Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Legend of the Firefish - The Debate

Yesterday I tried to leave my post on the CSFF Blog Tour book Legend of the Firefish by George Bryan Polivka as a cliffhanger to pique interest. I discussed the strengths that I saw in the book and what made it an enjoyable read. Today I'm going to touch three points that dragged the book down for me a little that kept it from being one of my top books of the year (so far).

The first and second points are interrelated. As I mentioned yesterday, the book's two major characters are unapologetically Christian, and they live consistently in this and it fits the story well. However, some of the story suffers slightly because of one of the character's reliance on God's sovereignty and will. This is tricky to discuss, because I believe in the message the author is saying behind it. The problem is that it sometimes hinders the action of the protaganist as he stops and contemplates what he does. There are several instances where Packer wrestles with High Ideals - nothing wrong with that. The trick is when he does it with chaos raging around him. I might use this aspect once or twice, but it happens a few times and slows down several action sequences.

Also, the use of this plot point somtimes stops Packer from acting, since "all is God's will and he is leaving it in His hands". It has some important consequences at the end, but again it happens enough that it bumps the flow of the story and the believability of the scene.

These two points aren't terribly significant, but they were "hiccups" in the story for me. The final point is significant, but is also an interesting point of topic.

A little background: an author has to chose a point-of-view (POV) when writing. Typically the author picks either first or third-person. First person usually sticks with one character throughout the book. Third person can stay with one person, or move around to different characters. However, usually a change of character POV happens at a chapter or a definite point in a chapter.

Polivka just doesn't "break" this rule, he demolishes it. He takes an omniscient viewpoint, meaning he switches POV whenever he wants, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph.

For me, I did not enjoy this. It has the effect of confusing who is doing the talking/thinking - especially when Packer is with guys or Panna with any ladies. It comes across as "head-hopping." It really took me a while to get the hang of it, so I read the first part of the book slowly, not really getting into it until later on.

Now, when I approached the tour I knew I would blog about this, but I was just going to chalk it up to something Polivka would have to work on. However, over the last week I've read a few things that gave me a different slant on it.

1. From Mike Duran at Decompose:

From Day 1: When one lives under the notion that success means strict adherence to a set of rules — as this published author clearly implies — a type of literary legalism follows. Am I suggesting there aren’t things that tighten a story, make it more readable, more cohesive? Heck no. What I’m wondering is if this idea of “rules” is over-emphasized to new authors. The result is — as it was for me — that a lot of new authors live under the burden of legalism...

From Day 3: The writing rules have their place, but they can also blind one to the destination. After all, the ultimate goal of the storyteller is not to obey all the rules, but to get her readers safely across the street.

2. Then there was Becky Miller's interview with Nick Harrison, Polivka's editor from Harvest House:

Bryan’s ability to handle the point of view shifts necessary to pull off this feat [using so many POV's] is awesome—and unique. Not many authors handle point of view as well as Bryan does. I consider Bryan’s use of point of view a huge asset to the book—even though I know that all the writing books warn against such shifts. I think they do this because few authors can handle those shifts well. Bryan is a master at it, in my opinion.

3. Finally, there's Bryan Polivka's own comments in an interview with Valerie Comer:

As for the omniscient point of view, I find that other writers and publishers are very interested in that whole discussion, but I've never yet had a pure reader (who is not also a writer) even ask me about it. It seems odd to me that this should be out of style, or out of favor, particularly in a world where movies and television are having great success with omniscience. Lost, Friends, Rent, Oceans Eleven, even Survivor and Real World--I would argue that any ensemble-cast product gets its appeal from going deep into multiple points of view. Fiction writers are, I think, well behind the times in that regard if they hew to a single viewpoint thinking it is somehow better for the audience. I may not have done it well, but I hope that doesn't put anyone off the approach itself.

And the Christian viewpoint factors in here also. Historically, I believe the omniscient viewpoint went out of favor as secular existentialism took over the mainstream, based on a philosophy that we really can't know anything outside our own single point of reference. And I think that's just incorrect. The reason we have imagination, I believe, is for the apprehension of the infinite. God gave His creation this gift that we might know Him. And if we can know God, surely we can know others.

Now, armed with all of this information and opinion, I made an adjustment to my opinion. The thing that especially struck me was Bryan's contention that basically he's using an older style and we're conditioned to accept a status quo that this "shouldn't be done". Especially with the discussion Mike Duran has been having at his blog.

I've argued before that authors need the freedom to create as they feel called and are inspired. I applaud Polivka for making a challenging artistic stand and sticking with it. Since it was intentional, I can't fault it.

Nick Harrison thought that Bryan pulled this off well. There I might disagree some. I've seen other books that switch through a lot of POV's and I didn't get lost. My favorite book of the year so far, Abiding Darkness by John Aubrey Anderson, has some occasional POV hops and doesn't suffer from it. Interestingly enough, I would say that Anderson's hops were likely more accidental, while Polivka's were intentional, and that it is apparent in reading. Again, it didn't work for me 100%. this a big deal? It might not be a big deal at all. I've also discussed how trying to write can ruin an easy-to-please reader. If you read this and think it is much ado about nothing, then ignore it and go buy an enjoyable book. Don't forget that I liked the book overall and recommend it. The POV issue was something that had come up during the tour, and this is my extremely long-winded response to it (best value for 2 cents ever).

I have one more little tidbit about Legend of the Firefish, but it will come a little later. Enjoy the rest of the blog tour!


  1. POV was definitely not on my weakness list for this one, though I don't prefer the omniscient POV. Which is a surprise, because the books I cut my teeth on, the classics, almost all used the omniscient POV. It's just a preference thing with me, I think. Like I don't generally care for first person POV either. I feel most connected to a character in third limited. Go figure.

    Because so many contemporary writers use that, I suppose the different style stood out. I noticed it right away but just wasn't bothered by it.

    Now your first two points ... check out the weaknesses I named in my review of book 2. ;-)


  2. I think Third Omniscient can be a little harder to pull off than Third Limited. But I thought Bryan did a pretty good job all around.

    The moments of Christian reflection are a problem for me too, but I don't really blame Bryan for that. I think it's just one of the defining quirks of most CBA books. (Perhaps because some CBA readers need theological reflection to make them feel like the fiction glorifies God?)

  3. See, I thought the "theological reflection" completely worked because Packer was a seminary student. Well, one who got kicked out.

    But you probably didn't know that, did you, Mark. Yeah, the fact that the Christianity was sooooo overt and yet so absolutely natural, was one of the things that set this book apart from many other CBA offerings.

    One reviewer said it is the most Christian Christian book she's read. PW said the religion was palatable. How can both be true unless Polivka did something extraordinary.

    No, in my opinion, it wasn't THAT the character reflected on his faith, it was that the reflections slowed the action.

    In this book I didn't think it was extreme, but I wondered what the guys who loved the fast action type of story would think.


  4. I agree with Becky that the POV isn't really a weakness, just a tactic he used that I didn't find as palatable as she did. That's what I *tried* to communicate, but between patients and pain, maybe it didn't come out.

    I also agree that it isn't the theological musings, but the timing of them, that were the problem.