The Reluctant Blogger: a novel with deep, structural flaws

2.26.14 | | 12 comments

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Before reading on, know two things.

First, from this paragraph on, I will be assuming that you’ve either read The Reluctant Blogger  by Ryan Rapier (ruhPEER) or don’t mind knowing its intimate details prior to picking it up.

Second, this post is not about the nice things I could say about the novel. Some of those things may creep in, but nice things was the purpose of my post over on the AML blog. This post is about the book’s flaws which I think are significant and interesting and worth talking about.

If you can handle that, then let’s move on.

Reluctant-Blogger-The_2x3I’ll start by just knocking the cover. I doubt this is Rapier’s fault, but no way Todd Landry has such carefully trimmed stubble, and besides—every time I see the book, think that fellow’s scalp tattoos are flying away. Anyway. the cover’s been on my nerves. Thanks for letting me vent.

Now. If you know anything about this novel, you know its primary device is that nearly entirely consists of blogposts written by the protagonist, Todd Landry. My biggest issue with the novel is the nearly part of that description. Rapier’s reliance on the device introduces many falsenesses to the novel that shouldn’t be there—and his unwillingness to completely commit to the conceit isn’t helping. Either he should have committed entirely or far, far less.

In the early days of the novel, this sort of thing was common. Novels often consisted of found collections of letters or diary entries. See, for instance, Pamela or The Sorrows of Young Werther. It made sense. The novel was—lol—a novel form and readers’ ability to suspend their disbelief properly wasn’t yet developed. And it worked because letters and diaries of the time were rather assumed to be more thorough and grammatically proper. Perhaps because he wasn’t writing for thirteen-year-olds, Rapier / Cedar Fort decided to present The Reluctant Blogger as a thoroughly edited, novelistic text.

Which is to say, no, I don’t buy for a second that this book is made up of blogposts. And especially not blogposts intended for an audience of one. (The only person with access to this posts is Todd’s therapist.)

Rapier recognizes the difficulty he’s set for himself when he has Todd blog the conversation with his therapist wherein his therapist asks why he’s blogging their conversations. But that metawink fails to address the deeper problems created by the format.

Todd occasionally writes things he can’t possibly know because he’s being a pigheaded ass or because he wasn’t listening. But he writes them anyway either because they’re useful insights the author wants us to have (for more on such insights, see my post today on Modern Mormon Men) or they’re humorous or something. The resulting problem is simple point-of-view violation. This book, at times, craves an omniscient narrator. And at times that omniscient narrator ignores the blogging conceit and just invades the blog, throwing his insights about. For instance this one about Todd’s thirteen-year-old daughter: “Inside the back cover [of her photo album] are two of my daughter’s most cherished keepsakes.” These items are “most cherished” because of their relationship to current events, the most current of which begins simultaneous to her estrangement from her father. So either he can’t know this but is solipsistically assuming he does, or an omniscient narrator has briefly taken over the typing. Honestly, both are plausible.

The voice of the posts is absurdly formal given we are to understand they are written (at the beginning, carelessly) in stolen moments late at night knowing that no one save his therapist (who has promised not share them) will read them. It’s not possible that he’s spending the hours necessary to craft such prose. Not that The Reluctant Blogger is Emerson, mind, but it’s not blogposts written in stolen moments late at night either. The voice is so unexplainable that many of my early notes are no more cogent than “voice thing: driving me bananas.” All this carefully recreated dialogue and so forth smacks of novel, not blog. Novelists write seven pages of dialogue with tags and business. Bloggers might spread that out to a couple hundred words, but seven pages? That’s a novelist.

And back to Todd’s audience-of-one, I can’t understand his religious avoidance of the second person. Take this: “today Bishop Lincoln—the man who referred me to Dr. Schenk” (176). Why not “the man who referred me to you”? I’ve done some mental somersaults trying to explain away things like this, but I’m doing more work than I should have to. Either they make sense or they don’t, and, generally, they don’t.

We’ll come back to the blogging problem in a moment, but for now let’s examine an issue born of the novel’s insistence on romance.

One early scene is a meetcute that upset me so much I wrote “I’ll be pissed if he marries this woman” on page 29. Their relationship does grow beyond romcom-lite to a point I really believed that they weren’t getting back together. Which I think was vital to my enjoyment of their reunion. But that’s getting positive—head over to AML for more on that scene. The upsetting thing is that the Right Woman shows up the first time he manages to talk to any woman. I mean. C’mon. Is this a romcom or is it a story of a man moving through mourning? I’m not saying it can’t be both, but the initial set-up is that the internal journey through loss will take primacy. So it needs to take primacy. No changing stories midstream! But, as I said, this ended up being redeemed. If it were a library book though, I might have quit reading prior to redemption. I mean—ironic foreshadowing like “I’m pretty sure I’ll never call Emily. In fact, I’m positive.” (29) is just too much to ask of me.

One of their first dates takes place at a restaurant. Todd is occasionally unbearable but Emily seems willing to look past that. But me? I can’t look past the blogging problem. Six pages of dialogue commence and the only suggestion as to what kind of restaurant and what kind of food is this phrase: “The heavenly aroma of my entrée” (93) until a brief mention of what’s for dessert. Six pages of dialogue (assuming 250 words per page equals 1500 words) with proper tags and business is not blogging. Six pages in a restaurant without details of said restaurant? Not a novel.

Another example:

“Samantha was shy at first and hid quite effectively behind her tumbling blonde locks during introductions. But all that changed once Emily saw the book she was holding and commented on her love for the main character. Within seconds, Samantha had opened up, and soon they were chatting happily on the couch about a wide selection of shared literary favorites.” (139)

Actually, this paragraph can’t really be blamed on the blogging thing. This is just a sweet opportunity to share useful, compelling details and instead we get generic words like “book” and “character” and “favorites.”

Perhaps nowhere is the blogging problem more striking than on July 11’s post which begins with a pointless jokey introduction about horoscopes, then eight pages about Todd and Emily’s engagement (which would be appropriate except…), then the revelation that Todd’s mother has died which causes “the entire world . . . to spin” leaving Todd unable to speak (212). Unable to speak, but perfectly able to write 11 pages of prose that cleverly hid that surprise ending. Tada! My mom’s dead! Betcha didn’t see that coming!

So what should he have done? Option one is just make the blogging a smaller percentage of the entire text. Allow the posts to reinterpret what we’ve already seen told novelistically, allowing insights into what Todd thinks is important or is at least willing to share. This could have been a great tool and would allow a straighter path to the larger thematic concerns without compromising the believability of his central character.

The other option, less recommended, is to cut the bits where suddenly we’re outside the blog and inside the therapist’s head, and just stick with the blog. Of course, the blog should still read like a blog and thus many parts of the story would need to be cut or rewritten. Much of what happens would remain unclear as we fall victim to an unreliable narrator. Again, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, but at least that version would be more honest with its audience.

One literary lesson The Reluctant Blogger teaches is that function cannot be so easily divorced from form. So choose your form carefully, o novelist! then use that form well.

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Dawning of a Brighter DayThe Reluctant Blogger: a quick metareview and my own look at its many positive attributes

Modern Mormon MenThe Reluctant Blogger: what it thinks it’s saying about Mormon culture and what it is actually saying about Mormon culture

A Motley VisionThe Reluctant Blogger: a novel with deep, structural flaws

12 comments: “The Reluctant Blogger: a novel with deep, structural flaws

  1. Wm Morris

    This form thing is part of the struggle I’ve had with finishing The Courtship of Elder Cannon (well that and finding the desire and time to actually write it).

  2. Luisa Perkins

    I’ve read all three of your posts. Thank you. The epistolary style is fraught with peril, as I myself learned when I wrote a (never-published) murder mystery in the form of blog posts.

  3. Th.

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    I cowrote one myself once, in emails and texts and blogs, with Mormon X (which, I think, is working). I’ve never gone back and reread our rough draft. Maybe for the same reasons you state.

  4. Katya

    I’ve realized that I more or less ignored the blog-as-framing-story conceit after the first few chapters (to the point that, when the blog was actively referenced later in the story, I found it jarring). I don’t disagree that the structure was problematic, but I think I understand what it was supposed to accomplish and I was willing to go along on that ride. Put another way, I assumed that the blogging format existed to serve certain narrative purposes, and not that the point of the novel was to tell a story through completely realistic blog posts.

    Specifically, I think the point of the blog was (1) give Todd a reason to share his private feelings, despite the fact that (Mormon) men don’t often do this, (2) give the narrative an excuse to occasionally jump ahead in time from one vignette or anecdote to another, with the intervening events only lightly sketched in, and (3) give the narrative a reason to be told in the 1st person (albeit with some pov/unreliable narrator issues). Maybe (1) and (3) don’t or shouldn’t need justification, since they’re very common literary approaches. (Sort of like how 1st person epistolary novels used to be very common, because it was a good justification for using 1st person. And then at some point we just decided “Eh, we’re just using 1st person without bothering to explain why this person is narrating their own story.”) So perhaps the blogging format is only needed for (2). And maybe even that could be accomplished in other ways.

  5. Sarah Dunster

    Whew!! Some razor-sharp critiquing. You are brave, Theric. And I’m glad you delineated more clearly the thing that bugged me about the whole blogging thing. BUT. I loved the book anyway :) That says something about Ryan and his writing ability and storytelling ability. Hear that, Ryan? I want to read more stuff you write. Hear that?! K. At any rate, good post, Theric. I am SCARED to let you review any more of my novels :) But it was good and, after all that I wrote on my review of Downing’s book, I’m feeling a bit wimpy. For feeling so bad about critiquing. We do need more of it if we’re going to grow as a genre and gain more discerning readers and wider audiences.

  6. Ryan Rapier

    I heard you, Sarah. I’m working on it. But like you, I appreciated Theric’s critiques. Looking at the finished work with the knowledge he shared, I can see exactly what he is talking about. I have already begun to incorporate them in my next project. Now, I simply hope I can get it finished. But I can’t say enough how much I appreciated the effort Theric put into this and the other posts about TRB. I know I will be better for it. And I sure as heck will never use the blogging format again :)

  7. Th.

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    I’m happy we can come a reason together as an artistic community. I think when we critique precisely and accurately in a spirit of love, people can generally tell.

  8. Sarah Dunster

    …sometimes. Some of my author friends get pretty upset when their writing is critiqued online. I’m a bit gun-shy. Especially considering I do not write perfect books myself. Anyway.

  9. Th.

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    I’m not against unreliable narrators, it’s just needs to be internally makesensible.

  10. Ryan Rapier

    Moriah, I don’t know if you consider your narrator from Magdelene unreliable or not, but I have to admit that she has become my favorite character in an LDS fiction novel ever. Unfortunately, most everyone in my social circle is much more conservative than I, so I haven’t been able to recommend the book as much as I would have liked.

  11. Moriah Jovan

    Ryan, thank you so much. I had the crappiest week, writer-wise and so you have no idea how much I appreciate that.

    Yes, Cassie is unreliable, although not on the Tyler Durden level. It was my first attempt at one, as I try to use a different technique with each book.

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