Thursday, May 2, 2013

Wikipedia Novels

NOTE: I’m trying not to get into the habit of critiquing childrens’ novels, so watch me as I struggle to turn this post into a discussion on writing in general.

It took me a little while to figure out what it was about Jean George’s “Frightful’s Mountain” that bugged me so much, but I think I nailed it down to this: This book is a Wikipedia entry on peregrine falcons and falcon migration extended into a novel, not necessarily a novel itself. 

Oh, it’s a good read-and-learn, don’t get me wrong. It’s much more entertaining than reading Wikipedia. But it’s a rather boring novel. None of the characters, including Frightful herself, a young peregrine falcon to whom we are introduced through the eyes of Sam Gribley in George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” are all that interesting from a writer’s point of view. You have many stock, cardboard characters: The stoic fish and game warden, the bird-stealing bandits, the construction workers going na-na-na when they’re told about their environmental evils, the construction workers who sympathize with the bland city kids hoping to effect change and the bird herself, doing what birds do in, well, Wikipedia articles. 

George does this, and painfully so – particularly during the migration sequence. The science is clear, but the feeling, well, George basically throws up her hands as if to say, “I don’t know what’s going on inside the bird’s head, so I’m not really going to try to explain it to you.” That’s great scientific writing, but poor technique when it comes to novelizing. 

Maybe it’s George’s intent to avoid anthropomorphism, which I understand and applaud. But in doing so, George goes too far in the opposite direction, robbing this bird of only the barest personality traits which anyone who has long association with animals know are present in animals in spades, whether we regard such traits as anthropomorphic or not. It is interesting to note that at least one Amazon review of the book (one of the one-star reviews, obviously) criticizes George for humanizing Frightful too much. I just don’t see it.

Other writers – notably Felix Salten, Sterling North, and others – have shown authors can be true to accurate portrayal of animal behavior in a way that is warm, endearing, and worthy of empathy, while still sticking to the facts and proceeding without over-anthropomorphizing. It all comes down again and again to how the author chooses to tell his or her story. And I guarantee Salten and North have done more with their storytelling to rapproach the worlds of man and beast than many other authors with a more scientific bent have accomplished. 

This is good stuff for me to figure out, because it’s my dream to write a great animal tale. There are many roads to take when writing such a story and knowing I’m on a branch of that road that I like will take me a lot further in accomplishing my goal than sticking to the Wikipedia facts, essential as they are. 

That it’s good stuff doesn’t mean I’m not going to break my own guidelines. I tend to favor stories that lean towards anthropomorphism simply because such writing captivated me as a child and still captivates me as an adult as I read and re-read the stories of my youth. The success of such titles shows me there’s a great hunger in the world for such storytelling, so I will maintain my presence on that side of the road. 

Those who say they don’t like anthropomorphism confuse me. Anthropomorphism, despite the criticisms, has its place. Such a technique is a stellar way for an author to help get his or her characters into the readers’ heads – just as assigning animalistic qualities to humans (zoomorphism) does the same, as long as the writer uses either technique as an element of the entire story, not simply for the element itself. Again, it all comes down to a writer’s choices and readers’ preferences.

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