Friday, May 15, 2009

Organizing the Corner Shelf, Part 1

My stint as an avid reader was severely hobbled almost two weeks ago by the sudden and sobering realization that I’d deceived myself into believing that I was far closer than I really was to completing a project I heard alternately referred to as a “work sample” and the more chilling “masters thesis.”

It was easy to keep turning page upon page of leisure material when I thought of this project as a benign and friendly “work sample,” a simple accounting of what I’d been doing over the preceding months. Hearing the project later labeled as a “masters thesis” proved somewhat of a literary show stopper.

With the capstone project now just a fading memory, I’m back with a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t in my recent corner shelf selections.

I was excited to read Sarah Dessen’s YA bestseller The Truth About Forever after a high school student favorably compared my writing to Dessen’s—a fact that I probably wouldn’t have admitted prior to actually reading the book, thinking it unseemly to compare myself to a New York Times best-selling author in a public forum. However, after reading the book, I’m not feeling nearly as flattered by the remark as I formerly may have been tempted.

As discussed in The Portable MFA (a current corner shelf pick), when it comes to fiction, questions perform the all-important function of engaging the reader-- and the sooner the better, if you want your reader to keep turning pages. Trouble was, Dessen’s novel didn’t prompt much in the way of inquiry. From the dust cover forward, I had a pretty solid bead on what I’d find clear through the final paragraph. I found myself on page 177 before any real complication presented itself, and made it fully to page 315 until I felt so much as a flicker of real concern. I understand that it’s a character-driven novel, and I’m fine with that, provided I’m invested enough in the character to really care.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t.

To really pull off a character-driven novel, the author has to work doubly hard to render a compelling character—because, let’s face it, the protagonist now has the burden of carrying the whole story. Oh, I’ll admit to a baseline level of general concern for protagonist Macy, and I’ll concede that the cast eclectic New Friends she meets through her accidental catering job had a lot of literary potential. Based on early impressions of Dessen’s cast, I might have been tempted to say that the novel committed no greater crime than to be a member of the rabble The Portable MFA fingers for “introducing a wonderful character, but little drama or action.” However none of Truth’s characters quite make it to wonderful status, due, I would argue, to never reaching full development.

I got a taste of who these characters might be, and the shame of it is, I might have really liked them. Dessen effectively employed the technique of giving all her characters unique, instantly identifiable mannerisms—and promptly brushed her hands and called it a wrap, at least in the case of the support cast.

But what I found most disturbing was that Dessen’s idea of bringing her character out of a prison of perfectionism and grief to ultimately embrace life, in its flaws, imperfections and uncertainty relied so heavily on the late night party scene. Perhaps what’s most puzzling is that the party setting almost seemed gratuitous—the New Friends who introduce Macy to the party scene come off as offbeat, quirky kids that you wouldn’t expect to find at a kegger anyway. You picture them as independent, free thinkers that wouldn’t fit the stereotype.

And the big truth about forever? Is simply that--brace yourselves—it’s always changing, as in “for any one of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now” (p 135). Dessen’s weak spin on the death as a catalyst for life theme fell flat for me, largely as a world view issue. Viewing forever as a concept that bridges this world and extends into eternity makes it tough to see through to what was probably her real point: live in the moment, the future is uncertain.

I’ll post some (shorter) comments about my other corner shelf selections in a later post. I’m not really accustomed blogging book reviews, but there was a fair amount of interest when I posted the link to my original corner shelf post on facebook, so I thought I’d continue the thread.

Spoiler alert for next week: look for a swift unraveling of literary commentary and a return to our Regular Programming (long awkward silences followed by equally long posts documenting various fiascos) as I begin the month-long finale of my masters program. Five weeks until I drink my coffee from the alumni mug!


Anonymous said...

I applaud this insightful critique! An occasional literary review is a perfect addition to your blog. Such prowess can only be shown by one so close to real credentials!

Catherine W. (It's been so long since I blogged, I forget my password.)

RockinBlueGlasses said...

My stint as an avid reader was severely hobbled two weeks ago by the stunning realization that I couldn't see very well anymore. I was reading a book and noticed I had one of my eyes closed. :-)

running_with_letters said...

Oh, goodie!! Catherine W. is back! Hi, is good to see you here. I hope you find your password and re-enter the blogosphere--you've been missed.

And--Rockin Blue--how does that work?? I assume you're tired, but I can't ever say that I've ever managed to keep one eye going...I just fall face first into the text with both eyes quite shut. I'm actually impressed :)


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