Monday, July 7, 2008

What Happened by Peter Johnson

Posted by Alex

I'm supposed to review What Happened by Peter Johnson, and I will,in a sense. There are two ways of looking at this book, and perhaps a lot of the books covered here: the pure literary opinion, and the perspective of our hypothetical, all-purpose teen boy. Sometimes they may converge; in this case, I suspect they're a total dichotomy.

The book, by an award-winning poet, is described as a "prose poem." The nameless sixteen-year-old narrator initially tells us, "if my story seems erratic it's because I think that way," then relates the night he, his brother and two friends run over a man during a snowstorm. The rich kid driving, Duane, wants to pretend it didn't
happen; the narrator and his older brother Kyle are more conflicted. For soap-opera color, Kyle is dating Duane's sister Emily, on whom the narrator also has a crush, and Duane's rich, powerful father once romanced the narrator's late mother.

This is a thin book--"sparse" being the positive spin--and yet it spends most of its time away from its central dilemma. The narrator is on psychiatric meds, although his exact diagnosis seems unknown to him, and he's prone to digression. He's extremely passive, and ultimately the story resolves with no direct input from him; he even sleeps through the moment the other characters make a crucial decision. In fact, the story only tangentially affects him, since it's his older brother who's in actual danger.

As I read this, I tried to imagine a teenage boy's response to it. First there's the cover image of a very feminine young man, eyes closed and wispy blond hair to his shoulders. The first thing I thought of (and this may say more about me than the book) is that What Happened would detail a gay teen's struggle with his sexuality.

As it turns out, this cover (or this interpretation of it) is completely off-base. I wonder how many young men, some of them doubtless struggling with their own sexual identity, would avoid the book simply because of this (or alternatively, read it for that reason and be disappointed).

Then there's the style. Calling something a "prose poem" is pretty daunting if you want teens to read it. I've always thought the term "prose poem" was a bit arch anyway, a way of saying "pretentious" without using the word. And since the story is pretty simple and limited to the narrator's scattershot perspective, the author has
plenty of opportunities to make observations on philosophy, morality and the vagaries of self-knowledge. But will the intended audience of ages 13 and up care to wade through this?

That's where I think the book fails. It may be about teenage boys, it may be aimed at teenage boys, but I can't imagine most teenage boys reading it. It's too slow, it's too diffuse, and ultimately it features characters with whom most boys won't want to identify. For a short, slender book it's a slog at first, and while it does pick up steam toward the end when real conflict occurs, the fact that the conflict happens to other characters and not our dazed narrator robs it of its immediacy.

Interesting in the abstract, thin in the concrete, I think most teenage boys would not be terribly entertained by What Happened.

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Joe Cottonwood said...

Not intending to be critical but just wondering: This review is obviously written for librarians or other gatekeepers. Isn't this blog intended for, you know, guys? The guys who read guys lit?

Colleen said...

Alex is away from the internet right now Joe - I'll be sure to send him an email so when he gets back from visiting the famiily he can reply directly to your comment. (I posted this for him but did not write it.)

We certainly are aimed at guys who read guys lit and trying very very hard to accomplish that. But we also have a lot of readers who work with guys (as librarians/teachers) or know them as customers (booksellers). I don't know who Alex's target audience was for this review (I'll let him explain that) but we are walking a fine line here I know - as long as we stay primarily in the direction of teenage boys, I'm okay with occasionally straying in the "if you are thinking of recommending this book for teenage boys you might want to reconsider".

I promise, most of the time we will be aiming directly at the boys.

Joe Cottonwood said...

Personally I was interested in what Alex had to say (and I've read the book myself), but as a teen boy I'd be put off by articles such as this that seem to be written as if I (the teenage boy) were not there. It's like overhearing the grown-ups talking about you from another room.

I hope this comes as a constructive comment. I'm not looking to pick a fight and I love the concept of Guy's Lit.

Colleen said...

I completely took it as a constructive comment Joe and I'm sure Alex will as well - no worries, I don't see a fight here at all!

Alex Bledsoe said...

Joe, Colleen, et. al.:

Sorry for the tardiness on this reply; I've been on vacation in the wilds of North Carolina, which is why Colleen had to post my review for me.

Anyway, to answer your initial question, Joe: I wasn't addressing my review to any specific audience. I'm not any sort of "gatekeeper," just another writer. I found this book a particularly hard one to review, since it inspired no real passion, either good or bad. Wondering exactly who would like this book became the thesis of my review.

Colleen said...

This comment was sent to me by Peter Johnson as he had some trouble posting it. I have copied it here, unchanged. -Colleen

Ah, this is a tough one because I've never responded to a review of my work, but this reviewer makes generalizations that have no basis in fact. In fact, after making many school visits, I've found that many boys not only respond well to WHAT HAPPENED but have told me it's one of the few YA novels that doesn't talk down to them. Concerning the impressionistic narrative, boys have said, "That's no problem because that's how I think." And the reviewer gets testy about the term "prose poem." I didn't call the book that; that's marketing, though I don't see any reason why would teenage boys would be turned off to prose poems? They're not idiots. Even odder are the reviewer's comments about the picture of the young man on the cover. How can someone look at this simple picture and construe that the book is about a gay guy? Wow, I didn't know you could LOOK gay.

From writing many reviews on "adult" books, I've learned that when you decided to slam a book, you better at least mention the good things that have happened to it. In the case of WHAT HAPPENED, it received the 2008 Paterson Prize and was named the Rhode Island Book of the Year for Secondary Schools by the Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature. It was also chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the "Best Books for the Teenaged," and a reviewer for BOOKLIST called it the "most gorgeously written YA title of 2007." I could go on, but I'm aware that awards do not necessarily mean a book is good, though it's a reviewer's responsibility to check out a few things. But the damage has been done. I just wish it had been accomplished by someone without so many attitudes about what young men want to read. I would hope your zine would be totally against such an approach. Boys have enough people telling them how they should think and feel. If you want to know my ideas on boys and YA novels, please go to

Peter Johnson

Alex Bledsoe said...

Mr. Johnson:

Thank you for responding to my review. Since this site is a little over a month old, it's good to know people are reading it.

First, I'd like to respond to a particular implication in your comment. I did not say the cover model "looked gay," I said he looked feminine, because when I first looked at the book I truly thought he was a girl. And, in conjunction with the title, I felt this might cause potential readers to misconstrue the book's actual topic. I'm glad that hasn't been the case.

Second, I was aware of the book's other reviews and awards. I did not mention them because, quite frankly, I'm not sure the awards given by adults to teen and children's books truly reflect the opinions of the target audience. That said, you've pointed out an oversight in providing context for the book's reception, and in future reviews I will keep that in mind.

Finally...and in all honesty...I just didn't find the story or the telling of it that compelling. And I really couldn't get past the fact that the deliberately-nameless narrator, our ostensible protagonist and the one providing his unreliable perspective on everything, takes no active hand in the story's resolution.

This is only my opinion, and it doesn't negate any effect the book might've had on other readers. The influence of art is often independent of any technical evaluation.

Again, I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Colleen said...

This issue of raising a book's award history in a review is something I have been thinking about Alex, for exactly the reason you mention here.

I'm going to post on awards and teens next week.

Jackie Parker said...

The problem with attempting to rely on a list of awards to balance out a review is that there are so many little, unknown awards out there that it's neigh on impossible to track them down reliably.

BookChic said...

Honestly, I don't see the problem with Alex's review- he didn't like the book, and wrote about it. What's so wrong with that? Not everyone is going to like a certain book. Although I was a bit offput by the "feminine" comment since, to me, the guy on the cover does not look feminine in the slightest. But I am only looking at a small JPEG rather than the book itself.

I think it was great to hear Peter's side to it, but again, not everyone is going to like your book. And considering that Alex has two teenage sons of his own (I read his bio), I would imagine that he does have some idea of what teenage boys like to read. I was also very surprised to see a personal insult toward Alex from Peter near the end of his comment as well as an arrogant-sounding "If you want MY views...". There really is no need to do that. As a writer, you shouldn't take offense at someone not liking your book. It's just one person- who cares.

In regards to Joe's comments, this review is hardly written for librarians or "other gatekeepers" (whatever that is). I have seen and read reviews written for librarians and academia, and this does not come close to the boredom that's inflicted by those particular reviews. This one was really interesting to read, and a heck of a lot shorter.

Like Colleen said, yes, this blog is intended for guys who read guys lit and to encourage guys to read, however, I hate to think that we should be that narrow in writing our reviews. A variety of people are posting and reading these posts that are being put up. It's not just teenage guys, so if we just focused on teenage guys, we'd be alienating other visitors to this blog and we don't want that. The reviews that are written are for everyone, in my opinion, not just guys who read guys lit.