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Literary Fiction

There was a time, undergrad degree clenched tightly in my fist, literary criticism terms floating untethered through my every thought, when I loved literary fiction.

I don’t mean fiction that is literature, I mean Literary in the postmodern, smugly self-aware, consciously playing with literature and language sense.

Somewhere along the way, I lost all patience with this style of writing. Especially the self-aware bit.

So those of you who have already read Jenny Hubbard’s Paper Covers Rock will not be surprised that I had some difficulty with the novel.

I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried. For two months, this is the book I’ve been reading between and in the midst of other, less aggravating books. I want to like it: it’s a boy’s boarding school story, and I often love that designation (A Separate Peace was a long time favorite). It’s short, and I’ve had the kind of fall where short books are a joy because I get to read them fast, so I can usually finish them before the flaws catch up to me. It’s got the tantalizing possibility of a teacher-student love story, which has held an icky sort of fascination since I came of age singing “Don’t Stand so Close to Me.”

Also, lots of positive reviews. Booklist gave a starred review and called Hubbard “a bright light to watch”; SLJ’s starred review called it a “compelling read”; and Publisher’s Weekly (star three by my count) said it was a “a powerful, ambitious debut.” Holla, because that’s some serious praise. Clearly, everyone else likes the literary lovefest the book has with books and itself.

So yes, I went into this with high hopes. Which lasted through the first chapter title (“Call me Is Male”) but not past the third paragraph (“My apologies to Herman Melville, from whom I may have to steal a few words to tell the story that is about to be told, that is in the middle of being told, that will never stop being told.”)

On the one hand, I suppose you could make an argument that this self-consciously precocious voice sounds like a real teen, because hopefully once we’ve left adolescence behind we also lose our ability to be this pretentious without some glimmer of humor or shame or awareness. But at the same time, part of what gets to me with this novel is that what it really sounds like is an adult trying to sound like a teen. Only an adult has the knowledge of Melville (and Dickinson, and the great American novel) to play with the language and themes of Moby Dick as Hubbard, and ostensibly Alex, does. And Alex is too self-aware. He talks about grief in such lovely, careful language. It makes his grief suspect. It makes him suspect: this was one of those books where I never ever forgot the author.

In short, this reads more like writing exercise than genuine story. It’s the smug self-awareness. The novel screams, “look at me!” The words ask you to scrutinize their order, in the Moby Dick references, in Alex’s claim that everything we will read is verbatim, in the opening epigraph and assertion that “The title is the writer’s stamp of approval,” which is then cited in the text and referenced again in the closing lines. Alex leaves his journal untitled as a statement of his discomfort (which should probably be evident from the text itself) but the refrain means that the reader must scrutinize the (not all that subtle) title of the novel, which is all about language hiding truth (the literal events at the rock and the metaphorical rock of fact), which then calls into question Alex’s claims of truth.

I could write a paper or three on all these neat little games of reference and allusion and layer. And that’s with only a vague, distant recollection of Moby Dick, which I last read (well, skimmed) in the spring of my senior year of high school. I suspect I could read it now and then really analyze the hell out of Paper Covers Rock.

And that, ultimately, is what really didn’t work. The novel appears to be deliberately designed to be picked apart and scrutinized in an English class. It works as a capital-T Text, but not as a book you (okay, I) might actually read.

And I know appeal doesn’t matter, and I know I often champion books that seem limited at best in their appeal. But this one doesn’t feel YA at all, and it makes me wish the criteria had something about being for a teen audience in the sense of concerned with the business of adolescence. Yes, Alex is a teen, but this journey doesn’t feel like the teen journey (from acted upon to acting upon). He is acted upon all the way through, even when he acts.

I won’t actually be surprised if this lands in the committee’s final five, because I can see the Literary qualities even if I don’t like the book (way 2, for the record), but I will be disappointed, because I find this pretentious and artificial and I much prefer it when the Printz recognizes genuine books. But at the same time, I have said that a true contenda is one that stands up to rereads and that can be taught. And this probably passes the first of those two criteria (I’m not about to read it again, though), and definitely the second, and if you don’t buy the argument that it’s a work of artifice and construct—or don’t think that matters, or in fact consider that a hallmark of quality—then this might not have any flaws.

Are you with me or against me? I’m ready for the lambasting to begin!

Pub details: Delacorte Press June 2011. Reviewed from final copy.

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. First off, Paper Covers Rock is in my personal top 5 of YA for the year, but I’m not going to lambaste 😉

    My one big issue, though, is the same as yours – the text is simply not believable as the diary of a 16 year old. I read in an interview with the author some time back that the actual published text is the third iteration of her work; she first wrote it from the point of view of the female teacher, then as the eventual protagonist as an adult looking back before finally setting on the diary format (and going for “YA,” the first two drafts were each apparently aimed for an adult market). And I think that’s why it comes out as it is. If it were from the POV of a 20 or 30-something or whatever looking back, I wouldn’t have had any issue with the voice. That’s a big enough issue as to why I could see it being a dealbreaker for many, but it didn’t totally put me off because I still found the narrative and writing strong.

    Also I’ve always been a sucker for boarding school stories (Prep is one of my all-time favorites) and enjoyed the exploration of teen masculinity and sexuality.

    On the other hand, the whole thing about being pretentious reminds me a lot of the “readability” debate that cropped up during the course of Man Booker prize season. I would say that the protagonist’s voice is perhaps pretentious, but I wouldn’t call the novel itself as such (I’m sure many of us can think back to our times in high school and remember a classmate who fancied him or herself as very deep and brooding – though admittedly the writing probably wasn’t as strong as Hubbard’s). Personally, I found it far more readable than the likes of Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Scorpio Races, which have pulled in large amounts of buzz and starred reviews on their own terms, though I struggled to remain interested in either. Though that’s not to chastise works not written in a dense “literary” style; “Please Ignore Vera Dietz” & “…Frankie Landau-Banks” are both recent Honor titles that do a wonderful job of melding quick-reading prose with deeper ideas.

    I won’t be surprised to see PCR pull an Honor, either. It reminds me a bit of Nothing from last year (which I really loved) in that it’s relatively slim, has a dark air around it, and is ripe for analysis.

  2. Sarah Flowers says

    Karyn, I think we had the same reaction to this book. I checked it out from the library, read a few chapters, put it down to read some other books, picked it up, read another chapter, put it down to read something else, renewed it, kept it on my nightstand, and then eventually returned it without finishing it. And I don’t have to read it, because I’m not on the committee this year, and I’m not blogging about it! I don’t dislike literary fiction (I’m a big fan of Paul Auster, for example), but this one didn’t do it for me. I felt, like you, that it was too self-conscious. And, like you, I’m sure I could find much to admire in the book if I would just finish it and even re-read it. But it sure didn’t give me any incentive to do that.

  3. Mark Flowers says

    Karyn – I think you’re confusing “literary fiction” with “bad writing that pretends to be good” 😉 I can’t think of any more appropriate category for your beloved Jellicoe Road than Literary Fiction – also for that matter, basically every single Printz winner and most of the books we’ve discussed on this blog.

    I haven’t read Paper Covers Rock, so I can’t comment on which category it falls into, but I’d hate for you to tar an entire swath of fiction based on one overly pretentious book.

  4. Karyn Silverman says

    Mark, I LOVE literary fiction, I really do.

    It’s when it gets all Literary (note that capital L!) that my hackles go up; when it’s more consumed with the hallmarks of literature than the story. Jellicoe and Life: An Interrupted Diagram and so many others are definitely literary but I never got the sense that they set out to be that way, more that the story developed that way (and the author had the chops to write some beautiful prose). But neither of those feel like postmodern narratives about narrative, which seemed to be an overwhelming subtext (ubertext?) for Paper Covers Rock, and without any sense of play or irony. I actually am being unfair to my own reading: I like a really good, meta, postmodern work when it’s done gracefully or with the added element of commenting on it’s own need to comment. Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin remains one of my favorites. I’m also a huge fan of Jasper Fforde’s very peculiar work. But in both cases, the humor allows for a lighter, defter touch. Paper Covers Rock is so deadly serious.

    And in all fairness, all the other Literary-with-a-capital-L, self-aware texts I am citing are adult books that I read as an adult (and wearing my adult reader hat), so I might agree with David that this could in fact be an entirely different book to read and to critique if it were published adult and if the perspective was that of an adult looking back.

    That, of course, is a whole OTHER can of worms, one we’ve danced around a bit in the conversations here: what is YA and what isn’t, and how can I defend Life but pan Paper? I think it’s about the adolescent journey, and a book can have it while still having limited YA appeal and lots of adult appeal– I think Life absolutely fits that description; Paper lacked it. This is incidentally exactly how I felt about Prep, which was pubbed adult but considered a crossover title by many.

  5. Mark Flowers says

    Karyn – thanks for the response. I don’t think we actually disagree that much, although perhaps I have a higher tolerance for self-aware/meta stuff. It’s just a pet peeve of mine when people talk about genres as if they can be good or bad in themselves, rather than how they are used in individual books. I realize that’s not exactly what you meant, but that’s how I read you at first. Sorry for the defensiveness – carry on!

  6. Karyn, I haven’t read Paper Covers Rock or recently skimmed Moby Dick but I loved the way you phrased your thoughts. It was as if your review was in the same Literary vein of Paper. The book has now moved up the Printz TBR pile.

  7. Christal Pinette says

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