Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Reading and Novel Appeal Pt. 1

Joyce Saricks uses four intrinsic elements of novels to describe their appeal in terms that she hopes will improve communication between librarians and their patrons and help make reader's advisory into less guesswork and more science. While some of her enthusiasm for a "vocabulary of appeal" seems to simplify language and individual tastes and perspectives to an unrealistic degree (different readers will have their own ideas of what constitutes an "engrossing" read or which characters will seem "familiar" or "realistic"), I like her encouragement for describing books less in terms of their plots and more in terms of stylistic choices made by the author.

Saricks uses four main categories to talk about novels (and some narrative nonfiction too): Pacing, Characterization, Storyline, and Framing. Since I am a bit behind on my book reviews, I thought I'd use some of Saricks' terms of appeal to briefly describe a few of the books I read over the break.

Pacing: Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol
Dan Brown is a textbook example of fast-paced writing; ironically, Saricks even mentions him in her article. This third Robert Langdon adventure is easy to read and carries on at breakneck speed as Professor Langdon strives to unlock a new set of ancient mysteries, this time in Washington, DC. Brown's familiar style is a good fit for vacation reading, though I would quibble that The Lost Symbol is rather lengthy, and the nonstop action itself can be a bit tiring to read. This book also suffers from multiple-endings-syndrome, giving the illusion over and over that you've reached the final page, only to turn it and find another paragraph. One of the interesting things Saricks writes about is the way librarians can give basic advice on a book they've never read (and even have never read a review of) by glancing through a copy and observing things like chapter length or the ratio of dialogue to description. A Dan Brown book is a good example of a case where this actually might be possible. Flipping through The Lost Symbol, the short paragraphs, chapters, and large amount of dialogue can tell you a lot about what sort of a read the book will be and maybe a little bit about what sort of reader would enjoy it.

Characterization: Lauren Beukes, Zoo City
This novel gives me a quick chance to mention an issue I'm pretty passionate about, which is the stereotyping of genre fiction. Saricks comments that in most cases Science Fiction focuses heavily on Storyline, with less precedence given to the elements of Pacing or Characterization. While there are a lot of formula novels in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, these exist in every category: Fantasy is definitely not the exception here. Cliche works aside, I believe genre fiction can be deeply interested in characterization and be composed with painstakingly crafted prose. It's not all swordfights and rescue missions as anyone who's read Connie Willis, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, or J.R.R. Tolkien can tell you. Zoo City is a book about a character: Zinzi December, a former journalist whose life changes dramatically with the death of her brother. Her most dramatic transformation is one of physical form: the appearance of her Sloth companion, a product of the Zoo Plague that affects anyone who has committed a criminal act. Throughout the novel Zinzi is vividly portrayed as a quirky, flawed woman deeply burdened by the mistakes of her past. The plot of the book is pretty intense, but more than working out the missing persons case Zinzi becomes wrapped up in or music industry scandal she uncovers, I was most interested in the development of Zinzi's inner struggles and characterization.

(Part 2 to come.)

Saricks, J. G. (2005). Articulating a book‘s appeal. In Readers’ Advisory Services in the Public Library (3rd ed., pp. 40-73). Chicago: American Library Association.

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