Posts Tagged ‘mary heaton vorse’

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The Whole Family

August 24, 2012

The Whole Family was brought to my attention a while back by Cathlin, sort of in the context of wondering whether Mary Wilkins Freeman had a sense of humor. And I haven’t got a definitive answer on that point, but I feel safe in saying that she had more of one than satirist John Kendrick Bangs. Both of them wrote single chapters of The Whole Family, a twelve-author, three-ring circus dreamed up by William Dean Howells and directed by Harper’s Editor Elizabeth Jordan. The idea was that each author would take a member of the family and write a chapter that was about that character but that also advanced the story.

For starters, that’s a pretty hard task, a combination of the letter game and exquisite corpse that, at the very least, requires the authors involved to keep their egos tightly reined in. But these authors didn’t grow up in the age of mandatory improv games in elementary school, and never learned that the worst thing you can do in this kind of game is block the moves of the people who came before you. If nothing else, it wastes energy and narrative momentum.

People have called this book a trainwreck, and they’re not wrong. It’s a disaster, but a gripping one. But it’s also kind of like two competing trainwrecks, or a murder taking place as the train crashes: you’ve got the total mess of the narrative competing for your attention with the meta-narrative of the infighting between the authors. It’s kind of great. And I kind of have a lot to say about it, so my thoughts on how the individual authors acquit themselves are behind the cut. Proceed at your own risk. Read the rest of this entry ?

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