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Too. Many. Words.

4 December 2021

Last summer I stopped reading. I’m a novelist, so I consider reading to be part of my work. And for the longest time, I had three books going at once. I had an ebook on my phone/ebook device, a print book from the bookstore, and an audiobook. No matter what I was doing, I was plugged into a book.

So it was weird, bordering on an emergency, when I found myself unable to read. I chose a YA novel, Flash Fire, hoping that it would be easy to binge. It was a sequel, and I had loved the first book, The Extraordinaries. It’s written from the point of view of a teenager with ADHD, so there’s a cheerful, cluttered randomness to the story, as well as a plot featuring superheroes and fan fiction. What’s not to love?

In addition, I’ve noticed that a lot of books suffer from under-editing. This isn’t an indie or self-published thing. I’ve read a number of books published by big NYC houses where I wondered where the editor was. I’m not just talking about typos. I’m talking about a tightly structured story, where it just WORKS. The author of The Extraordinaries, TJ Klune, not only wrapped up all the loose ends and tied them with a bow. He then proceeded to blast through some of the fundamental underpinnings in the book, paving the way for a great sequel. In other words, you end The Extraordinaries thinking you know what’s going on, and then in a few pages at the end you’re told that everything you thought was going on, really isn’t. That there are some deeper layers that run counter to all the logical solutions you thought you understood. Isn’t that just a great way to make you anticipate the next book?

I had an exhausting summer—I’m sure the whole world did—and I needed to start reading again because it’s the work that I do. I read and I write. So I chose Flash Fire and got ready to binge. Only then I didn’t.

I write a weekly newsletter (you can sign up here and get a free novella!), and every week I told my newsletter friends that I was still working on Flash Fire, that I was enjoying it, that I wasn’t done yet. This went on for awhile. I was having trouble getting through it, however. I would read a few pages at a time and wonder why it felt so exhausting. I switched over to a non-fiction book and read them alongside each other, thinking I just needed to jumpstart my brain. That didn’t work. Then I added an audiobook, and that didn’t work, either. Normally it really helps to jump around and refresh myself in a different medium, but I felt universally exhausted by the act of absorbing all these words.

In October, I went to my local indie bookstore with my daughter and bought a stack of hardcover books (ouch). I was feeling sad and stressed because I wasn’t reading, so I recklessly thought I would throw some money at the problem. I bought a book with a pretty cover by a first-time novelist, a book by a novelist whose Hulu series I’d liked, a book by an author I’d always meant to read but hadn’t, a book by someone who’d just been nominated for a National Book Award. Those are the ones I remember, but I bought even more than that. I don’t recommend doing what I did, it was expensive, and those are bad criteria if you’re trying to make sure you don’t waste your money. I don’t normally buy books by people II’ve never read before. I get them from the library or I borrow from friends, or I download an excerpt somewhere.

So I opened up the book with the pretty cover. Talk about random! You’d think I would know better than to judge a book by its cover, haha.

But this was the book that I binged.

Why? Well, it’s complicated. First of all, it didn’t start off well. The writing was kind of “literary” and at first it annoyed me. I like clean prose, and the writing in this book threatened to head in the direction of navel-gazing, which I ardently dislike. But after some pages, it felt better. I don’t know if I just got used to it or if the author overworked her first chapters because those are the ones that critique groups and agents fuss over. But it got better. However, the second thing that happened was the author brought up various stereotypes about Japan that I also really dislike. The book is set in Japan and the author seems to be Japanese or part Japanese, which is great, but she occasionally makes references to Japanese tropes that I find much too general (I’ll write a separate blog post about the book next, it’s Emily Itami’s Fault Lines). My mother is from Japan, so I’ll admit to a bit of over-sensitivity in this area. But again, after some introductory “weird Japan” examples, it got better. And then third, this type of story is really REALLY not my jam. It’s about a married woman with young children who embarks on an affair. I have trouble with this plot line because I kind of just don’t get it.

However, once again, it got better as it went on. And when I started reflecting on why I could binge-read something that has all these drawbacks, compared to a sequel to a book and author I really enjoyed, in a genre that is frankly easier to digest, I realized something.

It had everything to do with TOO. MANY. WORDS. Why? Because sometimes YA novels are just that “talky.”

There are two kinds of genre, story genre and marketing genre. Story genres are about scratching the reader’s itch. In a mystery novel, you want to solve the mystery. In a romance, you (usually) want a happily-ever-after. You get to live vicariously through the events in the story, and you’re satisfied when things are tied up neatly. Marketing genres are about displaying the book on the right bookstore shelf, or putting the right Amazon label on it. The story genre for Flash Fire is probably similar to that of a Marvel movie—adventure or maybe even thriller (since there’s an evil villain to defeat). But the marketing genre is YA, so you would make sure to put the book in a place where your teen readers would find it.

I realized that Flash Fire isn’t YA in the same way that say, Hunger Games, is YA. Hunger Games has a marketing genre that appeals to a broad audience. Flash Fire does not. It’s truly a novel for teens, and as such, there is a ton of “explaining” and “talking” going on. There are admonitions about safe sex and a long and largely irrelevant plot thread about going to prom. These are fun for the teen reader, but they don’t advance the plot at all. They don’t even add to characterization. They’re just there for the teen reader to enjoy. It’s like TJ Klune is actually talking to his audience through his narrator.

Guess what. I’m not his audience. And all that talking! It was too much. Just exhausting.

Hunger Games doesn’t talk nearly as much as Flash Fire because it’s all about the doing. And that’s why it can appeal to grownups. Grownups don’t really want to read about getting ready for prom or about safe sex for gay teens. They want to resolve the plot. That’s why Hunger Games and Twilight work for older readers. These are thrillers with teen protagonists, not YA novels. However, you can still find these books shelved in the YA section of the store, because the protagonists are young. Marketing genre versus story genre—they aren’t the same thing.

I figured this out because the novel I finally binged in November was absolutely a grown-up novel. I think the marketing genre might be something like “upmarket fiction” or even “literary fiction,” and a book like that isn’t going to over-explain itself. I had to read between the lines a lot to understand what the author was showing me, and it was a satisfying journey in someone else’s head precisely because she wasn’t trying to tell me everything.

Do I still love TJ Klune? You bet. But after the summer we all had, I really couldn’t take more talking. I’d even stopped listening to podcasts because there was too much information in them. I needed some mental space, and as it turned out, a book for kids wasn’t the right thing for me.

I’ll write up something about Emily Itami’s Fault Lines soon.

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