Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What It Means to Write a Novel (My Version, At Least)

The meaning of the novel is dynamic, not static. Since the start of the novel craze with Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), novels have been seen as everything from cultural artifacts to learning devices to cheap entertainment. Somewhere in between, there's pop culture, spinning a yarn around the fire pit, and thinly veiled allegory about things much of the readership can't possibly understand. As merchandising opportunities, they date back at least to the aforementioned Pamela.

Then there's a different category of books. They may seem difficult at first. Alternatively, they may seem easy and fun in a way the initial readership hadn't anticipated. They may defy their genres. They may defy concepts like "plot". Whatever they are, they look unfamiliar in some way.

They're not just stories or escapes. They're inventions.

A quick summary of what I (try to?) write is from, of all unexpected places, a book on 19th-century Europe that was first published in 1970. (It's not a bad book if you need a quick overview of the period, although its appraisal of Austria's non-role in the 1863 Warsaw Uprising is baffling.) In any event, here's what historian Norman Rich has to say about the artists of the day:
"Nevertheless, many nineteenth-century artists whose works have stood the test of time remained outside the mainstream of popular culture - not necessarily because they were in revolt against society, although this was often the case, but because they followed their own artistic bent without regard to popular taste. The production of this group of nineteenth-century artists was distinguished by the desire of its creators to experiment, to discover new techniques and forms of expression, to explore new dimensions of human experience. In this respect the innovative artists of this era were akin to the scientists and inventors, who must after all be regarded as artists in their own right." 
Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970, p. 54.
In everything I write, my goal is to be less like insert-formulaic-novelist-here and more like Thomas Edison. I am an inventor of concepts and a creator of worlds. (Not like this, of course.) It's well established that books can be character-driven, plot-driven or setting-driven. What can go into each of those? What can a character be? What can a plot be? What can a setting be? In each story or book I've written, I've looked at one or more of them.

  • In Void (2011 - unpublished), the entirety of the book consists of letters written by one character. I also include a matrix, a probability problem, a flowchart and a word search. The interweaving of different media in one novel should hopefully serve as an inspiration to anyone sick of all novels being the same.
  • In I Drank the Toxic Cocktail (2012), I openly question where a plot should start and end. What is the question the story answers? Who is Fairly, why is someone named after an adverb, and why is he chosen for the challenge? Does any of it matter? I also borrow heavily from Gregory Kavka, including in the story's title.
  • In The Knight and the Princess (2013), I absolutely mangle genre and plot. It's a medieval fantasy/puzzle book. The two titular characters are never shown together. One of the main characters is confronted by a mysterious jester who presents him with a Mensa puzzle. The story ends with a question mark. Whether or not it receives a warm welcome, maybe it'll inspire someone else's greatness.
  • In State of Sin (2014/2015 - not published yet, but hopefully soon!), the book is based entirely on the setting. The main plot point is a federal election. There are 24 narrators (29 in what will likely be an extended version). No character physically appears in more than one chapter, although certain prominent characters are mentioned in multiple chapters. Genre changes from chapter to chapter, with everything from bathroom humour to an I Am Legend-like story that takes place in a city somewhat like modern-day Detroit. How and why does the world function the way it does, and why are the characters telling their stories this way?
  • In The Love I Feel Is a Burst Inside (2016 - currently in the editing stages), I debut a style I call literary hyperrealism. It takes after the works of famed writers from 1890-1930 as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Henry James and William Faulkner, but then reinterprets them in light of newer works like The Night Circus. Character-oriented movies like My Dinner with Andre or When Harry Met Sally factor in as well. These influences combine in a short, fast-paced novel that sees its characters' conversations go on bizarre but relevant tangents. The third-person narration zooms in on every facial expression they make. What do Simon and Victoria teach each other about the nature of reality, even as they struggle with their feelings for each other?

No one novel or short story is the same. Each is the result of a mad scientist-style literary inventor stretching the bounds of what the medium can be. That's how it is when I write, at least.

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