I am not a litblogger. That is to say, I didn’t start blogging in order to write about what I read. I started blogging about a year ago through yahoo blogspot, and enjoyed it well enough. I used (and still do) blogging to start thinking through ideas I hoped could eventually be turned into essays, articles, and short stories – a kind of formalized free-writing. A few months ago one of my coworkers was investigating the possibility of developing message boards and blogs for a certain subset of employees where I work, and to that end we started reading the blog by the microsoft guy, where I first saw a comment from litlove. I thought her screenname was interesting and so I clicked on it and was directed to her blog where I, like so many others, fell in love with her commentary and criticism. Later I checked out her blogroll, discovering bloglily, bikeprof, dorothy, stefanie, the list could go on and on and I could link and link but then I’d never complete this thought or this post so just, please, take some time to click on my blogroll to meet all of these amazing people, because it will be WELL worth your time, I promise. At any rate, I decided to switch my blog over from yahoo to wordpress and decided on my subject matter, allowing myself a lot of discretion, and found myself reading MOSTLY but not entirely litblogs. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found this particular community, but I never did and still don’t imagine myself becoming a litblogger because, having written countless papers for countless classes, both undergraduate and graduate, I still find it distinctly painful to write about books unless I am absolutely burning up with motivation to do so, and I knew there was no way I could keep blogging if I committed myself to one particular subject. So, after that incredibly long explanation, I am going to write about Empire Falls, first proclaiming myself NOT a litblogger – this post will not be replete with the kind of analysis you are used to, but as I was reading it I kept thinking, I need to blog about this book. With that said…
There has been quite a bit of discussion recently about plot around the litblogging community – what constitutes it, how it’s created, how much of it is necessary, how it works in American versus British novels, in different genres, etc. One point litlove made that I’ve been thinking about as a writer is the possibility that the “great American novel,” is often weak on plot (and please, correct me if I’m wrong because I am not going back for specific text as I am on hideous deadlines here at work), instead using characters to fuel any story that happens to be hanging around. In other words, highly developed characters BECOME the plot. This rang especially true with Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, but what bothered me even more about this book, which for the most part is very engaging and somewhat disturbing, is the fact that most of the characters driving the plot are reacting to a chain of events that occured well before they were even ‘born.’ Their lives, in a sense, are dictated by actions taken by characters well before any “action” starts – ie, Miles Roby doesn’t live up to his potential and moves home to take care of his dying mother NOT because it’s the right thing to do or something he believes he should do, but instead because years ago his mother had an affair with the town scion, and the scion’s wife has since been subtly and not so subtly punishing the Roby family. Much of the story centers around the sins of the parents being visited on the children, with each generation of Empire Falls progressively growing more hopeless, caught between the desperation of their history and the hope of their future.
It certainly won’t surprise anyone that I have little patience for the Hemingway approach where a hero (never a heroine) is trapped in circumstances beyond his control, all “woe is me, my life is hideous but it’s not my fault, now let me eat and shoot some shit.” I found Miles Roby to be quite a drag, frankly, and his ex-wife even more so, to a point where often I found myself lacking in sympathy for either one of them. Roby takes very little action until the end of the novel, and the action he does take is both fight and flight, reaction to events happened upon him and not occuring from action he instigates.
I actually thought Tina, Roby’s daughter, was the most successful character Russo created. His ability to imagine her teenage experience was heartbreaking.
I think what frustrated me the most about this book, though, was having so much of the action occur before the “story” actually started – forcing the (well-developed) characters to serve as receptacles for all that has come before them. I think it’s easy to fall into such a situation – and as a writer I reviewed the progress I’m making on my novel to see if I, in fact, am simply creating characters reacting to all that came before them, but I’m not – I’m following a very basic formula – X happens, and then X happens, and then X happens, but there is very obvious cause and effect.
what am I trying to get at here? I’m not sure myself. I didn’t love this novel as much as I expected to, after hearing so many Russo raves. Litlove wrote that for her, plot is like spice – a little goes a long way, but she needs that little bit for an effective reading experience. For me, for a totally engaging reading experience, I need a little plot, and I need well-developed characters, and I also need my characters to take act and react. When the core story occurs before the characters in the novel are even born, well, for me it simply isn’t as effective as characters engaged in plot and action of their own.
Ug, my office is so loud. There are ALWAYS problems, and always things to complain about around here, and even with my door shut I can hear my coworkers. I’d better return to my job.I fear I didn’t render what I mean very well in this post, but I guess I’ll only improve by trying my hand at litblogging here and there. Thanks for bearing with this one. You know, it was so elegant, so perfect in my head, but writing about books is HARD. I don’t know how you all do it. I know what I think, but some sort of slippage occurs when I start writing about texts – it always has. If only I could write what’s in my mind, and not what falls off my fingertips and onto the keyboard…perhaps I can simplify? Go against what I learnedand say why I liked it and why I didn’t? I liked the way the characters carried me through the story, and I liked the multiple points of view. I did not, and have never, liked characters who exist simply to react to events that occured before them. They may be very true to real life – I recognize that. But for me, there has to be a little something more.
we have a crisis at work so I can’t go back and proof – please forgive all typos!