I wrote a post last September about unexpectedly finding a long-lost book from my youth, The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson. I planned to re-read the book, some thirty-five years after I first read it, to see if the story and writing stood up to present-day standards. I finally finished it back in March, and well…
(pause for dramatic effect)
I hate to say it, but this book might not be publishable in the current market. Or if it was to be published, a hearty round of edits would likely be applied. It’s not the story itself that’s troublesome (though it does include a ton of dated references and an inappropriate relationship), but rather some narrative style choices that arguably have fallen out of style since Grounding was first published in 1983. They didn’t bother me as a teen reader in the 80s, in part because I was a voracious, easy-to-please kid, but also because they fit in with the accepted writing styles of the time.
Head-hopping is when the writer hops into the heads of various characters at any given time to describe a scene or moment from their point of view (POV). The POV narration in Grounding moves between primary and secondary characters, protagonists and antagonists, and adult and teen characters. It’s not a stretch to say that every character given a first and last name is also given time at the POV mic. The POVs often switch within single scenes and sometimes within a single paragraph.
Anyone with a solid relationship to bookdom, be it as a reader, writer, agent, or editor, likely has strong opinions about head-hopping. What is refreshing, humorous, and world-immersive to some is chaotic, confusing, and character-shallowing to others. However, the general consensus on its use in modern fiction is to avoid it at all costs.
Does that mean head-hopping is passé? Not necessarily, but then, not all multiple-POV-type narrations are considered equal. Plenty of articles on the interwebs discuss the difference between omniscient narrators and head-hopping. One is considered a skilled narrative technique while the other is thought of as lazy writing. The difference is apparently subtle, but it’s there, so I could be misreading Grounding. Even so, the “every character gets a viewpoint” is a bit much, in part because of the next point.
Adult POVs in YA Fiction
Because of the vigorous head-hopping Thompson employs amongst his large cast of characters, there is no shortage of adult POVs in Grounding. Not only do we get the personal thoughts of Nat, a 22-year-old mentor to the five teens being “grounded” and arguably the main character, but we also get the backstories, struggles, and opinions of several of the adult antagonists.
Giving a character’s viewpoint imparts a sense of empathy with them, and we don’t (and shouldn’t) expect teenagers—the intended audience of young adult fiction—to relate to characters who would represent authority figures in their lives (parents, teachers, law enforcement, etc.). The Grounding of Group 6 doesn’t try to make readers empathize with the adult characters, but it does humanize them somewhat by sharing their thoughts and experiences.
It’s not a strict no-no for modern young adult fiction, but you won’t find many new releases on the shelves today that include adult character POVs, especially in non-speculative “contemporary” fiction. A YA author friend told me she was advised to remove passages from her debut manuscript that were based in the adult antagonist’s point of view. The book was eventually published without them, so that advice obviously worked for her. On that same point, an editor once told me that including adult POVs is not NOT acceptable, so long as it serves a valid purpose.
Grounding follows a more leisurely route through its story than what is typically popular today. Thompson takes breaks—one might even call them side quests—along the way to drop in details of his characters’ pasts or to provide amusing sidenotes about them. Often these are done through quick info dumps rather than in the course of a scene or through dialogue, which bogs down the pacing in places.
Moving the modern reader forward in a book (rather than having them set it down out of boredom) means keeping the story moving forward, as well. And that generally means tight pacing and action-driven plots. Books that meander through lovely or amusing but ultimately unimportant details and recurring non-essential side stories (especially when they’re about secondary characters) seem to belong to earlier eras of literature. Not to say some readers don’t enjoy that kind of pace in their books today, but it’s not the market norm, especially for YA.
Having said that, many popular modern YA books are both lushly written and tightly plotted, so the pacing in Grounding is by no means egregious. But I doubt a similar manuscript in today’s market would lift an unknown writer out of the slush pile and into one of the Big Five publishing houses. Not as is, anyway. I can imagine an editor with a current-market mindset striking out hefty sections of minor character side stories in Grounding.
I want to stress that this isn’t intended as a definitive review of The Grounding of Group 6, so don’t click away thinking I hated the book. I certainly did not! The book was popular when it was released, and I loved it when I was a teenager, so the narrative style obviously fit the readership preferences for whom it was originally written. That’s the primary goal for any book, right?
Even by today’s standards, it’s not “unreadable.” I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Muse of Nightmares by my favorite YA author, Laini Taylor, and while the styles aren’t exactly similar, Taylor uses a dash of all of the above to craft her story—head-hopping within singles scenes, adult POVs, and lush but ultimately non-essential world-building details.
Obviously, there are no absolutes when it comes to narrative styles. Good writing and entertaining storytelling aren’t monolithic, so I can still appreciate The Grounding of Group 6 for what it is. Still, I couldn’t help thinking—in this go ‘round with it—that if this book were my manuscript today, I’d certainly never get out of the agent slush piles.
I’ve got to say, head-hopping makes me nut up. I blame the FWS. You guys are the ones who intro-ed me to the concept and I’m glad that this, at least, has gone out of style. I tried to get my dad to quit doing it in his novel, but he said that since he was using an omniscient narrator he was free to do so.
And he did.
It’s funny, YA stuff doesn’t seem to age quite as well. But my kids, to whom I read Dune when they were tween-ish, have tried to get back into it (on audio) because the movie was so great but it overwhelms ’em every time.
I’m glad I’m old and can read stuff that’s NOT tightly paced and always marching purposefully forward! I’m a meanderer in all ways.
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