Thursday, March 05, 2009

Friday's Not Very Forgotten Book: Alex Haley's Roots

I finished Alex Haley's Roots last night and I must say that it's not a very good novel. It's not forgotten, either, so I don't know why I'm writing this, but there are some things I was wondering about reading the book, so here goes.

I was thinking about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code for a couple of times when I was going through Roots. Why? Because they share something: both have spawned several imitations in different media and Haley's book may have given a boost to the subgenre of historical novels which describes a history of one family through centuries (I don't know when James Michener started doing these, but Roots is still an early example).

Both books are also very bad considering how much they have been discussed and talked about. You know, writing courses and teachers of creative writing always: Show, don't tell. That's the way to come up with good literature, otherwise you'll be just a bore. Then how come do these books which tell, don't show, have been so popular and so influential? Haley's book could've been at least 200 pages leaner if he had taken some creative writing courses and taken a hint: show, don't tell. He's always telling what his characters are thinking and why and how and when that happened and what was going on in the big world. It was boring in the beginning and irritating in the end. And I'm sure the book's depiction of the slave system could've been more shocking if Haley hadn't been so careful to point out what his characters are feeling at any given moment.

The Da Vinci Code is fast-moving and it has a plot full of intrigues and mysteries. I can understand its popularity. Roots, however, doesn't have a plot - the whole book is just a series of scenes, put together with no tension between them. Especially the first 150 pages are very boring - the description of everyday African life seems meaningless (at least now, it must've been a culture shock in the 1960's America). There are some scenes which have more tension and suspense in them - for example the scenes in the slave ship are quite good, as are the scenes which show Kunta Kinte trying to escape his slavedom.

I'm not sure how much Roots is being read today. Its popularity may be due to the TV series the last episode of which has been one of the most popular TV shows ever in the US history. But the book has been highly influential and its impact on the American culture cannot be ignored. Still, it's not a very good novel.

One thing on Haley interests me though. He says in the end of his novel (he's also a character in the book, in case you don't know, as he is a descendant of Kunta Kinte) that he published some sea-faring stories in some magazines, presumably in the fifties. He doesn't name any publications, story titles or possible pseudonyms. The Fictionmags Index has only one article by Haley, in Saturday Evening Post. Does anyone know what magazines Haley is talking about?

(Written on Thursday, since I'll be away for some days.)

My contribution to Patti Abbott's series.


Todd Mason said...

Actually, several episodes of ROOTS remain among the most widely-watched programs in US history (ABC also showed some courage, if that's what it was, in including some nude scenes, oddly enough only among the African characters). The book was actually published in the mid 1970s, after a few excerpts were in PLAYBOY.

Part of the appeal of Michener and Haley is that their books not only make the most unsophisticated reader aware of everything that's going on, they also offer a "bonus" in the form of undigested history lessons and such, whether accurate or not is another matter, which has been known to be appealing to a lot of readers who would feel a bit guilty to be reading mere fiction with no Improving aspects.

And Michener began doing his family sagas not later than the early '60s, some years before Haley, but Michener was hardly the first.

Juri said...

Thanks for the correction, Todd. I didn't have the book at hand when I wrote the piece and I was doing several other things at the same time, so didn't feel like checking.

And, yes, you're absolutely right about Michener's and Haley's appeal. The approach just doesn't make very good literature. (A friend of mine, who's a historical novel aficionado, dismissed Michener just recently, saying that there's only exposition in his books and his characters are shallow. Much like Haley's Roots.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

The TV series was probably the best mini series ever put on by a network. It must be nice to have your work served so well.