Sunday, May 23, 2010

So I Read Will Grayson, Will Grayson

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I did not, like the rest of the world, particularly love Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and I judge John Green unfairly. Simply put, his books are so awesome that I expect them all to be. And that's kind of a high standard.

Let's get the good stuff about the book out of the way first:

1. I liked the format. Alternating chapters is cool with me and it works in this book. It in no way feels disjointed. The story flows nicely.

2. There are funny parts and I'm all for funny parts.

3. One of the things I like about Green is how he writes dialogue and how he handles male friendships. Once again, he did not disappoint in these areas. Levithan's dialogue was just as good.

4. I always admire how Green handles parents in his book. He gives them their due, but keeps them largely in the background. So many authors create stupid parents or evil parents or neglectful parents or parents who are on vacation so they (the authors) don't have to deal with them. Green writes parents who actually love their kids. It's refreshing in YA.

And now the things I didn't like so much. I've tried to put these in order from that which annoyed me the most to the least.

1. The characters--Tiny Cooper and Straight Will's dad are I think the only two characters I liked.

2. The story--In short, there ain't much of one. There's a nice little surprise about a third of the way through that concerns Gay Will, but that's about it on the plotting front. The term "character study" was created for books like this, and since I'm in the rejection process right now and getting a fair amount of "I liked this and this, but there just isn't enough story," I'm kind of sensitive to books that have this and this but not much story.

3. The gayness--Yeah, yeah, I know it's about the universality of love and whatnot, but I think we all like to read about characters we relate to and I just didn't.

4. The ending--Sorry, not buying it.

5. I have a prejudice against original song lyrics in books, especially when said lyrics are intended to be funny. First, it's impossible to read the song the way the author hears it in his head, so it's like reading poetry with terrible meter. Second, it's obvious the author thinks he's being clever and that's annoying. Third, how the characters react to the song lyrics says something about how the author views his own song writing ability. So if the author thinks it's all kinds of funny and has the character say something like, "I almost fell on the floor laughing" then the reader knows that the author thinks he wrote some funny shit and funny shit should be funny shit on its own. When a character laughs, I usually don't.

6. Too much theme--This is an issue in all of Green's work. (I haven't read enough Levithan to make the same criticism.) Green gets a little too didactic, especially near the ends of this books. He kind of hits you over the head with the message.

And can I say that I feel for the writer who's trying to write a book that gay kids will pick up? (And I think that describes this book, although I'm sure the authors would not admit to it.) On the one hand, we want being gay to be, like it says in the book, just another characteristic of the person, like having blue eyes. The character is this and this and this and, yes, he happens to be gay. This sort of treatment seems to get the most positive reviews, especially among those who are gay. But there's also a rule in writing that your characters are who they are for a reason. I once read a review that called a main character "ethnic for no reason." It was meant as a criticism. Implied is that if you make your characters Latino or black or gay, then that Latinoness or blackness or gayness must somehow matter to the story.

And so there's a conflict. By making gayness just another personal trait, the author is saying it doesn't matter. Like the color of the character's eyes. But clearly, it has to matter, or the reader will wonder why in the hell the author made the character gay. And I don't think this conflict only exists in the world of fiction. We claim to want equality, but is equality really enough? Don't we celebrate our differences? Don't we think our differences make us who we are? Don't they matter? And if they do, don't our differences drive each of our personal stories? Do we not form our self-identities based mainly on that which makes us stand out from the pack?

Equating gayness with blue-eyedness sound nice and is certainly the politically correct thing to believe these days, but is it the truth? Do gay people really want books where a character's gayness doesn't matter?

I don't know. Maybe they do. But I sort of doubt it.


Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Great post and thanks for the review. I agree with many of these points.

Your thoughts about celebrating differences and comparing having blue eyes with being gay really put things in perspective. Well done.

Anita said...

I kinda see what you're saying. You know how my wip's main character's name is Mikey Murphy? Well, before I came up with Mikey Murphy, I was asking my kids what they thought I should name the character and one of them said Pedro. And I was like, hmmm...I could make the main character a latino. But then I decided it would make me want to make his latinoness more a part of the story than I was willing to do. That from a Mexican. Maybe I'll have a latino main character in another book, though. (We had just watched NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE--which I loved--and that's probably why my kid recommended Pedro).

Jonathon Arntson said...

I agree with a lot of what you said, but I like the book for some of the reasons you didn't.

When I review a YA book, I take interest in what I think teens will get out of the book. While teens are just as smart as adults, they are far more naive and so Green's style of 'hitting you over the head with his message' is proof that teens need to hear something more times than adults before it resonates with them.

I didn't buy the ending either, but I loved it because it was so different and, well, funny. It was completely expected, so there was no element of surprise for me, but I still loved it.

Re: the gayness = blue eye stuff, I find myself in agreement with you, mostly. I remember reading a pub news thing that had the story you're referring to about the rando ethnic character and it has stuck with me.

I think what people want is someone being gay is something that that person can celebrate, but no one should degrade. Being gay myself, I don't really want that so much for myself because I am generally apathetic, but I can see that others do. I'd rather be another person wearing jeans and blend in with all the other jean wearers, except my eyes are green.

Tina Laurel Lee said...

I liked your lists for reasons why you liked and did not. And I mostly agree with you. Except, although I found him whiny, I did like straight Will. And I think Tiny Cooper was meant to be a bit silly and so was the end. I can appreciate the love in the book and the passion about it. In the end I think it is about throwing your heart into things even if they are ridiculous and embarrassing. And I like that theme. And therefore, the end is appropriate and fitting if not surprising. I found Tiny Cooper to be surprising.

To be honest, I didn't give the end of your post the attention it deserves. I'm in a rush.

Bryan B. said...

I actually liked the ending - and I didn't see it coming, which is rare for me. I think there's a difference (in my mind...) in mistaking a good ending with a believable ending. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the story.

I agree Green can be didactic, but it could be a lot worse.

I didn't pick up on the same thing as you re: gay WG. I just took it as a part of who he was, and didn't really need a reason for why he was gay.


As somebody on submission, I, too, realize that the standard for a book is a lot higher as a debut author. Not saying Will Grayson, Will Grayson is bad - it isn't. I loved it. But after hearing (multiple times thus far) stuff like, Bryan has created memorable characters... but ultimately, there needs to be more plot... it is hard to read the many books that simply don't follow what editors/agents say.

Okay. Rant over!