Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity by William Paul Young.

Why do we read the books we read?

For me, the answer is "it depends." I'm in two book clubs and a couple of writer's groups, so I read books selected by or written by people I know. I've read books by authors I've met and liked, chosen books based on reviews on NPR or various blogs. And sometimes . . . it's just buzz. That was the case for me with The Shack. Well, that plus the fact that someone handed it to me and said, "read this."

I'd heard of The Shack. I had no idea what the book was about, but people over at the PCUSA Blog were talking about it and I had the impression it was a sort of Christian book. But that some conservative theologians had problems with it. I didn't even know if it was fiction or nonfiction; I just knew a lot of people were talking about it. And I was mildly interested but not planning on reading it, until a friend handed it to me.

I decided against doing any research and dove right in.

A few pages later I stopped and went to Wikipedia, where I verified what I'd already figured out: it's self-published. (Also, it's fiction.)

The story goes that Young wrote the book for his kids and kept hearing that he should publish it. So he tried and tried, but no publisher - not Christian, not mainstream, not literary or commercial - would take it. So, along with a couple of business partners, he self-published.

And it's obvious. As you might have guessed, my review is going to focus on the writing and the story, rather than the spiritual lessons.

Via industry blogs I hear over and over again about how hard it is to break into publishing. If you've not got a fabulous platform (fame or notoriety, strong history of past book sales, stunning academic credentials) then your book better be spit-polished and perfect when you send it to agents and editors.

This book makes some elementary mistakes.

1) Telling. A truly chilling story is set against a backdrop of a personal travel diary. They turned here, then here, then here and this road did this and that. Some of the geographical and cryptographical specifics are what they surely intend to be - detail to add richness to the story - but a lot of them read like the way you might describe your trip to someone wanting to retrace your steps exactly, combined with occasional nonfiction dumps of background information about various historical areas. A few well-chosen details make a story come alive, but big chunks of minutia just slow things down.

Another sign of the telling-not-showing problem in this novel is all the passive voice. Not only does use of the passive voice distance the reader from the story, it slows the pace way down. ("The water bottle was passed," instead of "Joe took a big swig, his adam's apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed, then handed off the weeping bottle to Tim.")

In fact, the first part of this book - the thriller part - reads at times like the summary of a story rather than the story itself. This is probably intentional to some extent - the meat of the story is the time at The Shack, not the tragedy leading up to it - but we need to be really hooked on Mack and his story well before we get there to make it through part two.

2) Adverbs. I have a problem with adverbs myself and often wonder why my critique partners mark them in my manuscripts. "But that one's important!" I think. "I couldn't possibly cut it without ruining everything! That was before I read this book and choked on quite a few adverbs on every page, frequently more than one per sentence. P. 209 is half a page of text (it's a chapter opener) and has immediately, directly, hurriedly, smoothly, and precisely. This clutters up the prose and is a bit lazier than showing action through character words and gestures.

After a (short) while, I started to feel like this book kept telling me how to read it, rather than just letting me read it. Instead of telling me a story, it also told me exactly how to interpret the story. Much less fun.

3) Pedantic. I don't know how Young could have avoided this pitfall, and he didn't. Part two is - sorry if this is a bit of a spoiler; I sure saw it coming a mile away - Mack alone in The Shack with God. There's some action here - Mack and God garden and hike and eat - but mostly it's a series of conversations about the nature of the Trinity, God, religion, humanity, life, forgiveness, etc.

There's a lot to unpack here, and I found it well worth my time, but parts were forced and awkward. The conversations were necessarily Mack asking short questions and getting long answers. How else should a conversation with God go? I'd feel like I blew my chance to learn some stuff if I were in Mack's position and didn't let God do most of the talking.

There's some really good stuff in this book, but the writing feels somewhat amateurish. So why do so many people want to read it, anyway? Buzz begets buzz, and people will forgive a lot for a tense story about a lurid tragedy.

This begs the question: does good writing really matter, if millions of people are willing to overlook the lack of it? Are agents and editors using the wrong criteria to select which books to publish?

Who could have anticipated that this book would be such a huge commercial success? It's not the first or best story about something bad happening to a child. It's not the first or best book to take on the theological implications of why bad things happen to innocent people or how to develop a relationship with God. And it's not spectacularly well-written. So what does it have?

Buzz. Dozens of megachurches discussing it en masse. People passing it hand to hand (as happened to me).

And more than that. Everywhere I went with the book, people stopped me. "That book changed my life."

It didn't change my life, but I'm glad I read it.

I got something out of it, both spiritually and professionally. I learned a lot about writing from reading this book. It's one thing to hear: show, don't tell; lose the adverbs; story first, message much later. It's another to see a 248 page case study of why writing teachers say those things.

Imagine how powerful this book might have been if it had been picked up by a publishing house and lucked into a passionate and talented editor. Wow. I'd read it all over again.

Poll: is this a mixed metaphor or a lovely bit of prose: Mack inhaled the visual symphony (P. 144)?

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