September 2nd, 2008

Shake it up

Once upon a time I was a PhD candidate in English. Now and forevermore I will be ABD. When I was working on my MA and I heard people whisper about ABD, I assumed this was an abbreviation for a fancy Latin term in keeping with the high-falutin' nature of the institution of higher learning. Come to find out, it stands for All But Dissertation, and it means you have finished your classes and passed your qualifying exams but you never wrote your diss. In other words, you are a loser. At least, that's what I used to think, even though I had good reasons for leaving the PhD program, such as having a baby, moving away from the frozen tundra, becoming a novelist, becoming a copyeditor, and desperately avoiding becoming an English professor. Then I found out Jennifer Crusie is also ABD in English, and now I view it as a mark of eye-hurting brilliance.

Anyhoo, my diss, had I bothered to write it, would have been an investigation of the genre of hypertext fiction. Hypertext fiction is basically a chopped-up narrative that takes advantage of the linking properties of computers. The first examples were written pre-internet on sad little computer programs that we all made fun of five years later. The web has made hypertext writing a lot easier. In fact, the Virtual Book Launch Party I wrote for The Boys Next Door is a very simple example. It's easy to do, so you would think more people would be doing it. But the genre has not exactly caught on, as evidenced by the fact that when you started reading this blog entry, you thought, "Hyper-wha?"

But back then, everybody was all about the e-book. They predicted the Death Of The Novel As We Know It, and hypertext fiction was a hot topic. I found the whole subject fascinating. I spent a lot of time pondering questions like these:

-What sorts of crazy things can you do with this structure?

-How does the structure you choose dictate the story you tell, and vice-versa?

-Since the reader of such a story is given more choices and has to be a more active participant in the experience, is this reader more empowered than the reader of a traditional narrative? Or just more annoyed?

-How is this different from those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that came out when I was in junior high?

I also spent some time trying to structure my own hypertext novel, but I eventually I gave up because the publishing industry smacked it out of me, along with most of my gumption and a few teeth. It's nothing but linear narratives for me now, at least for the forseeable future.

But so many of my favorite books play with structure: The Professor's House by Willa Cather, My Life by Lyn Hejinian, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner--speaking of which, half my juvenilia is dark southern novels divided into four sections with four POVs giving different perspectives on the same sitch. This is what I aspired to.

And even though this sort of narrative form is out of the question for me at the moment, I was heartened recently to read a couple of wonderful YA novels that play around with structure and POV. I think these authors were able to get away with writing books like these because they're both multi-published, their editors trust them, and librarians will buy them no matter what. It's something to look forward to.

Shocker: these are commercial YA, not literary YA. Imho it's easy to play with structure & etc. when you don't really care how likeable your characters are or how compelling your plot is because your highbrow readers (all 10 of them) will slog through anything just to say they've done it. I have been this person and I am through with it. I wrote my master's thesis on James Joyce's Ulysses and then I had an unfortunate experience with Robert Coover's The Public Burning. I am done. No, I'm talking about mainstream YA fiction you can sink your teeth into and lose yourself in, but just approaches the genre differently:

The Missing Girl by Norma Fox Mazer

Caren suggested this one to me, and it's just as fabulous as she said. It's about a girl who's kidnapped by a pedophile, so in that respect it bears some resemblance to Laura Wiess's Such a Pretty Girl (also awesome, though linear). It's told from the POV of the girl, her sisters, and the villain. I know, it's not unusual for characters to tell a story collectively. What I found so interesting was that the different POVs don't really drive the narrative. The narrative is so compelling that it drives itself, and the POVs serve to make this book not so much about the kidnapping, after all, but about a troubled family, how its members define themselves in reference to each other, and how they grow in the face of a tragedy. Bonus: Mazer writes the most verisimilar villain I have read in a long time.

Love, Football, and Other Contact Sports by Alden Carter

I was about to give a talk to aspiring teen writers at a library this summer. I was walking through the stacks with Barbara the Awesome YA Librarian and telling her I planned to instruct the teens to find the one book on the shelf that made them scream OMG THIS BOOK SOUNDS LIKE THE BEST BOOK EVER!!! That is sort of book they should be writing themselves. Well, lo and behold, I came across this book and said to Barbara OMG THIS BOOK SOUNDS LIKE THE BEST BOOK EVER!!! I think I may have jumped up and down too.

This is a book about a small town that sounds similar to the one I grew up in, and a high school football team made of up folks who sound similar to the ones I knew. As for the "love" referenced, there's quite a bit of romance, but this book is more about love for your neighbor, understanding others, Only Connect. And if that sounds all high-minded, well, it is. But just when you think Carter is about to go over the top with this, he pulls back and laughs at himself. It reminds me of a happy, unself-conscious version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Continuing that comparison, this is a novel made up of short stories and scenes like that earlier book or Cane by Jean Toomer. And like both those books, the scenes sometimes focus on other people but generally center on one character who connects them all--in this case a very sweet, very large football player. I was thrilled to discover this writer and I'm looking forward to his next book in October, Walkaway.

I can't wait until October, though. Do you have any suggs for me? Mainstream YA novels that take the usual narrative structure and spin it around until it feels euphoric?
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