Decluttering Update (Round #2) & The Problem with Narrators

So the long weekend has come and gone (though bless this short week) and I’ve finished my book decluttering…for now.

I know, I know. Marie Kondo says that if you use her method, you will never have to tidy again. Well, honestly, I let her down. I got to a certain point where the decisions were too difficult and I was tired of looking at my mass of books, so I settled for getting rid of a nice round 100. Which is a solid 20% of what I had, so not bad, but many are the ways in which I failed at the KonMari. Allow me to detail them.

The first failure was a predictable one: she says to get rid of books that you bought and haven’t read. I’m doing the 95 books challenge, so I have an entire shelf of to-read books. I did manage to peel out a handful or so, but I still have more than I need. (It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have so many graphic novels to catch up on; without them, I have 34 books, which is a realistic queue.) I’m hoping that by the end of the year I’ll get rid of whatever I haven’t read (and I’m sure some of the books I read won’t be great, so that’s more gone in the future), but that’s a failure by about 80 books.

The second failure was a failure at the method, straight up. I got caught up in, “How much do I like this book? Do I like it enough? Do I like it more than that book?” Comparisons are a trap. Trying to set a bar is a trap. When it comes to joy-sparkage, you really have to trust your instincts. And at some point, I lost track of mine, because honestly I think that very few of my books spark out-and-out joy. Which means I can probably live with far fewer of them, but as a words person, I felt weird about the idea that I could almost empty my shelves.

Which brings me to the third failure: I got exhausted and overwhelmed trying to decide which books were more worthy of keeping than others, once I got through all the obvious discards and the obvious keeps. So I settled on a round but arbitrary number of books to get rid of (100), set about finding the books that were comparatively at the bottom of my priority list, and put the rest of the books still on the floor on “probation” on a separate bookshelf. And that’s a failure by 120 books or more.

So I failed at the KonMari method. I couldn’t do it. I did, however, manage to set aside 100 books to sell/donate, so that’s something. I’ll try revisiting her method once I’ve done the rest of the stuff in my house; I’ve already bagged up five garbage bags of clothes, so maybe my decision-making skills will be stronger once I’ve completed the rest of the cycle.

And on a completely different subject, I want to talk a bit about narrators vs. narratives.

So every narrator, particularly if they are a first-person narrator, is going to have a distinct personality. (Okay, maybe not every narrator, depending on how bad the book is. But you know, ideally.) Every narrator will have their own way of viewing events and other characters and even everyday objects. Every narrator represents a particular point of view.

And that point of view will always colour the story that they’re telling. I think this is part of why narrators or focal point characters are so tricky (and often so hated by fanbases, while other characters, even minor characters, can get a lot of love). If you create an “everyperson” sort of character in an attempt to be broadly relatable, you risk creating someone boring, or you might offend your audience if you relate them to a set of traits that they don’t identify with. (Bad portrayals of teenagers, I’m looking at you.) If you make someone with a strong set of quirks and opinions, then you risk that a lot of readers won’t like them and their way of seeing the world and thus won’t stick with your story.

I sympathize: narrators are hard. Nailing someone both realistic (readers will instinctively reject a perfect narrator) but also not so flawed that people will hate them (readers will often hate a narrator who makes the “wrong” choices) is a huge undertaking. It’s almost impossible to win. There are very few books/shows where a majority of fans will come out listing their favourite character as the narrator-protagonist, and it’s more of an issue the longer a book series/television show goes. (A lot of people turn on Harry in the fifth book. I’m not sure exactly when people turn on Buffy.)

Narrators are a huge pain to get right. And sometimes, in the course of creating a narrator, one may decide that realism is most well-served by creating a narrator who has some problematic attributes. Like our buddy Nathan from Half Bad, who is at times a rabid dog. And, if I may circle around to the inciting read of this post, the narrator from Marked.

The narrator from Marked, problematic attitudes aside, is kind of a Mary Sue mess. Zoey is maximum exceptional in every way. She’s the prettiest without knowing it, the most powerful, immediately good at relevant skills, not even token clumsy, etc. I thought they might throw this into relief by making her struggle with her vampiric nature more than others, but the narrative makes it very easy for her to forgive herself after a blip of moral crisis. Which seems to be how the story rolls re: Zoey. Sigh.

But the most irritating thing about Zoey is how extremely moralistic she is while also being a jerk. She throws out the r-word consistently throughout the book, refers to other girls who wear revealing clothes or who might enjoy sex as “skank hos” (not guys, though; she’s noticeably forgiving of boys who are into sex, particularly if they are “the hottest”) and gets high (though not literally) and mighty about anyone who smokes cigarettes or pot or who drinks.

One might be able to view this as a form of realism: she’s been surrounded by religious rhetoric since her mother remarried and some teens are just straight-edge goody-two-shoes types who can’t stand the experimentation of others. (I can relate to the latter a bit, as a former part-Hermione.)

But here is the issue: all of these opinions that she holds are reaffirmed by the events of the narrative. None of the “nice” characters call her out on using the r-word. (Some of them use it too, if I recall correctly.) The “skank-hos” are Mean People Doing Bad Things. (A guy who used to sleep with one of them is just a nice guy who got “caught in her web.”) The people drinking/smoking are People Making Bad Decisions. And the protagonist saves the day.

This is where problematic narration crosses over into a problematic narrative: because if the attitudes the narrator has are reflected in what’s happening in the story (especially across lines of good/bad or hero/villain), then it seems like those opinions are Correct Opinions. So the narrator (in this case, Zoey) stops being a “realistic” portrayal of teenage attitudes and starts being “good” and “heroic” in opposition to (sex-having, recreational drug using) people who are “bad” and “villainous”—even though, really, she’s kind of a jerk for pre-judging everyone who isn’t as straight-edge as she is. (Though I fully support her decision to stop hanging out with her kinda-boyfriend who starts drinking too much. Protect yourself, girl.)

It’s possible Zoey reflects some desire to be didactic that tends to come up a lot in young adult literature—a holdover from children’s lit wherein stories try to impart values. It’s not my intention to say that all teenagers should have lots of sex and do lots of drugs and drink, and I don’t think it’s necessarily terrible to try to dissuade that. I just think it’s problematic to demonize it, especially along sexist lines (where young women wanting sex is terrible and young men wanted sex is expected). And I hope we can all agree that “retard” and “retarded” as pejoratives were not okay even in 2007.

So despite the premise being pretty interesting, I felt kind of skeeved by Marked. It’s worth noting along those lines that I felt concerned that the use of Zoey’s Cherokee heritage was culturally appropriative, but I’m no expert and one of the authors may have that background, so it’s hard to comment on. I haven’t found much of a discussion (the book is older now, though the series is still active), though one blogger feels Internet sources were plagiarized in the sections relating to Cherokee rituals/imagery; another blogger, though not Native American, addresses some of the reasons why the use of Zoey’s heritage feels like cultural appropriation. The latter post gets more into all the things that bothered me about this book, if you don’t mind some spoilers.

I get the impression the series may complicate one of its “skank-hos” in a following book and might right its ship in some ways, but I’m not sure I’ll read the next book to find out. Modern supernatural fantasy and elemental magic are weaknesses of mine, but I have a lot of other books on my shelf. For now, it’s cool just to have had an excuse to talk about narrators a bit, because I think they’re an especially major aspect of looking at young adult writing (which is something I want to get better at myself).

Until next time: may your shelves be as light or heavy as you want them to be, and may your vampire novels be unburdened by moralistic and culturally appropriative skeeviness.

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