Will Grayson, Will Grayson gets so many things right it’s almost painful to read.
There are so many things to love about this book. Written by YA power duo David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and John Green (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines), it’s ridiculous and absurd and somehow wonderful, like a Benny Hill/Monty Python/It’s a Wonderful Life mashup suffering from ‘roid rage. It is almost everything I wish I could be when I grow up.
And, no, that’s not me being writerly and metaphorical (well, it is, but not in the crazy sense). It’s just the truth.
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.
Based on the blurb, Will Grayson, Will Grayson should be just another high school coming of age book. And in some ways, it is–it’s about belonging, place, owning yourself, owning your emotions, and so on and so forth. It’s also about voice.
Told in alternating–and patented?–Will View, the book switches between two incredibly different voices.
chapter one (Will Grayson 1)
When I was little, my dad used to tell me, “Will, you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” This seemed like a reasonably astute observation to me when I was eight, but it turns out to be incorrect on a few levels. To begin with, you cannot possibly pick your friends, or else I never would have ended up with Tiny Cooper.
Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is really really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large. Tiny has been my best friend since fifth grade, except for all last semester, when he was busy discovering the sheer scope of his own gayness, and I was busy having an actual honest-to-God Group of Friends for the first time in my life, who ended up Never Talking to Me Again due to two slight transgressions…
chapter two (Will Grayson 2)
i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.
those seem to be the two choices. everything else is just killing time.
right now, i’m walking through the kitchen to get to the back door.
mom: have some breakfast.
i do not eat breakfast. i never eat breakfast. i haven’t eaten breakfast since i was able to walk out the back door without eating breakfast first.
mom: where are you going?
school, mom. you should try it some time.
mom: don’t let your hair fall in your face like that – i can’t see your eyes.
but you see, mom, that’s the whole fucking point.
i feel bad for her – i do. a damn shame, really, that i had to have a mother. it can’t be easy having me for a son. nothing can prepare someone for that kind of disappointment.
These voices are the reason I kept reading the book. Yes, Tiny Cooper is funny. Yes, the plotline–and the ending–is Benny Hill/Monty Python/It’s a Wonderful Life ridiculous. But these things–great as they are–aren’t enough to carry a book on their own. And they’re certainly not enough to forge an emotional connection with.
I’ve read books with depressing narrators before. My own work-in-progress features a screwed-up kid with issues. But aside from Justina Chen’s North of Beautiful, where I had a bittersweet sort of reaction, I’ve never read anything quite so viscerally depressed in YA. (For middle grade, check out Ann Dee Ellis’ This is What I Did.)
Although Will Grayson2 may be the more obviously depressed guy, Will Grayson1 has issues, too. And we know they’re coming–after all, his Group of Friends are Never Talking to Him Again, and, we soon learn, he never cries. He’s distant, confused, funny, and unable to process his emotions, a perfect counterpoint to Will Grayson2 who processes so much he could beat Deep Blue in the Special Get In Touch With Your Feelin’s Edition of Monopoly.
So here’s a quick overview–truly, I can’t do this book justice, so if you want more, go read it–of the good side of Will Grayson, Will Grayson:
- Authenticity–these characters are mean. Not I hate you forever and wish a cyclops would eat your spleen mean, but the sort of mean teenagers are to each other. They cry, they shout, they insult–and they get over it, with nary a saccharine sachet in sight.
- (Dis)honesty–When we think of honesty, unsurprisingly, we think of truth. But in YA–in fiction–truth is flexible. Neither Will Grayson is honest with himself–they’re not full-on unreliable narrators, but there is a clear sense that they’re both lying to themselves, handled in a very realistic (but subtle) way.
- Humor–it’s easy to say, “here’s a lesson I learned from this book: be funny!” It’s hard to be funny. But one thing Will Grayson, Will Grayson does make clear is this: don’t go for the obvious line. Levithan
( @loversdiction ) and @therealJohnGreen could have made obvious gay jokes or fat jokes or depressed jokes. They didn’t. Instead, they went for something just shy of insane, and it worked. If you replaced the “world’s largest person who is really really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large” line above with something more obvious and Simpsonesque, the book would’ve face-planted almost immediately.
- Language–the authors don’t shy away from bad language, but they don’t showcase it either. It’s believable, and sometimes dirty, but it’s fitting. (I’m told Sherman Alexie does an excellent job of this, too, but I haven’t read him yet.)
- Secondary characters–If voice is the greatest strength of this book, secondary characters are,well, the second greatest. The novel is full of characters we recognize–cool kids, deliberately uncool kids &c–and Tiny Cooper. And although they’re recognizable, the supporting cast doesn’t play to type. Instead, they’re realistically sketched. Not explored–that’s not the point of the book, and would slice the Will Graysons self-deceptions to ribbons–but well-sketched.
- These kids have parents–this may be a small point, but I love reading YA that acknowledges parents exist. I’ve covered some of the reasons for absentee parents in YA in the past, but I much prefer having the existence of the Really Tall People Who Make The Money* acknowledged in the books I read. Why? Because for most of us (myself included) parents are a reality: we grew up with them there. Even if characters don’t interact with them much, they’re important, because (again, for most of us) they help shape who we are. And besides, a book without even the slightest acknowledgement of the Really Tall People is like a contemporary novel set that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of cell phones or the internet: unrealistic**.
Of course, not all books are sweetness and light. Much as I love this novel, I had questions and worries, several of which I’m still trying to get my head around. So I’ll be back later with a follow up post, Will Grayson, Will Grayson: The Confusing Side.
Wondering where the names came from? Here are Levithan and Green, via an interview with Amazon.
We decided that I (David) would choose our character’s first name, and John would choose his last name. I liked the name Will because of its different, sometimes contradictory, meanings. As a noun, it can be so strong – where there’s a will, there’s a way, and whatnot. But as a verb, it’s split. Sometimes it’s just as definite (It will be done!), but that definiteness is underscored by an uncertainty – you say it will be done, but it hadn’t been done yet, has it? And put it at the start of a question (“Will you still love me tomorrow?”) and it becomes the entrance for all kinds of vulnerability. That seemed right for the characters.
I liked Grayson because whenever I would hear that name, it always sounded to me like “grace in,” which always struck me as a richly ambiguous phrase – is “grace in” the beginning of a clause or the end of it? Are we being asked to find grace in something, or to let grace in? Those questions seemed like interesting ones for the guy I wanted to write about.
*No, I am not really tall. My parents are not really tall. But when I think kid-view, I imagine things from 20 month old, 3′ Mir’s perspective–and that makes me Really Tall.
**I know, cell phones are not a reality for all contemporary novels. There are books set in places where they don’t exist, but these aren’t the majority. Technology is a fact of life; books set in era/place with digital know-how can’t afford to gloss over it without good reason.
ETA, 5:03 pm:My critique partner and friend Amitha also has a short review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson–it was our group pick last month; authors’ Twitter IDs.Read More
Good morning, book people! I can’t believe how sunny it is this morning–could Spring really be heading our way? I hope so! And not just because it’s pretty and I detest the cold, but because my poor kidlet has his first ear infection, and could really use some extended strollin’ time by the river. There’s nothing quite like sauntering along the Charles chatting to the geese and picking wild irises with a snuggly kidlet.
Lots of things I’m reading today, so let’s get started!
First, an oldie (in internet time) but a goodie–Henry Sene Yee, the Creative director at Picador, walks us through the design of a book cover. The cover in question? Wesley Stace’s Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer. It’s a striking design, so head on over to learn how it came to be.
Over at Forever Young Adult, a drinking game to make the I Am Number Four movie more bearable. I haven’t seen the flick yet, but a drinking game in lieu of a movie review? Hmm…
Also at FYA, a return to Avonlea (see what I did there? And I’ve only had four hours sleep!) with a review of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams, in which Gilbert & Anne finally get it together. Definitely worth reading if you’ve ever been irritated by heroines giving up their dreams and settling down. (Also, I loved this book.) Thanks to @MelanieCordova, YA reader extraordinaire, for the tip off to FYA.
Getting back to covers–Melissa Walker, one of the totally awesome Readergirlz has the inside scoop on the cover design for Gwendolyn Heasley’s Where I Belong, which drops later this month.
The Shelf Elf (I <3 her header elf!) has a most excellent, thoughtful review of Gennifer Choldenko’s No Passengers Beyond This Point.
Have you read I Am Number Four yet? Seen the movie? Bought the t-shirt? What are you reading this morning?Read More
Yesterday, Emily St.John Mandel posted an essay on negative book reviews over at The Millions. It’s a wonderfully well-thought out piece filled with interesting tidbits about famous authors and their bad reviews. This is my favorite:
“Richard Ford once responded to a negative review by taking one of the reviewer’s novels outside and shooting a hole through it. The novelist who gave him a bad review? Alice Hoffman.
And although Mandel ultimately concludes in favor of negative reviews, they do appear to be growing less common. Over the past couple of months, I’ve run across several blogs saying they won’t do negative book reviews. The reasons are varied, but these are the three that have stuck with me:
- the publishing business is hard enough without negativity;
- negative reviews make the author feel bad;
- and the poster is getting spam comments, flamed, &c.
These reasons might be understandable, but they’re also frustrating, especially since I love negative books reviews.
True, I’ve never had a bad review of my book–but that’s because, at present, I don’t have a book. I have had negative reviews of lots of other things, though, from my cooking (too! much! chilli!) to my dancing (left! no, other left! leg! no, LEG! I know arm and leg have the same number of letters, but they’re NOT interchangeable!). Not as dire as getting a bad book review (though if Alice Hoffman ever reviews me, good or bad, I think I’ll be breaking out the good chocolate), but you get the point–we all get negative reviews for something. And, except in the case of good old fashioned meanness, they can actually be a good thing. (Case in point: flailing my leg rather than my arm meant fewer injuries for the folks around me.)Read More
We’ve all done it — bought a book based on a good review, passed over another because of a bad review. But why do reviews affect us? And how do they do it?
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote book reviews. The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review—whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.Read More
Once upon a time, only professional reviewers wrote . The greater the number of publishing credits and letters after your name, the greater your chances of being taken seriously. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree to work out if you like a book (though in the case of Edward Bloor’s Storytime, you might need an MFA to work out why). And a good review is still a good review–whether it’s over at your friend’s blog, or in the Books section of The New York Times.
Some time ago, I wrote about the internet killing professional book reviews, ending with my hope that pro reviews stick around. In my book, the difference between a pro reviewer and a casual reviewer (“amateur” is unfair–how can you be an amateur at deciding if you like/love/hate a book?) is the amount of time spent thinking about the volume in question. Casual reviewers read a book, write up a hundred words in the space of half an hour, and move on. Pro reviewers make notes, flag pages, talk to authors, find connections, and consider the bigger picture (how the book fits into a certain genre, if it makes any particular leaps or bounds &c, &c). Both kinds of review are valuable–few people have time to read a pro review every time they’re on the lookout for something new to read, and short, casual reviews are handy for readers trying to avoid spoilers.
But how does a book review work? What is it that makes a book review useful? Why care what reviewers think? Who cares what reviewers think?
Getting Inside the Reader’s Head
Much like a good story, reviews need a strong hook, clear voice, pacing, and balance. Longer reviews often achieve this by tying the narrative to a personal story, giving the reader something to hold onto. Although this may seem slightly narcissistic (there’s something slightly narcissistic about all writing, I suppose), it’s actually a very useful way for the reviewer to get inside the reader’s head. Let’s say I’m writing a review about one of Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books. Since they’re an old-world fantasy setting with herb lore, metal-working etc., I might include a snippet about my experience with botany and herbalism:
Back when I was studying botany at university, I took a particular interest in medicinal herbs. Most of my professors looked down on herbalism, and, by extension, herbalists–genetic engineering and the Flavr Savr tomato were the order of the day. Years later, when I befriended herbalists of both the crunchy and non-crunchy variety, my professors’ reluctance to talk about herbs beyond photosynthesis and the CAM cycle became clear. But Pierce’s treatment of herbalism should irritate few–her descriptions are akin to science, her characters carefully harvesting, testing, journaling, and distilling in a manner familiar to anyone who’s ever studied the scientific process.
The personal anecdote gives the reader a chance to consider my opinion, and compare or contrast theirs. Someone interested in homeopathy might find my views too different to theirs to give my thoughts any weight. Similarly, a biology major might be more likely to pick up the book because my thoughts on herbalism run parallel to theirs, suggesting similar tastes.
Although anyone can read a book review, they’re of particular use to writers, agents, editors and anyone in the story-making industry (and yes, “stories” includes non-fiction). Reviews generally cover books that stand out in some way. Get enough of these in a similar style (think wizard>>vampire>>dystopia) and we have a trend. Keeping tabs on the stand out books can yield valuable market information, helping book folks keep on what’s hot, and help them make predictions about what will be hot.
Interestingly, casual blog reviews may give a better sense of trends, since important “lit” books are not always crowd pleasers (Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood come to mind). In terms of straight out trend analysis, numbers are more important than an in-depth review–even without tallying the positives and negatives (there’s no such thing as bad press). Some pro reviewers, though, include trend analysis–recent books in the genre, what they contribute to said genre–in their work. If you’re in the story-making industry, these reviews are definitely worth the time. A lot of books cross a reviewer’s desk, and pros spend a lot of time doing lit analysis, fashioning general opinion and careful, critical reading into an easy-to-read trend report.
Writing is a tad narcissistic, though reading, particularly literary reading, may be more so. We humans love to hear “you’re right”. Most of us love to say “I told you so”. Book reviews give us the opportunity to say both at once. I’ve been known to shout “Exactly, that book sucked!” while reading at my local coffee shop. I’ve also used positive reviews to convince my husband to read something I loved. And while this may be the pettiest reason to read a book review, it’s arguably the most common.
They Make Us Think
I often read reviews after I’ve read the book. I know it seems backward, but reviews often bring up a lot of issues that color my experience with a story, and that make it hard to concentrate on reading. Picking one up after the fact gives me a chance to sort out my own impressions of the book, then dig into them, exploring and dissecting my thoughts about the author’s story, style, etc. Reading this way encourages critical thinking, a useful tool for, well, everyone. Good book reviews are challenging, forcing readers to consider new angles and broaden their horizons.
Do you read reviews before or after the book? Do they influence you? Have you used them to keep track of trends?