Good Writing and Trust

As Dr. McCoy pointed out a couple classes ago, we all started to read The Turner House with expectations. For me, a lot of my expectations for the novel were framed by the fact that we’re reading this in a college course and plenty of news outlets had named it the best book of the year. However, pretty much all of my expectations were thwarted, and, sadly, not in a good way.

I really, really want to like The Turner House, and I kept waiting for the moment that made it worthy of so many ‘books of the year’, but that never happened. It’s not the themes or the attempted scope of the novel that I have a problem with; I think it’s really admirable that Flournoy went after so many issues. It was her creative and narrative choices, coupled with the prose style that really killed this novel for me. I don’t want to devote this blog post to dressing down The Turner House, and I know a lot of people will probably disagree with me, but I honestly think this was a poorly written novel. I know Flournoy has a graduate degree in Creative Writing, and I’ve never published anything, but I still think this novel was just plain bad.

I know some people will disagree with me and try to disprove my complaints towards the novel, but I want to just state what my issues with the novel were without trying to prove them. As Liz said in an earlier class, the novel never seems to go anywhere, plot-wise, and really at no point could I detect anything close to a coherent plot. Several key issues remained unresolved, such as what Lelah is going to do after Brianne left, what happened to Cha-Cha’s haint, what are they all going to do about Viola’s cancer, and nothing was resolved regarding the house, which was especially maddening considering how important the house is supposed to be to the novel. Another thing that drove me crazy was the overuse of the omniscient third person POV narrator. A new POV character (David) was introduced about 230 pages into the novel, after he had spent most of the novel not being a POV character. When Troy, Cha-Cha, and Lelah are all at the Turner house together, the POV bounces back and forth between them so often that I couldn’t even tell whose head we were in at some parts. And having Francis’s POV, who is literally dead in the present time of the story, just baffled me. Additionally, every time a new character was introduced, the narrator would spend more time describing how we’re supposed to view that character than showing us through their actions and dialogue. I could go on.

But what bothered me the most, which I brought up to Dr. McCoy, was the inordinate amount of characters (i.e. all the siblings and their kids on that family flowchart) with little screen time or in some cases any importance to the plot at all. I could not, for the life of me, find out any reason why so many superfluous characters should exist other than for the sake of making this into a sprawling family saga. Of course, in the context of our class, it’s easy to come up with supernumeraries and concepts like that, but Flournoy hasn’t taken our class. I genuinely don’t know what her purpose was for including so many characters. Dr. McCoy told me to watch for a scene that would help make everything make sense, but I’ve read every word in The Turner House, and I still wish I could chop all of those characters from the book. I’m still waiting for it all to make sense.

My reason for making this blog post and saying all of that is to ask, how can I trust what a writer (or anyone who produces something intended to communicate with people) has to say if I don’t trust them to say it well? It’s like someone using ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ in a sentence. For most people, it’s hard to take someone’s ideas seriously if you don’t trust them to say it well. I don’t mean that I don’t think Flournoy’s novel doesn’t have worthwhile things to say; I mean that it’s hard to discover them when I’m bogged down by the muddled prose and narrative.

Of course, I don’t doubt that Flournoy and I have different viewpoints on what makes good writing good. For me, even in a novel of a thousand pages, every word on the page must be have a purpose. Every character and every scene should have more than one function. I want to finish reading something and feel like I’ve read something worthwhile, even if I don’t immediately understand it. It’s mind-boggling to me to see someone with a published book and a graduate degree doing things I would get yelled at for doing in my ENGL 201 class. If someone (anyone, I’m not just talking about Flournoy here) isn’t perceived as being able to write well, what does that mean for the ideas they’re trying to say? How am I supposed to believe in the sincerity, thoughtfulness, and worth of their ideas if the same care isn’t reflected in the prose?

I think these things lend themselves to our class as well. I’m still developing my thoughts regarding that. If someone writes something very well, we’re going to be more inclined to listen to them. For example, with Inside Job, someone who doesn’t know anything about the economic crisis at all might listen to Matt Damon’s authoritative voice and believe him. Someone with more of a background in economics might be more likely to criticize the way he, and the people who produced the documentary, talked about the events and framed them.

I probably just made myself sound like a giant asshole, but this has been stewing in my mind from the start of the novel. I wish I liked The Turner House, but I don’t.

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