Dahlia Lithwick’s Collaborative Novel | The Collaborative Novel "Saving Face"

Dahlia Lithwick is collaborating with Facebook and Twitter fans on her new novel.

I haven’t finished the  book I’m about to review. As a general rule, this isn’t the sort of thing I’m inclined to admit, even (especially?) when it’s true. I feel justified this time out, however.

You see, the author isn’t finished with the book I’m about to review, either.

Dahlia Lithwick is my favorite writer for Slate, the online news and commentary magazine. Her beat is the Supreme Court, where she covers oral arguments, offering up nuanced and frequently hilarious analyses delivered with palpable passion. I have been heard to say (while readily admitting that it is, perhaps, odd to have a favorite Supreme Court journalist) that though I discovered her work because of my fascination with the highest court in the land, I’m such a fan of her writing that I’d read her no matter what the topic or genre.

She’s given me the opportunity to back this claim up by writing Saving Face, a chick-lit novel that is being posted a chapter at a time on Slate. But she isn’t going it alone. A vibrant Facebook community (as well as Twitter followers and those who get in touch by email) are collaborating on everything from the names of the characters to major plot points.

I was in from the beginning, becoming her 20th Facebook fan (she’s up to 1,634 fans as I’m writing this) on September 8, the day she announced the project, and her 27th follower on Twitter (now up to 167) when her feed went live on September 15. Early on, I sent a few suggestions in response to a couple of her queries (my responses, I realize now, all rabbit related, oddly enough), but soon my busy schedule had me falling behind her breakneck pace.

Not so for many of her readers, however, as each of her queries (“What’s the best advice you have ever heard for someone just headed into a divorce?” “Help: what is the worst thing that could happen at a clothing swap? Go nuts friends.” “Would you all be ok with a scene that just said ‘Then they had sex.’ No?”) garners rapid, creative, plentiful responses, many of which she incorporates into the narrative. Each such incorporation is credited, a move that could be distracting, but instead manages to be charming and affirming.

Lithwick’s original plan was to knock out the entire book in September before the Supreme Court’s October session. As of this writing in mid-October, however, she has penned 17 chapters with a 10-day lag between the posting of chapter 16 and chapter 17. Backed by her loyal collaborators, however, she has made it clear that she will see this through to the end.

Which leaves the burning question: Is Saving Face any good?

Despite a vote of no confidence from bestselling author Laura Lippman (whose work, for the record, I think is only fair), who wrote in three days after the project  began in order to chide Lithwick for the audacity of her of effort, Saving Face is a fun read.

Our heroine is Erica, a mom who has put her law career on hold to stay home with the kids. When her best friend seems headed for an ugly divorce, she offers up some funny, pointed advice on Facebook. In short order, she has a blog called Splitigation (a reader suggestion), and she’s on the outs with her husband.

Lithwick handles the tricky present tense with seeming ease and the book is consistently funny. It is fair to say that the novel reads like a strong first draft, as it lacks some of the necessary connective tissue that would make the narrative flow a bit better and deepen our understanding of the characters and their situations. That said, Lithwick seems to have a strong sense of the essential moments in her story and she delivers them in an enjoyable, engaging style.

At the end of each chapter, Lithwick offers up a few new questions for her readers. At the end of chapter 17, she explicitly grapples with a central issue that underlies much of the chick-lit genre:

“About half my email is from people who think this story can’t end happily unless Erica goes back to a law firm. The other half want her to take better care of her family. Is there any middle ground here? What does a happy ending even look like in the mommy wars?”

It’s a good question, but also the sort of question that can signal a shift from character-driven storytelling to point-driven storytelling. The latter is seldom as satisfying for the reader. I’m eager to see how Lithwick and her “hive mind” solve both the societal and the narrative quandary.

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