#StoryProblems #NeatTrick

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As previously stated in this blog, I belong to a book club with a local bookseller, held the second Thursday of every month. For the most part I find some kind of redeeming quality in the books that we read, even if the book isn’t a favorite; the individual sentences may be quality prose, or I enjoy a particular character, etc. The only thing that I struggle with is if the writer decides to write a work of fiction or poetry that is so experimental that it starts to lose the whole reason for fiction or poetry:  to be read. My mother pointed this out once when I first shared my poetry with her, poetry that was meant to academically show off: it must be good; I don’t get it. Even though I went to college to study literature in order to write better, that one concept has stuck with me as a writer more than any other that I placed myself in student debt to learn. When I start to grind my teeth at a book, more than likely my teeth are wearing down because the writer just decided to go whole hog academic and leave the reader behind.

I get it; after all, it’s Pulitzer season, and there are numerous other awards that are prestigious enough to try for. How to stand out and put oneself in the running for notoriety? Some of the attempts are:

  • Write a collection of short works that are thinly connected. This method worked for me with Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, but didn’t work so well for a recent work that I read by a former lover of Philip Roth’s. If the connecting thread is too thin, or if the book has to be explained by an afterword, or if I have to hunt down reviews for it online just to be “taught” what I couldn’t get from reading it, then I know I’m not the intended audience.
  • Halfway to three-quarters way through the book to possibly the end, the whole narrative shifts (same character, but different voice). Sometimes the story itself warrants this approach, but it reads more like a trick or a crutch to keep the author from having to write real-life plausibility. In the interest of not hauling an author over the coals I won’t mention the wide collection of books that try and fail at this approach, but Kate Atkinson seems to execute it well.
  • Writing highly repetitive but nearly incoherent prose as part of the protagonist’s “voice” for too long and dragging out ennui to prove a point in the story. It doesn’t take much to bore the reader; don’t abuse that good faith for a century of pages.
  • Break the fourth wall.

Ok, this one is tricky. Do I love the breaking of the fourth wall for some novels, short stories, and poems? Absolutely. There are stories I love because they break rules, because they take down a barrier and nose right up like a loyal dog. Reader, I married him. Yep, the first time I read that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt like the writer sat down next to me and allowed me to sit with something in empathy.

But the last book club selection we had, a book that I’ll throw under the bus called Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, rubbed me the wrong way with its fourth wall destruction. I know why it did; the protagonist/narrator seemed to be poking fun at what a novel is, poking fun at writers, poking fun at tenacious readers, from about two-thirds of the way through the novel to the end. I might have been fine with that, except…on the acknowledgements page the author, no longer behind the mask of the protagonist, did the same thing. It was funny that Mendelsund looped us in for 482 pages, the schmucks that we were to read this. Of course the book is based on Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, didn’t we see it? Oh, and any other references to any other works of literature? Even those directly quoted? Those are all on the reader. They may or may not have happened.

There were people who liked the book; I envied them. And to be honest, I was glad to have the opportunity to read so singular a book; I just didn’t like it. If the author would have cut the damn thing in half and made fun of me as reader, then I might have laughed along. But to have no empathy for his readers and to laugh at them in the bargain for sticking with it? Sure, it’s impressive, it’s probably great art, a neat trick…but I didn’t enjoy the ride.

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My day-job skill set (although I am currently between jobs at the moment) is workforce analytics:  the gentle art of forecasting business trend to determine staffing and scheduling needs. I started out with workforce analytics as part of my job as a manager in 2007, and then moved into the analyst role exclusively in 2013. The job requires a great deal of math, and lately, in interviews, I repeatedly get this question:

Why the literature degree?

Analytics, in my experience, has required two major components: why the math is calculated as it is to determine and execute the business need, and how to explain that reasoning to the rest of the team so that it makes sense and so there is buy-in. Analytics is the application of the math concepts, the story problem you had to solve when you were a kid. Analytics NEVER presents the formula to the analyst; analytics always gives the analyst the two trains leaving the station at midnight going in opposite directions. When I read that story in an email, or hear that story from a manager or recruiter, or see that story in the fabric of a seemingly unrelated report, then I have to understand reading/scenario comprehension enough to empathize with the problem for what is needed, solve it, and then explain it again as an easily navigational story problem, with a happy ending this time.

My communication/writing/speaking skills have to rock the world.

Has analytics made me a better mathematician? Absolutely. But mathematics has made me a better communicator. There’s no need to re-invent the story of the wheelhouse, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to explain it so that anyone can get it.

In a synonym, a good novelist is also a good analyst.

 

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