Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: Why Do I Feel Ripped Off?

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

First, a disclaimer: I am a reader of fiction, not a writer of it – and a relatively uncritical reader at that. I am much more focused on a how a story makes me feel than on its author’s technique.

Last summer, when a friend mentioned that she was reading David Wroblewski’s novel about dogs and a mother-son relationship, I took it out of the library. Like her, I love dogs and am the mother of sons.

Any book that holds my attention at the end of the workday is usually an instant winner. For that reason, I was enjoying Edgar’s story – learning the history and workings of his family’s dog-breeding business, and getting to know the characters – both human and canine.

The story, as promised on the book jacket, included the sudden and suspicious death of Edgar’s father. Things were bumping along; Edgar and his mother were working to pull things together, when I was brought up short by the appearance of the ghost of Edgar’s father.

Even I, not always the most discerning and attentive reader in my post-workday haze, immediately wondered – what is the author doing here? Does this even work?

The next day, I looked up the book on Wikipedia and learned that the story was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A quick review of the Sparknotes on Hamlet (which I haven’t read since college) brought me up to speed. As if remembering the plot of Hamlet wasn’t enough of a hint, my search also revealed the book’s ending.

It has been a couple of months since I finished Wroblewski’s novel and I’m still thinking about his approach – and the role the Internet played in my reading of it.

On one level, I am glad I got the back story before I finished the book – spoiler and all. But it did make me reluctant to keep reading. And it definitely influenced my perceptions.

I am also annoyed. The author had great characters, an interesting story – I wish he had chosen his own path rather than follow Shakespeare’s.

Can this approach to a novel work? Has it? What are some examples? And, what are the advantages and disadvantages of knowing an author’s intent before reading his or her book?


  1. I remember watching an interview with the great playwright Neil Simon. The interviewer asked him where he gets his ideas. Simon immediately responded with, "from Shakespeare...everything starts and ends with Shakespeare."

    So, the next time you find yourself reading "Barefoot in the Park" or "Plaza Suite" stay away from the Internet! :-)

  2. What was interesting about this novel was that Wroblewski even named his characters after those in Hamlet. For example, Edgar's mother's name was Trudy for Gertrude. His uncle was named Claude for Claudius and so on. Maybe the reason it felt so clunky was because unlike Simon's work it was a novel superimposed on a play. Or maybe I just didn't like seeing most of the characters die at the end of the story in a long, drawn out catastrophe.

  3. It's an interesting question, whether a Shakespearian tragedy translates to 21st-century realistic fiction. I haven't read *Edgar Sawtelle*, so I can't say in that case. But Jane Smiley did the same thing with *A Thousand Acres* and King Lear--to good effect, I think.

    But you are right, Judith, that consciously referencing another work can put the reader at a remove from the story.

  4. So I was perhaps about two thirds of the way through this before the Hamlet parallel dawned on me (perhaps I read about it) and by that time I was so invested in the lives of Edgar and Almondine that the reference kind of floated in and out of my vision without intruding, as it seems to have done for more literate readers.
    For me the reference--once I recognized it-- actually gave the story more power. I was also very taken by the sense of place, the atmosphere of the landscape and weather.

  5. Sometimes I have read similar pieces based on other works, or even watched movies loosely based on some works and been intrigued by a new interpretation. If it is done well, it can actually enhance or deepen my understanding. My disclaimer: I haven't read Wroblewski's work. Not sure if you have increased or decreased my interest in it....

  6. Diana, Gian,
    You may have convinced me to give Edward another go! At least now I know that if I can get Gian to also give it a read, I'll have two excellent sources with whom I can confer. After all, one of the best parts about reading is discussing the book over a good cup of tea with friends.

  7. I think you're also asking if a reader should have to bring anything to the table when they pick up a book. Is there a burden on the reader, or is it all on the writer?

    Michele Emrath

  8. Michele, I love that question! What do YOU think? I think an open mind, full attention, and a willingness to learn something new are a good place to start.

    Also, apologies to all for referring to Edgar as 'Edward' in an earlier comment....

  9. I also love Michele's question! I tend to think the burden is on the writer--at least, I believe a novel or short story should stand on its own even if you don't know/understand the references. The burden on the reader is a commitment to reading it (or at least trying to read it) in the first place--which goes along with Judith's comment on the "open mind, full attention, and a willingness to learn something."

    A similar thing that put me off recently was Dave Eggers's *New Yorker* story to promote *Where the Wild Things Are.* I didn't know at the time that he'd written the screenplay for the movie, and all I could think of as I read it was "Isn't this a copyright violation? What would Maurice Sendak think if he saw this?"

  10. Yes, I think authors can get into trouble when they're too self-referential (Dave Eggers being a prime offender). I believe the burden is on the writer, too. For example, Jane Smiley's *A Thousand Acres* stands on its own, even if you don't know it's based on King Lear--although I suppose all this is a matter of opinion in the end.


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