No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is the story of an African-American extended family getting by in rural North Carolina. I wanted so badly to like this book. I attended a reading and keynote address by Watts in Wilmington, North Carolina and loved her talk. She has a very kind manner about her and her speech was cohesive and thoughtful. I had the opportunity to talk to her briefly afterward and loved what she said about The Great Gatsby, although she commented that she felt her book was not really all that similar to Fitzgerald’s work. She had read a few pages from the novel, and I was intrigued, so I purchased a copy and decided to read it for my MFA program.
Did I like this book? Yes and no. Did I think it was well-crafted? Unfortunately, no. There were moments throughout the novel when Watts demonstrated her skill for crafting fine prose, but for the most part the novel lacked movement, purpose, and conviction. Much of the work read like a first draft—not just in the writing style but also in the editing. There were constant typographical errors, repeated words, misplaced quotation marks, and in general terrible editing. The book reads as if both editor and author had a deadline to meet and instead of requesting more time, they handed in last-minute, sub-par work to appease the publishing house. The book is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, a publishing house established enough to know better. My theory is that due to the subject matter of the book, the publisher wished to take advantage of the current political climate in which they must have expected the book to sell well. On top of that, the publisher has pushed the “Great Gatsby rewrite” marketing line that has completely misrepresented the novel. Unfortunately, they have stifled a potentially great work by doing so. Given another six months of rewriting and editing, this book could have earned the acclaim it has received from celebrity figures such as Sarah Jessica Parker.
An example of the author’s ability is in the first chapter. The style is noticeably different, almost as if written by a different person altogether. Which begs the question—was this added by an editor? Or was this simply Watts at her best with plenty of time for rewrites and editing—something we could have expected from the whole novel if she had been given more time? The chapter is told from an anonymous point of view that gives it the feeling of a chorus, like in Ancient Greek plays. Watts only brings this perspective back one or two other times throughout the novel, despite its effectiveness. It’s unfortunate because this collective voice could have grounded an otherwise unstable novel; it could have provided the consistency of voice the novel desperately needed, and added a powerful message about community, gossip, and the realities of a tiny town.
This novel had many stylistic and organizational issues, but the most prominent was this: who is the main character? Whose perspective is this story being told from? What is the main plotline? Watts couldn’t seem to make up her mind. There are constant POV shifts within sections, pages, even paragraphs, and the storyline often abandons characters for chapters at a time only to meagerly pick them back up much later. There are nearly a dozen characters whose stories Watts attempts to explore, clumsily linking them together instead of establishing one major thread with several minor ones. This novel may have done better as a series of interconnected stories, but that was not how it was written. In fact, much of the book feels like a series of character sketches. The author halts the story’s momentum to gives pages of details about one character or another that often do not seem relevant or necessary for the reader’s understanding of the text. In some ways, the book feels cobbled together from pages of notes and character development exercises that most writers would do before sitting down to write the actual novel.
More than anything, my takeaway from this book is how damaging the editing and publishing process can be to a writer’s work. This book was hastily edited and pushed out, most likely because the publisher felt it was “timely” and didn’t want to give the writer more time to properly develop her story and characters. How do we counteract this as writers? Especially as new writers? Are we at the mercy of our press once they have accepted our work or proposal? Perhaps a smaller press would have been more flexible, more encouraging, and less insistent on arbitrary deadlines.