Saturday, March 20, 2010

Absolutely true diary of a part-time critic

It happened again this week. I belatedly read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,  the National Book Award winner. I'd seen nothing but rave reviews for it and had been meaning to get to it for a long time.

And I liked it. Junior is a very sympathetic protagonist and his troubles are real. It was a welcome trip into a world I know only from the outside.

But I didn't love it. Just as when I read When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead's Newbery winner, I wasn't as blown away as I'd expected. (My reaction to that book is here.) In each case, I thought the book was good. Very good even. But to me each was marred by a certain self-consciousness. Maybe it's because I'm an adult and a writer, but I could see the man behind the curtain. In Alexie's case, I could feel the author's need to make me understand life on the rez. As well as the effort going in to making the book funny and poignant.

I'm happy to learn more about life on the rez. But my sense of the storyteller distracted me from the story, kept it from feeling as real as I wanted it to. I wasn't able to be immersed in that world. As a result, some things didn't ring true. (When Rowdy uses the word nomadic repeatedly at the end, for example. It made an otherwise believable character seem like a mouthpiece for the author.)

The truth is, I'm not blown away very often. I'm still capable of being caught up in other worlds. Of closing a book and realizing I didn't notice the author's technique. Even when the book has gotten a lot of attention and awards. (One example that comes to mind is Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I felt warranted every word of praise it got.)

So the question bothering me is, have I become a cynical or harsh reader? Have I lost the ability to put the critic aside and read as a reader? Are my expectations too high? Certainly I'm not able to produce books anywhere near this level, so is it jealousy? Or something else?

Why do I seem to be the only one who doesn't love these books?