BOOK CRITICAL: Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill (Part 2)
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Made the promise of ghosts, but didn’t use them!
Humor fell flat.
The narrative was way overwritten and that killed the humor more.
The response I had to this book was so massive, I had had to break it up into multiple parts. In part two, I’ll be discussing Tate’s character and inconsistent levels of blindness, the lusting ladies angle, and maybe a brief bit at the end on… some errors in the book and a small rant on publishing books with major errors.
Let’s get started…
Tate Cowlishaw as a character:
You know, one of the things I hear most often in critique groups (or rejection letters) is that the main character just isn’t likable enough. ‘The main character has to be sympathetic!” “The main character can’t be a dick!” “The main character has to have some redeeming quality!” Only the third one of those exclamations is true. The main character of a story doesn’t have to be likable. He doesn’t have to be charitable. He doesn’t have to be heroic. One of the stories submitted in my last critique group was about this batshit insane guy who ended up murdering two old ladies curing the scene/chapter. About a third of the room said he needed to be likable or worried about the story because he wasn’t empathetic enough.
But a likable main character isn’t the only way to make the main character. There are 5 ways to make a protagonist “stronger” and attract readers:
Make them really good at something.
Give them a moral code.
Make them vulnerable or arouse sympathy from the reader.
Give them fears or feelings that we’ve experienced.
Avoid backstory before page 30.
You don’t have to do all these things, but doing any of them will make the main character more interesting to a reader. So if you’ve got an untraditional protagonist, let’s say, Dexter the murderer, you have to give him some way for the audience to want to continue with his story. The writers of Dexter made Dexter very good at his job(s). He was excellent in the forensic lab and he was excellent in the plastic-covered room. He also had a moral code behind his actions. Eventually, he also evoked sympathy due to his relationship with the woman he would eventually marry (and who would eventually die on him). They gave him anger issues, to some extent, and they humanized him more by giving him a son. These were all things that developed over time so we didn’t follow around a sociopath with absolutely no charm about him.
Hannibal Lecter is the star of his own stories and he’s definitely not a good guy.
So what about Tate Cowlishaw? He’s not a good teacher. In fact, he’s neglectful and rude and if he were a parent, he’d be a bad parent. He’s not a good detective either. The whole point of this book is he’s a professor, so he’s dipping his feet into something unusual for him. He’s also not a particularly good comedian. I honestly can’t think of anything in Academy Gothic that pointed to Tate being good at anything. He also didn’t have any moral code. He didn’t care about his students stealing from the university. He didn’t care about the university stealing from the kids. He didn’t care about the corruption of the university nor that he worked for a university known as the worst value in the US. He had no qualms with being someone’s mistress and cheating with her behind her husband’s back. He had no problems switching the women he slept with bi-daily. As far as I can tell, there is no moral code by which he lives:
I stared at the felt-covered wall between me and the blonde with whom I had slept two nights ago.
The brunette with whom I had slept last night crossed her legs. They were the kind of legs that benefitted from a good crossing. (pp. 175)
That comment at the end there has nothing to do with religious or moral conviction. It’s just a potshot to call Mollie a slut. That’s it–and he banged her.
Some might say Tate’s blindness makes him physically vulnerable, but his blindness is incredibly inconsistent (which I’ll get to in a moment), but it also never leaves him in any vulnerable position. He’s never at the disadvantage in the story. He’s always snarky and always gets away unscathed. Even at the end of the book when there’s a gun pointed at him, he didn’t feel vulnerable. He wasn’t scared. He was just there because he was an actor who was told to be there by the writer.
Going on to #4, Tate never expressed any fears or feelings of any kind. Again, it was always disdain, snark, or nothing at all. He was a very flat character who never showed dimensions of any kind. I don’t think he showed any depth character at all. He was a talking head with an ego problem. He clearly thought he was better than everyone and thought he should take whatever he can get from anybody. He didn’t mind cheating people as long as it benefited him. The point is proven further in the end when he opens his own PI business from his shady hotel room and a woman asks him to track and prove her husband is cheating on her:
“Catch the bastard in the act.” Nerves finally gave way to the indignation that had brought her here.As far as the courts were concerned, she had already caught him, but it didn’t behoove me to question the value a job had to a client. It had value to me. I gave her an estimate of that value, and the woman wrote me a check.“Do you think you can help me?”“I see no reason why not.”This is what I always say. In many ways, detective work is a lot like teaching college. Sometimes the students got what they paid for, and sometimes they didn’t. The payment was the consistent part. (pp. 244)
Here, at the end of the novel, the protagonist is admitting he still has no problem lying and cheating. He only cares about getting paid.
And to #5? We never hear any actual background on Tate. He has no background. He has no depth. And, let me do an aside really quick: due to him NOT having a background, there’s no way this novel can be a hardboiled anything. Hardboiled, by trope/genre definitions, requires that the main character has a dark past or faces demons. Tate never brings up anything about his life. We’re only in the moment of this murder and moving forward. We barely get into the backgrounds of the other characters–and we only get so far in as some of them ranting at the end of the novel as they get in trouble. I’ll talk about that in Part 3 of this BOOK CRITICAL series.
With all that said… there was absolutely nothing likable about Tate. He wasn’t interesting. He wasn’t clever. He wasn’t anything. He was a big nothing of a character with no personality outside of his overwritten, attempted-at snarky lines.
I feel like I’m asking for too much from a novel. I hear the complaints from others for lack of character, but then I see stuff like this make it through publishing just fine.
I don’t get it.
The Inconsistency in Tate’s Blindness is MADDENING.
This… should have been worked out well before this book was published. This book went through a contest and none of the judges saw a problem with the inconsistency in the representation of Tate’s blindness.
In the blurb on the back of the book, it says, “Cowlishaw might be legally blind,” — that’s pretty vague. Legally blind is anyone who requires glasses to see. You barely near/far-sighted and still be considered legally blind if you have to wear glasses to see clearly, but most people will read that and assume 100% blind. I know I did. Because we don’t introduce other characters who wear glasses as legally blind. If it’s a special kind of blindness that is important to the story, then you might want to give it a little more detail, but at this point, it just feels vague for the point of laziness and leaving readers in the dark so he can avoid consistency.
Once we get past the cover, we get into some of the following lines:
….my way of requesting another verbal flare in the darkness. (pp. 70)
By saying “a verbal flare in the darkness,” he gives the impression that he is 100% blind, no?
Mollie eyed me with surprise, guilt, or contempt, possible none of the above. (pp. 117)
But wait, this line implies that Tate is able to see Mollie’s face and read her emotions, albeit he’s reading them very poorly and is confused by what she means. He could simply be autistic to some extent — or just very bad at reading women and emotions. The fact that he can name emotions on her face says he can see her face well enough to know she’s not smiling.
I felt my way around the front desk into Galen’s old office. (pp. 202)
And we’re back to him being so blind he has to feel his way around a room.
If she was smiling, I couldn’t see it. (pp. 209)Carly stared at me for a long time. If she blinked, I missed it. (pp. 210)
These were both “no shit” lines if we were to assume Tate couldn’t see anything. If he was super blind, then no shit he couldn’t tell if she was smiling — however, you’d think he’d know what a smile sounds like, right? Especially with the following exchange:
“What’s it like, reading everything with your ears?” “Like listening,” I said.“What do you see when you look at me?” (pp. 213)
I’m not saying blind people have to know what emotion sounds like in the voice, but as Tate says he sees with his ears (basically), he can’t tell generic emotion through the voice? Really? Happiness in the voice is generally one of the easiest to tell…
Second-guessing comes naturally to a man who needs a magnifier for twenty-four point font. Students who don’t know an answer on my quizzes like to guess all of the above. Once in a while, they’re right. (pp. 215)She had a small nose and small eyes beneath light eyebrows. It was a face. It was a pretty face. (pp. 213)
He’s so blind he can’t see her blink, but he can tell the color of her eyebrows and the shape of her face?
She was mouthing words, a form of communication as useless to me as tiny cursive. (pp. 216)
If you’re so blind you can’t read 24-point font with a magnifying glass, then writing doesn’t have to be tiny and cursive for you to have trouble, Tate. The passages above are just a few of many. Throughout the book, Tate struggles but also doesn’t struggle to see, depending on whether he needs his vision. If he is telling the readers what something looks like, he sees just fine. Then there’s mild trouble reading or seeing when say, someone blinks or he wants to pretend he’s vulnerable for a half-second. It’s obnoxious and it makes his issue seem incredibly insincere. It makes the author look lazy and the character/story undeveloped. It’s bad.
Especially since the author likes to remind us how Tate is blind. HE IS SO BLIND. But also, here’s a paragraph describing what he sees. Please.
Please. I know this is hard. I have a blind character — like, completely blind, born blind. I know it’s hard when all writing instructor’s say USE ALL THE SENSES YOU CAN, but if you create a character who is lacking or troubled in a sense, then do not use that sense in a way that undermines the character. I will never be able to have Coe describe what something/someone looks like unless he miraculously is able to see someday. He can describe how it feels. He can give it a texture, but he has no way of looking at a woman and saying she has a small nose and brown hair.
The author needed to have someone read through this for consistency, but I think he also had a problem with figuring out how blind Tate really was. I don’t think he pictured in his mind how blind someone was, and what they could or couldn’t see if they were reading 24-point font with a magnifying glass. I have… some understanding as someone who works with low visibility documents, but it seems like the rules for Tate’s eyesight were never fully covered in the novel because the author never decided on the rules and wanted the flexibility for plot’s sake and that was a bad move.
Getting into the Women
My. Oh. My.
Other than the author’s personal fantasies, I don’t know why he would choose to do what he did with Mollie and Carly. Throughout the novel, whenever one of these ladies was in the room with Tate, they were basically biting their lip and itching to touch Tate because they both wanted to bang him so, so much, but he didn’t really care about either of them. At no point in time did Tate express he had meaningful emotions towards either of them, but it seemed like he compared them to one another.
And his landlord thought more of his relationship with women than he did:
“You have made some bad choices, Tate. You do not need eyes to see that.”“I’m still alive. I might be setting the bar a little low, but that’s something.”“I am talking about love.” (pp. 190)
Overlooking the over-cliched delivery of this line, Tate had had an affair with Mollie at some point prior to this story taking place. Then, during this story, they slept together again, a couple of times if I recall correctly. This was something Tate obviously wanted to brag about, feeling like some big dog:
“Don’t touch that. It’s Benjamin’s.”“So were you last night. You didn’t mind where I put my hands.” (pp. 193)
Then you had Carly who flirted with Tate every time they were in a room together. Hand on his thigh, lips to his lips, she visited his hotel room and got mad when she saw Mollie coming out of it, betrayed or cheated on even, but then the next day when she saw him at work, she was fine with it and wanted to win him back though they were never together. The same thing happened with Mollie, despite her being married. There was a part when Tate needed to be driven somewhere and Carly volunteered to take him when Mollie heard this, she cleared her schedule so she could drive him instead. There was some weird competition between the two despite none of these people being in a relationship with one another and having no ties to one another aside from all working at Parshall and having slept together.
Actually, I don’t think Tate ever slept with Carly.
He was just kind of a scumbag leading her on while Mollie at some point tried to have a relationship talk, but didn’t try that hard. The lust triangle felt forced, dead-end, and uninvolved. There was no reason for it at the end of the novel. Mollie just tried to convince Tate to come to her side and run off to the Caribbean with her for some reason while Carly ran off to New York to avoid jail it seems like.
In the end, it felt like women throwing themselves at the uninterested main character for no reason other than the author waved his dick and said, “DO IT, BITCHES.”
Here are two very obvious ones:
None was open. (pp. 183)
On Part 1 I mentioned a quote that spelled it “benefitted” not “benefited.” That was not my typo.
There were a good number of them throughout the novel and I know I expect a lot when it comes to errors. I’ve seen books published by Random House that have errors in them. And according to the editor from the seminar I went to the other week, if you write a 100,000-word novel and you have a 99% success rate for no-types, you’ll still end up with 100 types in there, but… “None was open” is something you should be able to catch easily. Come on.
I also think big publishers need to put more effort into producing novels with fewer errors. It reflects poorly on your brand when you don’t catch stuff like that…
Honorable Mention Bad Line:
Dead leaves beneath his feet sounded a little like wet snow. The gun sounded a lot like a gun. (pp. 226)
I saw an Amazon review that mentioned the gun sounded like a gun line as something super hilarious and it left me wondering if I just didn’t get Tate’s humor, but… there’s no setup for this line. It could easily be a punchline to a joke, but there’s no setup.
Also, dead leaves don’t sound like wet snow unless they have been rained on… like, recently, like, in a downpour. This goes back to where Tate is pulling his similes from and why would he think it sounds like wet snow? Has he been around wet snow? What made him think of wet snow then rather than saying “dead leaves beneath his feet crackled into pieces?” What made him choose that sound?