are ferries to Saint-Malo from Portsmouth and the Channel Islands. Saint-Malo is now on my travel wish list, though I’d want to go in the off season to avoid the crowds.


It’s my practice not to read other people’s reviews before I write here about a book, a movie, or a television series. After I wrote the above this morning, I Googled for some reviews of All the Light We Cannot See. The New Republic savaged the novel as “a sentimental mess” and described Doerr’s writing as “pompous, pretentious, and imprecise.” Yes, yes, and yes.

But there’s worse. During the last fifteen minutes of the Netflix series, I cringed lest Doerr, being a bad writer, ruin the ending. The Netflix ending was just as it should be in the art of storytelling. But I learned from a review of the novel that Netflix changed Doerr’s ending, because Doerr had indeed ruined it. Knowing now that Doerr botched the novel with the kind of ending that amateur writers write, I reduce the grade from a C-minus to a D-minus, with thanks to Netflix for correcting such a crass authorial error.

One Comment

  1. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    I read the book a long time ago and so did my wife. We booth loved it.
    After reading your review I’m afraid to watch it

    Saturday, November 11, 2023 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

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