Book Review

POETRY MONTH: Rewriting Stella by Dan Tuttle

~800 plot-driven sonnets, anyone???

Ok, so I have now read what is definitely the worst book I’ve looked at all POETRY MONTH, and it also happens to be the longest: is that a coincidence or is the length part of the problem???

I think – and I’m surprised that I do – no.

This book isn’t too long, if anything it could be argued that it’s too short?

Rewriting Stella is a “novel in verse”, and not just in any verse, it is made up of around 800 Shakespearean sonnets. That’s ~800 hundred Shakespearean sonnets that all maintain the full 14 line, ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme, iambic pentameter structure. I mean, the introduction says the structure is rigidly maintained throughout, and though I didn’t go through this ticking off syllables like numbers on a chart, I am in no way disputing the claim of rigidity.

This, then, is the fucking problem with Rewriting Stella: because this is both a novel and a set of 800ish sonnets, there is a very serious problem regarding editing. A dull line, a poorly selected word, an off sonnet cannot be removed without upsetting the form and/or the plot.

That is how you end up with a mess: by committing to a rigid formal structure, there is an excuse to not select the best possible words, phrases, images or dialogue to suit the story that is being told and because it is a novel, there is this excuse of narrative diminishment to justify not exercising any dull sonnets.

So what we end up with is bad sonnets and a bad novel.

800 is a lot of fucking sonnets, and to write ~800 great sonnets is a career’s worth, for example Shakespeare wrote 154 and Petrarch wrote (I can’t quickly find an exact number anywhere reputable) around 350.

It is difficult and it should be impressive to write ~800 sonnets, but these are not ~800 good sonnets. Sure, they are definitely – technically ~800 sonnets, but what’s the point in that? Did the world need ~800 more sonnets in 2019???

The plot of the novel, too, is deeply frustrating. By the end of the novel, the titular Stella has begun rewriting her own life in sonnet form, posting it to social media and going big viral. The “rewriting” of the title refers to the way in which Stella amends and updates biographical detail to make her life more exciting, more interesting and more pleasant.

However, other than the revelation that a pet dog was a stuffed toy and a friend (Stella’s only childhood friend, a Syrian refugee) may have been completely imaginary, there’s no real clarity as to what parts of her life she has rewritten, and what bits she has written. Is the section about Stella deciding to start rewriting her life as sonnets part of the rewrite?

What complicates this further is that this is a 100% fictional novel in sonnets written by a white man, not a young woman from rural Tanzania who attends high school in China before moving to San Francisco during Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure as America’s democratically elected president. Stella’s rewritten life is a fictional life – it never happened. For me (a simple person), this is just too much complication.

Is Rewriting Stella meant to be didactic? Is it meant to be funny? Is it meant to be fun? Is it meant to be moving? Is it meant to be clever?

Because I found it to be none of those things.

Not recommended.

Hopefully some good poetry in the next POETRY MONTH post!

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