Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway is an historical fiction novel set in New York City’s Gilded Age. It’s Callaway’s debut novel and is told through the eyes of Virginia Loftin better known as Ginny. Her family is highly artistic with each of her sisters, except one who’s a teacher, and her brother engaged in some sort of artistic pursuit. Ginny is a writer, one sister is a pianist, one sister is a milliner to New York’s high society, and her brother is a painter but works as a salesman. Over the course of two years the reader follows Ginny as she not pursues her dream of being a professional writer and becoming involved with a group of other artists but also the two men she loves: one her lifelong best friend Charlie, an illustrator, and John Hopper, the leader of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society.

What drew me to pick up the book was the title. Thinking the book would be about the artists society led me to believe it would primarily be Ginny exploring the beauty and pain of creativity and the high probability of drama a group of fellow creative types is bound to bring. That and the fact the main character was a writer although I tend to stay away from books where the main character is a writer. In my opinion it’s a little too convenient when a writer writes about a writer. But I gave this one a chance because of the artists society aspect.

Unfortunately the book wasn’t about the artists society or art. Instead it’s a rather poorly constructed love triangle with two underdeveloped love interests and a grating main character. Her first love Charlie literally shows up at convenient plot points and exits just as quick serving only to moan on and on about how he made a mistake. I have no idea why she loves him other than they grew up together. Ginny’s other love interest, John, is slightly more developed, however, his characterization is inconsistent and her wishy washy feelings toward him gets old very fast. For someone who supposedly wants a husband who will be supportive of her writing career she seems to not care when John demonstrates genuine support. She waffles between independent-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man to wanting nothing more than to be married. While I’m not opposed to romance or a book focusing on it, something not completely uncommon in historical fiction, why it bugged me in The Fifth Avenue Artists Society was how much Ginny and her sisters vacillate. Also, the way all the romances were developed felt forced and inorganic.

Actually pretty much everything in this book was forced and inorganic. The plot was forced and I had a giant problem with a plot twist thrown in toward the last third of the book. It didn’t make sense at all and comes out of left field. Yes, there are a few subtle hints to suggest something is afoot, but it doesn’t come across as natural. Also it throws off the tone of the book. It goes from a fluff, Little Women-esque piece to dark and serious which it fails at. Perhaps it fails because one of the people involved in the plot twist is a character who is in the background in one scene very early in the book.Or because the book is told through Ginny’s eyes she wasn’t there for the event which prompts the twist.

As I alluded to above, I had problems with the characters, in particular Ginny. Like so much of this book, her decisions and actions felt forced. I found her even more irritating after the plot twist. Without spoiling anything, I was incredibly angry with her as she couldn’t understand why her family was justifiably angry with a member of their family involved with the twist. She was mad at them for not understanding the possible other side of things yet she refused to see things from their point of view. All of the supporting characters are one dimensional and are shoehorned into the novel. There are a lot of them as Ginny comes from a large family and with virtually everyone paired off it adds more players to the mix. I don’t know if there was some restriction put onto Callaway by her editor or publisher, but there needed to be more room in the novel to develop the characters.

Since this is historical fiction, I’ll touch about the feeling of accuracy I got from the book. While Callaway certainly did her research, she mentions in her acknowledgements a bulk of the book is based upon her ancestors and includes some documents from her family’s history, the language used and attitudes of the characters comes across as period inappropriate. They didn’t feel modern, just not 1890s middle class and not from people whom frequently hobnob with the upper crust of New York society. Oddly enough it felt more like the 1920s in how people spoke and acted. I guess Callaway decided since all the characters are artists they aren’t going to act in line with societal norms. That’s fine. Believe me I don’t want or need cookie cutter and get tired of seeing characters fall into supposed norms in historical, it was just…off. But the way the characters dressed, the architecture of the time period, and other setting details felt very authentic. Callaway also references a lot of plays, pieces of music, popular authors and books, literary magazines, publishers, and historical figures the Loftin family would possibly have interacted with, and painters popular at the time.

Overall, though, I found The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway to be disappointing. The characters weren’t compelling or consistent and the plot was boring and nonsensical at the end. On a scale of one to five pencils I’m giving it one and half pencils.

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Weekly Musing: Strengths and Weaknesses

Every writer, no matter their level of experience and success, has their strengths and weaknesses. Some write such realistic dialogue the reader can hear the characters as if they were sitting next to them having a conversation. Others are able to weave incredibly tight, complex plots. Still others are able to juggle multiple points of view. While others excel at creating unique, compelling characters. But for every writer with a strength or two or three, they also have a weakness or two or three.

And that’s okay. In theory anyway. There is a ton of information about how to improve every aspect of your writing. For someone like me, a born perfectionist who overthinks pretty much everything (thanks anxiety), getting bombarded with such makes me feel that in order to get anything published I must excel in all areas. On an intellectual level I understand this simply isn’t possible. How many of my favorite books and authors could I point out the strengths and weaknesses?

So below are what I consider my strengths and weaknesses at this point. Admittedly there will probably be more weaknesses since I tend to focus more on the negative and how to improve. Anyway, typical massive writer insecurities aside, here we go!

Strengths

Dialogue: One of the things I always appreciate in any story is dialogue. Dialogue for me is not only what gives me a sense of who a character but the story as well. I’m also fascinating by how people talk. Their choice of words, regional slang and dialect, accents, cadence, it’s all interesting.

Since characters are usually the first things that pop into my head I often find I hear their voices before I see them. So when I’m writing I try my best to capture their voice as much as I can. I think in some small way I’ve been successful at this so far. It does take me a lot of effort to really listen in a scene and make sure each person in a scene sounds like himself or herself.

One Point of View: This year I came to the realization trying to juggle more than one person’s point of view isn’t my thing. Recognizing all of the stories I’ve written have always been from one point of view, one character’s point of view is what I’m much better at. My brain concentrates better on just one task and in this case, one person’s story. I can stay inside that person’s world and mind better and it’s easier for me to see things as they do.

Oddly enough, while I don’t particularly care for first person, I noticed a fair amount of the stories I’ve had published have been the ones written in first person. Maybe because this point of view allows more freedom in truly getting deep into the emotion of the person something third person can restrict.

Weaknesses

Setting: I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to bring settings out more. After all it’s what helps ground readers into the world. It’s a struggle for me because in my head I can see it perfectly but it’s difficult to figure out how to translate that visual onto the page. Stories I’ve written of late I think I’ve done a better job but more often than not I worry if I don’t have enough information. What confuses as I study what I read are authors who have the ability to use very few words to give the reader the setting while others go into beautiful, lengthy descriptions. As a reader I respond to both so as a writer I’m unclear as to which route to take.

Descriptions: In a similar vein to setting, descriptions trip me up. Mainly in regards to what characters look like and how best to introduce this when the reader first meets them. There are two schools of thought as to what is the “best” approach. Does one do a quick paragraph description or does one sprinkle details throughout? Personally I like getting the description all at once. I tend to forget what people look like unless there is some kind of memorable feature or if the author beats me over the head with reminders.

As I writer I struggle with seeing the characters in my head yet can’t seem to find a creative way to describe them beyond generic things like blue eyes, curly blonde hair, short, tall, has a limp, etc. This struggle filters over to what people are wearing. Since I tend to write sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction, what people wear and look like tend to be kinda important because it gives a visual cue to the reader as to what kind of person these people are.

Endings: I struggle mightily with endings. Beginnings I’ve gotten better at seeing where the appropriate place is to start the story and middles are easy. But endings, yikes. My spouse was the first, and still only person, to point out I seem to have a tendency to kill off characters as a way to end a story. This reeks of lazy writing to me.

Since I do some form of outlining, I’ve concentrated more on endings. I’m also listening to the most common feedback I get that my endings are weak. Honestly getting suggestions for what might work helps spurn my creativity. At least I can take some comfort in I’m not the only person who struggles with endings as many, many books, TV shows, and movies leave many of us unsatisfied.

Crowd Control: This is a term I use to refer to whenever a scene has more than two characters. I find managing two people easy enough. Anything more, oh dear. I have a tendency to forget people until rereading the scene. And heaven forbid there be anything else in the scene like weapons or animals to consider. I’ve started to take up diagraming on a piece of paper where people are physical at in relation to others to have a visual.

Emotion: This one could be in my head. Probably is. But I think I have yet to truly be comfortable allowing a character to be 100% honest in a story.

While I do well writing from a character’s point of view, I feel myself pulling back. I’m scared to dig deeper at times to let some kind of uncomfortable emotion come out for fear of offending. It’s not unusual for an author to be blamed for something a fictional character does. A fictional character is not a reflection of the author. Yet fear of judgment and possible hate email holds me back from allowing any kind of raw, pure emotion aside from what is socially acceptable from coming out.

This is something I view as pretty detrimental to my characters and ultimately my career and probably the one weakness which worries me the most. It’s also the one I think there is no amount of advice which can be given other than my own internal work to get over it.

 

So there you have it. My strengths and weaknesses as I see them right now. It is my hope I can turn some of these weaknesses into strengths. But I must keep in mind, and every other writer must keep in mind as well, that you cannot excel in all areas. Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

Weekly Musing: Genre Beef

East Coast vs. West Coast. Hatfields and McCoys. Republican vs. Democrat. North vs. South. All famous feuds. Another kind of feud, less known, is Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction. Apparently as a writer you must pick one or the other. Like any good feud each side believes their side is the correct one.

Bollocks. I’m not one for conflict. Absolutely hate it and try to avoid either being directly involved in and I get massively uncomfortable when I see people arguing. So to learn that there is this apparent battle between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction greatly puzzles me. I don’t understand why anyone thinks one is inherently better than the other is. Granted Literary Fiction has been around a lot longer although there are examples of Genre Fiction with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and many others. But being able to say “First!” doesn’t mean it is better. It simply means it was well, first.

Before I go any further let’s briefly define Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction. Literary Fiction is fiction which holds literary merit in that it involves social criticism, political criticism, or commentary on the human condition. In other words, it is serious literature examining reality rather than providing an escape. Think of all the books you were forced to read in high school and college. On the flip side Genre Fiction is fiction aimed at the general population and is broadly considered escapism. This is the type of stuff not forced upon students because it’s not serious enough. But just like Literary Fiction having elements of Genre Fiction creeping onto the pages, there are countless examples of Genre Fiction with heavy Literary Fiction elements. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Side of Darkness, The Ends of the Earth by William Golding, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende are but a few examples.

hope it is as obvious to you as it is to me how inherently snobby and rather dumb these definitions are. And I’m sure it obvious why these two have beef. There’s this notion those who write Literary Fiction are smarter, better educated, and better writers because they write Serious Stuff. Plebs need not bother. Those who write Genre Fiction are frivolous, write fluff for the masses, and must be worse writers because they don’t write complex, emotionally fraught work.

As a writer and a reader, why does there need to be this distance? Plenty of Genre Fiction books could definitely be considered literary not only because of the beauty of the prose, but also because of exploring themes supposedly only owned by Literary Fiction. Sci-fi and Fantasy often explore themes of humanity, right and wrong, gender roles, stereotypes, rights of the individual, etc. Historical Fiction teaches us not only teaches about the past, but also shows us gender roles, human rights, and how people try to fight societal norms. Women’s Fiction explores issues an entire gender typically faces such as discrimination, how does one define what a woman is or is not, and finding strength from within. I’ve read Mysteries which while primarily focused on whodunit, also spoke about racial differences and classism. I’m confident many other genres also explore serious issues.

So why is there this rivalry? What is it accomplishing? One thing that bugs me personally is trying to shove people into boxes, labels, whatever because it’s easier for them to know how to act rather than treating each person as an individual. Why can’t people just read and enjoy what they want without judgment? Why can’t writers just write whatever suits our fancy without a giant label on it?

Because human beings love those labels and the publishing industry is run by humans. Genre labels help readers figure out what they want to read. They help publishers determine how to market a book. Labels help libraries and book retailers know where to shelve a book. Labels aren’t necessarily bad, but when people start poo-pooing one genre over another than it’s just silly.

At the end of the day it’s perfectly fine for a book to just be a book but let’s reexamine the archaic assumption only Literary Fiction is serious and therefore better and Genre Fiction is fluff to be looked down upon. Not to sound all lovey dovey but can’t the two just get along? Our genre doesn’t detract from we write because we have stories to tell. We all have the desire to share with the world those stories regardless if our motivation is escapism or enlightenment.