Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Snark, The DUFF and Earning the Right to Complain

Ani never stopped complaining about how annoying I was.
She never stopped trying to get me to change, either.
I recently finished reading Kody Keplinger's book The DUFF.

Now, I readily admit I am far from the target audience for the chicklit YA romance.  I'm male, old enough to be the protagonist's father and am not a huge fan of YA romance.  So, why read it?  Well, it was talked up on a lot of the blogs I read and when I stumbled across a copy, I figured I'd see what all the hype was about.  After all, Keplinger is still a teenager who wrote a book (and, presumably, a query) that was good enough to land her an agent and a publishing contract.

I won't say I hated it (because I didn't), but I sure didn't like it very much.

Why?  Three reasons:

  • Too much gratuitous sex
  • Too much gratuitous cursing
  • Too much gratuitous snark

If the first two reasons make me sound like a prude, so be it.  The overly frequent sex scenes weren't necessarily soft porn, but after the first instance, we get the point.  The same thing for the swearing.  Okay, they're big kids who aren't afraid to show their rebellious nature by using language deemed 'inappropriate' by society.  Great.  I get it.  But is that really the only way you can have the "edgy" characters show their edginess?  Sex and swearing?

(There's a reason I don't read many fictional works aimed at adults -- I have no interest in reading about unnecessarily complex relationships that frequently involve sex for no reason other than to include a racy sex scene. Yes, adults and teenagers have sex.  I understand this.  We also go to the bathroom, pick our noses and snore when we sleep.  I have no great interest in reading about those moments, either.  Give me a reason for it being in the book (character development? moving the plot forward?) or leave it out.   Oh, and if a character can't express themselves without cursing, there had best be a really good reason for that.  (I'll site Al Swearengen, the Shakespeare of Swearing, as someone who could pull it off))

What I really wanted to talk about, though, was the main character (Bianca) and her snarky voice.

Mary Kole, over at wrote a great blog post about the snarky voice.  [FULL DISCLOSURE: Mary is one of the agents in my Top Tier list of agents to query]  In her entry, titled "Problems with the Sarcastic Voice"Kole writes:
"But you can’t just give readers a sarcastic, quippy voice and a character who is biting and caustic and call it a day. That’s not all there is to teen voice or teen characters. In fact, writers who think that they’ve made an instant teenager by adding one part extra sarcasm are a big pet peeve of mine."
This was, in fact, part of my problem with Bianca's character: she was all snark, all the time.  In order for snark to be effective, I think it needs to be balanced with non-snarky observations and comments.  Sure, snark is amusing to read, but too much of it builds a huge barrier between the character and the reader.  If you're always making fun of /putting down life, people and events, you're nothing but defense mechanism.  How will we ever learn how you really feel?

The other part of my problem with Bianca was that she was so frustratingly passive.   Events happen to her, bur rarely does she initiate them (unless they're events designed to keep from facing her problems).  When Bianca is faced with the classic romantic triangle problem ("Do I choose the Bad Boy or the Good Boy?") Keplinger gives us pages of angst about Bianca's inability to decide -- and then fails to have her main character make the decision herself.  Instead, the Good Boy shows just how Good he is by telling Bianca to go to the Bad Boy, an offer the Good Boy is okay with because he's such an understanding Good Boy.  This means the main character of the book is spared from having to make the crucial decision at the climax of the book.  She simply does what she's been told what to do by another character.

(This is the sort of writing makes me want to throw books across the room)

One more thing: I am third-generation Washington, DC.  I grew up with political news being my hometown news.  This has contributed to my overall cynical outlook on a lot of life, especially where politics of any type are concerned.  However, in the last presidential election I still went door-to-door to encourage people to get out and vote.  Did I honestly believe change was going to come?  Somewhat.  (Watered down health care, yes.  Closing Guantanamo and/or transparency in government, no)  Why then did I do that?  Why even bother to vote at all?

Because I believe if you aren't actively working to make changes you've lost your right to complain about them.

And that's the biggest problem with the snark in The DUFF: Bianca isn't actively trying to change anything in her life.  She just avoids dealing with all of her problems and then complains about them.

As with people in real life, if you're honestly trying to better your situation, I'll cut you loads of slack.  Even if you're making some bone-headed choices, as long as I believe you're trying, I think you deserve credit and you've earned the right to complain to your heart's content.  Just take responsibility for yourself and your actions and work to make things better.  

Is that really too much to ask?

What do you think?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Think I'm way off target here?  Let me know in the comments -- I'm interested in what you think.

-- Tom


  1. My sister had a saying, you can only complain about the things you can't change. Because if you can change them, you'd better, and then there's nothing to complain about.

  2. I was wishy washy about THE DUFF as well. I liked some parts, but thought it wasn't overly well written. However, I didn't know the author was so young, so if I had known that, I probably would have re-adjusted my standards. Whether I should adjust my standards may be selling those young authors short. But anyway, I didn't have any problem with the sex scenes, but I did have a problem with the depth of character. I probably wouldn't hand this book out to the teens in my life like I do other books.

  3. I'm not sure if you're looking at things from the MC's perspective. I haven't read the thing, so I'll come back to you when I have. Being the 'fat friend' has given me plenty of things to complain about--that I can't change. A lot of people develop a snarky attitude in order to cope with the things in their life they don't have control over. Maybe you missed the character under the snark?

  4. Jessica: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I completely understand the snarky attitude as defensive mechanism. My problem with it is that snark without working towards changing things for the better is just griping and griping is not moving your character forward. I don't think I missed the character under the snark. In fact, I think the character was all snark and no action -- and without action, a fictional character is seriously lacking, imho.

    -- Tom

  5. Heather: I don't think the author's age should enter into it. Her manuscript was accepted by an agent and that agent sold that manuscript to an editor and a publishing house who agreed to publish it. Each of those people had their own standards that the manuscript had to meet. (Remember, the days of publishing something because it is Great Literature are long gone. Every person along the way had to believe they could make money from the manuscript or it would have died along the way)

    I wonder if your problems with "the depth of character" are related to my problems with the character being so reactive and not making any of her own (crucial) decisions in the story?

    -- Tom

  6. This: "The other part of my problem with Bianca was that she was so frustratingly passive. Events happen to her, bur rarely does she initiate them..." doesn't work for me AT ALL. It is one of my pet peeves in writing. You don't have to give me a happy ending, you don't have to give me characters doing the right thing, but you have to give me characters who are worth knowing something about, that is to say, characters who do SOMEthing.

    I haven't read The Duff, so I can't agree or disagree with your review of it.

  7. As you know, I disagree w/ this since I recommended this book on our blog today. :) I felt that her snark was her protection against being the "fat" girl, and that there was depth beneath it. I didn't see the sex as gratuitous because she used it as a means to escape, and many teens (and adults) who I've worked with in therapy have done this--so for me, it was very realistic.

    Overall, I think you demonstrate how subjective the business is and why one agent (or reader) might enjoy one book over another. I still agree with you on most of your posts. :)

  8. As I've written several times, I recognize I'm not the target demographic for The DUFF, and that may well color my view of it. My expectations of character and plot may not factor into much of what Keplinger did with her book.

    I think the important things are that we can discuss the differences rationally and respectfully, and that we're able to give specific reasons for our point of view. It's all part of that "social discourse" thing that a democracy requires to thrive.

    Oh, and I still agree with most of your posts, too, Kristi. : )

    -- Tom