I’ve been reading more than usual. On one hand, that’s a good thing. You can’t write without reading. Good stories aren’t released into a vacuum; nor should they be written in one, I think. Reading affords an opportunity to let other people inspire you, for better or for worse.
This post is definitely going to touch on the worse…
Last year I set a reading goal for myself: 88 books in a year. I made it to 52, so I set myself a more realistic goal for 2016: 80 books (I never said I was smart). In an effort to get there, I’ve read two books already so far this year: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Welcome to Nightvale, based on the podcast of the same name. I liked both, maybe not equally; Fangirl I found enjoyable but lacking depth, whereas with WTNV I went in expecting it to be hilarious but without much substance and ended up finding it surprisingly deep, in a good way.
To make my task a little easier (I tend to lose focus when I’m unsure what to read) I’ve decided to dedicate my 80 books this year to clearing some space on my virtual “To Read” shelf, kept orderly thanks to Goodreads. It’s such a good way to catalog book recommendations, read reviews that run the gamut and actually reflect the average reader better than ones courtesy of major news outlets, and even track you own books by ISBN number. It’s cool, if you’re into books, which I definitely am.
One of the books on my To-Read Shelf was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I’d heard it was good, forgotten about it, remembered it when I was looking at my To-Read Shelf this month for something to read after WTNV, forgot about it again, and then finally made the effort to track it down after I saw a preview for the television series version of it they’re making for SyFy Channel.
I have to admit, I sort of liked it at first. Say what you will about Grossman’s ability to write realistic (or, dare I even mention, relatable) teen characters, I thought the conceit of writing a Harry Potter- or Narnia-esque world infused with dark, gritty, unglamorous trappings was pretty fun (as out of place as the word ‘fun’ might seem up against all those other adjectives). Reading about Quentin, the protagonist’s, discovery of this new magical world and learning the rules of magic along with him stirred something in me I can’t say I’ve rightly felt since reading good old JKR’s or CSL’s books for the first time.
The problem with Grossman’s book, in my humble but emphatic (like, aggressively) opinion is this: Quentin (and pretty much everyone else) is incredibly unlikeable. Like, so unlikeable. So, so deeply, incredibly, repulsive and gross.
It’s not my intention to write a book review here. I’ve read a lot of really great reviews that touch on how The Magicians‘ very purpose for existing, the way Grossman has written it, is to skewer the tropes of the Chosen Hero in a Magical Land he Discovered by Accident. There’s plenty of discussion across the wilds of the Internets about how Quentin’s unlikeability is the point: he’s depressed and self-loathing and you’re meant to understand that someone can have literally everything—access to a secret, exclusive world; the ability to manipulate the fabric of reality; an exciting, attractive friend group; no need to worry about money or work for subsistence—and still fail to find pleasure or purpose in their lives. Not only that, but go on to fuck everything up in a self-sabotaging effort to feel anything other than disinterest or detachment for just a minute in their lives. I really get that.
But Quentin is a turd among more turds. And that’s where justifications for his misanthropy and apathy like the ones above lose me—there’s nothing to suggest to me in Grossman’s writing that he’s holding Quentin up as a caricature, or as an example, or even as a person worth redeeming. Quentin just keeps barreling through his life, succeeding and failing in different measures at academic tasks, but in terms of relationships just fucking pretty much everyone and everything he comes across.
I was pretty equal to this until about 3/4 of the way through the book. Quentin is narrow-minded, pessimistic, views women without much interest unless he thinks they’re bitches or there’s a possibility (however remote) that they’ll sleep with him, yet I kept reading. Maybe he’ll come up against something that will make him change, I thought. Maybe we’re meant to see how awful and ridiculous he is, and how literally all of the things in his life that are terrible have to do with his own unwillingness to deal with what is obviously depression, mixed in with a good old-fashioned entitlement complex.
Maybe that’s Grossman’s point. The world doesn’t owe us anything, and unless we accept that and focus on what we can accomplish in what little time and opportunities we have, we’ll never be happy and we might as well just lay down and die.
I lost my optimism about there being a message around this point. Finally, Quentin cheats on the woman he loves out of boredom. I know, because he later justifies the infidelity on account of that. Boredom and booze. When she moves on, he blames the woman he himself cheated on her with, as well as the woman herself and her new lover. As the protagonist, Quentin emotes internally for the reader’s benefit, and we are presumably meant to pity him. The only thing I felt bad about was that none of the other self-absorbed, poorly drawn characters Grossman populated the book with were intelligent or motivated enough to slap Quentin out of this ridiculous shit. It’s inane, and asinine, and it’s just really bad character writing.
This brings me to my point: I read a lot about writing characters, especially protagonists, and one thing I come across over and over again is that if you’re going to write a story, you have to have at least a little compassion for you characters. You do! Otherwise, what’s the point of someone reading it? If you created a world, a setting, and dropped people into it just to torture them, without resolution, that’s not really a story, is it? I mean really, it would be like asking someone to watch you play The Sims, then sitting down for three hours to create a Sim, build a house, trap your Sim in a locked room then set the house on fire. How is that entertaining? What am I giving up three hours of my life for?
That’s how I feel reading The Magicians and that’s the kind of author I don’t want to be. For me, the point of creating an unsympathetic character is twofold: either you’re setting them up for a redemptive arc (if the redemption ends in happiness for your unsympathetic character, it’s a comedy; if the character dies trying to redeem themselves, or redeems themselves, but at a great personal cost, it’s a tragedy) or you’ve created them as an instructional archetype, holding them up against circumstances or other characters so that you can basically say: “And this, people, is how we do not behave if we don’t want to be a giant, flopping dildo of a human being.”
Grossman’s motivation for writing Quentin so horribly doesn’t seem to fall into either of those categories. On one hand, Quentin is awful and unsympathetic—but then, so are all the other main characters. There’s no one who stands out as a benchmark for good, except for Quentin’s ex-girlfriend, who is so poorly developed that I hesitate to even call her a main character. I mean, she features heavily in Quentin’s life and thoughts—it’s just that all his thoughts about her are pretty much in relation to himself.
On the other hand, Quentin has multiple opportunities/conflicts within the course of the book’s narrative where he could be exposed to change. He meets people who are different from him; he’s in an unfamiliar environment; he’s confronted with seemingly impossible tasks. But Grossman glosses over every academic obstacle Quentin faces by simply telling us that Quentin is either so brilliant or so hard-working that he eventually just gets through. And none of the inter-personal conflicts are ever pursued or resolved; Quentin simply gives everyone who challenges him to be less self-absorbed or to reflect on his own motivations a wide berth, blaming that individual for their unappealing attitude and choosing instead to fit himself in with a group focused on drowning their own malaise and anhedonia with mindless sexual and alcoholic debauchery. Not even magic sexy alcohol debauchery, just the usual kind.
How can magic and portals and wizards mixed with sex, booze, and drugs be boring? When there’s no resolution. We know the lives of the characters in The Magicians are without purpose—great. Good set up! Introduce some driving change, that forces them to deal with their issues—then we’re in business. But there’s nothing. And with fundamentally flawed, unlikeable characters, there’s even less reason to keep reading.
I’m going to try to remember this for my own writing. When there’s no hope of resolving anything—a mystery, a love triangle, a major personality flaw—what’s the point of telling the story? What are you trying to say? I think the worst thing I could take away from reading The Magicians is that Grossman thinks Quentin is sympathetic. That would make an already unenjoyable read thoroughly depressing.