Friday, February 19, 2010

Could the classics make it today?

I recently listened to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This was actually my second listening of this story. The first time I listened to it I was fifteen years old. At that time, I absolutely loved it. I had in my mind that it was one of my favorite books, so I decided to go back and listen to it again.

These were my thoughts going into the story at age thirty. Twelve cd’s, wow, that’s pretty long. Most books are six to eight. (I just checked on-line, this is a 528 page novel). I started listening anyway. Ready to fall into a story so wonderful I’d relish the extra word count. But wait, is that third person omnicient? Seriously? That has to be the most annoying point of view ever imagined. But I like Francie, she’s a cute kid. So I’ll try not to think about how much better this book would be in first person and just go with the omnicient.

Then the back story started coming in waves. We aren’t talking, only give back story that is required to help with the progression of the front story. We’re talking, a two hour long side trip into the ancestry of the main character, that she’s not even present for because she hasn’t been born yet. Eventually the story came back around to eleven year old Francie, and stuck with her until she turned seventeen. Six years seems like a lot to cover in one book, isn’t that what series are for?

I have read enough current books, and enough blogs by current publishing insiders, to know this set up would have a vary hard time finding publication today. Books that span generations don’t work. And nobody likes an omnicient POV, nobody. But in 1943 the rules were different, so Betty Smith’s little tale did find publication.

Here is the thing though. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a really good book. By the time I finished it, I’d fallen in love with Francie all over again. It doesn’t surprize me one bit that this was one of my favorite novels as a teenager, cause it addresses growing up with a truth few stories match. It also offers a glimps into a world that no longer exists with an honesty modern historical fiction cann’t match. And the result, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s” current amazon rank is 4,312.

In comparison, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, is a YA novel that came out last year and seems to be doing everything right. It spans one day with very minimal back story sprinkled in. It is first person from the point of view of a girl in a coma. It has a great voice, and deals with issues current teens care about. I recently read it and loved it. But “If I Stay’s” amazon rank is 5,005. And my guess is in another 67 years, Betty Smith will still be outselling Gayle Forman.

I’m not sure what this all means. I expect that if “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” had 200 fewer pages of back story and was told in first person, I’d still be a fan. It definately would have been easier for me to get into it at the beginning. But I’m not convinced the current literary push towards short attention span readers is a good thing. Maybe I only noticed all the current rules “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” broke, because I’m in the process of attempting to enter the writing world. And maybe a current novel could span multiple generations in third person omnitient and touch modern readers just as easily. Or maybe, just as Brooklyn has changed greatly from the world little Francie grew up in, the writing world has changed too and the short attention span novels are here to stay.

Joke of the Day
Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender looks up at him and says, "Sure thing. Olive or twist?"

No comments: