Monday, October 18, 2010


I was talking to a friend about Proust a lot this weekend, and it reminded me of how unusual his novel In Search Of Lost Time was. It's different from anything else I've read, not only in the sense of the plot or the voice, but more totally, it feels like a whole different type of novel. As if Proust had reinvented the novel form.

Of course Proust isn't alone in that. I think many of the great classic writers succeeded in doing this to some extent. I'm not as well-read as I could be, but I think Marquez, Woolf, Nabokov, Hemingway, Faulkner, Yoshimoto, Updike, Kawabata, and Shakespeare (though not a novelist) have all succeeded in making me think completely differently of what a novel could be.

I think what led these brilliant writers down this past of reinventing the novel form wasn't necessarily the drive to be new. In thinking about Proust, it seems like he HAD to reinvent the form to make it fit the story he was trying to tell. He reinvented out of necessity.

It all makes me wonder if contemporary writers are pushing themselves as hard to find a novel form that best fits their needs.

A few months ago, I went to a seminar that talked about the use of story as a framework. The idea was that the story wasn't the main thing a writer was striving to create. The story was more of the vessel that held the thing the writer was trying to create. I really liked that. It rang true for me somehow and managed to ease the process of writing for me. Now, I'm more excited to get in touch with a deeper material I've been trying to share and then develop a form around that material.

Do you feel like you reinvent things as you write? If so, what?


  1. Very interesting (but then you usually are that). Reinvent of Necessity (Mothers of Invention?).
    I'm so new to the craft of novel writing that I'm simply trying to understand the basic structure that makes a story successful. Perhaps, it's like painting--you need to understand traditional craft before being good at more abstract styles. But it seems to me that a story's strongest element is it's uniqueness, however that is birthed.

  2. That's a really challenging question, Pee Domey. I would like to think I work at doing so and that at some point in my career I will have.

    My novel writing is certainly not conventional, but I'm not sure I'd say it's avant garde and experimental because I cringe at the notion that the goal of any piece of my writing is the experiment or the reinvention itself.

    What I hope for is simply that I were contrive of a story and character unique enough that they can be communicated through reinvention.

    There are a few weird things about Sublimation. (Spoiler alert. Hah!!) One of the biggest things that at least stands convention on its head but that I won't say is reinvention or even unique, just uncommon, is this:

    Each of the two first-person narrative streams features a contemporary timelines, where the bulk of the intrigue and action take place and really where the vast majority of the text takes place. Each steam also contains another timeline, from different past points, told in a jumbled-up fashion. What makes it weird is that, in a lot of ways, its these apparently minor timelines that, at the end of the book, the reader will realize are the real story and the exciting suspense novel parts support those, not the other way around.

    No, it's not unique, and it's not reinvention, but it's a step towards liberating myself to the point where I'll feel comfortable and confident to reinvent.

    Similarly, in Ennui and Malaise there is so much fluidity between reality, imagination, confusion, and understanding that it feels more like a drugged dream than a novel in a lot of ways. Again, not unique or reinvention, but a step toward it.

    In a lot of my short stories, I take stabs at this, too, but creating a structure that is abnormal, not for the sake of doing so, but because the story needs to be told that way.

    In some ways, my submission to get into Notes from Underground was, if not a reinvention, a departure from proper story form. There's a sense of plot movement, I suppose, but it's really just a letter to you guys explaining "my" outlook on the creative drive and just why you want to pick me.

    The piece I'm writing for the anthology is another, different "experiment," in that there's virtually no action. Inner monologue and untagged dialogue. And yet it feels like there's action and a story.

    Am I reinventing yet? No. But I'm practicing.

    I'm not sure if I really responded to your question. lol I tried to. Maybe I reinvented the blog comment.

  3. I am in the same position as Tricia: still learning how to work within established forms and structures. And I agree with Nevets too that reinvention for its own sake--while can be interesting and mind-opening and fun--is something I don't aspire to.

    That's me in my role as creator.

    As a recipient, it is interesting to find out, when I encounter something out of the box, whether the new way works, and why the author/composer/artist chose that route.

    I'll admit that the initial reaction is often a skeptical one but I have been won over.

  4. I like what you talk about at the end here because I feel like Bread does that. I also think this is why I think you shouldn't worry as much about audience as you have been, but that's just my opinion.

    I know Monarch was a reinventing for ME (not necessarily for novel format) of how to write a novel and structure it for the story I'm telling. It taught me a lot, and now Breakaway will be a similar experience. That crazy book.

    As far as reinventing the actual novel form, I'm not sure I'll ever get to that point, but it's fun to think that I might pull it off one day!

  5. Tricia, I know that feeling of wanting to get the basics down first. I'm not sure it's right, but I do focus on that as well!

    Nevets: "In a lot of my short stories, I take stabs at this, too, but creating a structure that is abnormal, not for the sake of doing so, but because the story needs to be told that way.

    In some ways, my submission to get into Notes from Underground was, if not a reinvention, a departure from proper story form. There's a sense of plot movement, I suppose, but it's really just a letter to you guys explaining "my" outlook on the creative drive and just why you want to pick me. "

    I think this gets at what I'm trying to say, and I think your contest entry is a good example. It was unusual, but it didn't feel forced in any way. There is something natural about reinvention when you are doing it for the right reasons.

    Yat-Yee, I love that feeling of being won over! Proust and Marquez both really did that for me. In both cases, I remember thinking that their books were totally bizarre and uninteresting. But, I stuck with them, and they made me see things in a different light. I really hope to accomplish that some day.

    Michelle, You bring up a terrific point about reinventing for oneself. I think that personal reinvention and reinvention in general go hand-in-hand, the first often leading to the second. I personally think uniqueness comes from us becoming more sensitive to who we are as individuals since each of us is unique.

  6. Unfortunately, the only thing I ever seem to reinvent is the wheel.

  7. Nice post!

    In a way I'm reinventing the way fantasy can be written.

    I'm trying to avoid as many norms as I find without changing the genre.

    Still, I can't get them all.


  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. There was a great comment that was made but apparently deleted by the author and then cleaned up, but I still have the comment in my e-mail so I'll respond to two aspects of it without outing the author.

    ...almost all of the formalistic experiments writers are doing now have already been done in the past, and that there are a lot of interesting ideas already out there.

    This is why, while the idea of reinventing appeals to me, it remains an "out there" proposition. I think it's important that it's "out there" because so much has already been done, though, not because I feel locked into contemporary conventions.

    As the nearly brilliant Mr. Bailey said on his personal blog (roughly), Conventional wisdom is often wrong.

    ...formalistically experimental fiction blows, if it lacks some other "thing the writer was trying to create."

    I think it's okay to sit down and see, "let me try pfitzing with form today for no other purpose than to pfitz," but it's not the same art as writing literature. It's experimental with literary forms. I don't think its invalid expression, but it seems like incomplete writing.

  10. Nevets: You can't out me, I'm outing myself. I deleted my comment because it didn't really say what I wanted it to say and struck me as a little harsh. I'm trying to be a kindler and gentler Bailey.

    Anyway, I think it's good for writers to find the form of their work from the inside-out. When I write novels, I always start with the idea of a three-act drama but that form flexes so much by the time I've finished the first draft that I don't really know what it is so I stop thinking about the form and only think about the story. When I write short stories, I don't think about form at all; it just comes out the way it comes out. So freedom to do what needs to be done with form is a great thing.

    What I worry about is that writers will substitute formal considerations for actual storytelling. They'll look at, say, Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" and say, "Hey, I can write a novel that's made up of nothing but beginnings, too!" and they won't actually have any dramatic/thematic ideas; they'll only be playing with a form, and they won't have anything--that "main thing a writer was striving to create"--to fill that form up with. And that fiction will likely suck.

    I also think that sometimes, when we're having difficulty with our stories or our ideas in general, we'll start to think that things like "interesting" choices in POV or verb tense or form or typography will somehow make up for or bury our difficulties with basic story craft. I went through this, and sometimes I still play with ways of patching over areas where I'm not successfully telling my stories. It's a dangerous path.

    Proust found a good form for his fiction of recollections. A lot of writers (Byatt, Rushdie leap to mind) are doing interesting things with narrative layers these days. So I agree that we should be free to experiment with form, but we should remember that a groovy new form is no substitute for excellent writing and compelling storytelling. You have to have those before you can use your groovy new form for anything worthwhile.

  11. Round and round we go, Chuck.

    Misha, Lately when I've been writing I try to avoid convention as well. I think it forces me to be more accurate in my writing.

  12. Domey: I've been working at avoiding cliches. It's harder than it looks. And it makes me pay better attention to accuracy, as you say, because I'm not using all those stock phrases anymore (or trying not to).

  13. Scott, I should clarify that my use of the term form was not a substitute for structure. I'm not sure if you took it that, but just in case. Kawabata and Yoshimoto both write very linearly, for example. I meant "form" more in the context of art form, more completely.

    " a groovy new form is no substitute for excellent writing and compelling storytelling. You have to have those before you can use your groovy new form for anything worthwhile."
    This is what Im' trying to get at. But, I guess I go a little further in that I think once you have that "thing" you SHOULD experiment to find the form that showcases it best.

  14. Scott, avoiding the cliches is refreshing, though, isn't it? Now, I hardly ever go back, even when I think it would totally work to use a cliche.

  15. I'm constantly reinventing my craft. I'm still a relative beginner. I think of being able to reinvent the art but am not at that skill level yet.

  16. So, Nevets, out of curiosity, you said this: "I think it's okay to sit down and say, "let me try pfitzing with form today for no other purpose than to pfitz," but it's not the same art as writing literature. It's experimental with literary forms. I don't think its invalid expression, but it seems like incomplete writing."

    Is it incomplete to you to focus on purpose and NOT experiment with form?

    Lois, and others, I'm really surprised so many people are calling themselves beginners here today. I think we're all still learning, but I also think we have a lot more experience than we give each other credit for. That would probably be obvious when you read the writing of a true beginner.

  17. @Domey - Great question, and I would say yes. I think anytime a writer takes a specialized interest in one aspect of a story, you get incomplete writing -- whether that aspect is form, purpose, theme, character, language, or anything else.

    Here's the thing. There are definitely people who write with a monofocus on, say, purpose. Most of them, though, are not consciously and deliberately aware that that's what they're doing. They're not practicing a deliberate form of incomplete expression; they're just sloppy. Or just learning.

    There are, however, people who deliberately set out to do nothing but play with form. Do I like what they produce? Rarely. But when I do, it's because I step back and try to look at it from a different perspective. I don't evaluate it as writing but as a linguostructural experiment with literary form.

    As far as I'm concerned, you can only earn that pass when you do it intentionally, and are willing to acknowledge it. If you call yourself an essayist or a purpose-driven writer, and you show signs of intentional craft, okay, I'll try to evaluate you on your own turf. Otherwise, I'll just call it incomplete literature, and suggest that you hone your craft some more.

  18. @Lois - What Domey said to you is so true, and I hop you embrace it. One of the most meaningful moments of my development as a writer was I abandoned this list of descriptions:

    wannabe writer
    aspiring author
    beginning writer
    trying to be an author

    And just started calling myself:

    Author of psychological suspense and short, character-driven literary fiction.

    Suddenly it felt real, and, believe it or not, my writing itself became more confident. Every writer has something more to learn. I have a long way to go before I reach where I want to be, but I've also come a long away from where I started too. I'm sure the same is true of you.

    I hope you can take Domey's words to heart. You're a writer, and it's okay to say so. :)

  19. The world out of which stories are born is constantly changing, and so the way stories come into being will change of necessity. The fact that everyone in the world is potentially in touch with everyone else in the world is a major factor in the way stories will be created from now on.

    The fact that most people get their stories in the form of movies is a factor and has been a factor for a long time. It makes novels more cinematic. Instead of movies imitating written literature, I see novels imitating movies. In many cases, it improves the form of the novel, makes it tighter and more relevant. But something's lost, too, when novels abandon what they're so good at, which is to allow the reader into the mental and emotional background of a character's plight through introspection.

    People are texting novels to one another. People are serializing novels more and more, because the internet has recreated a global environment that is in some ways reminiscent of Dickens' London.

    There are more people writing novels than ever before. There is a new tendency to serialize novels in order to maintain a presence in the market.

    All of these things--and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface--affect the form of the novel. But the essential thesis here--what I take as central, anyway--is that the form must grow out of the writer's need to tell a particular story and to transmit a particular kind of information. For most of us, most of the time, I agree that to self-consciously try to change the form of the novel for the sake of being "innovative" is a silly thing to do.

    On the other hand, experimentation for the sake of experimentation shouldn't be dismissed altogether. It can open up the possibility for entirely new stories or new ways of telling stories that did not exist prior to the experiments. Hemingway couldn't have done much of what he did without the influence that Gertrude Stein (among a great many others) had on his writing. She was, in my view, a kind of literary research scientist, while Hemingway became the popularizer, if you will, of her methods. He had to water them down to make them accessible, but in the process, he made better stories.

  20. ilex: I was actually thinking about Gertrude Stein yesterday, so thanks for bringing her up. But I also think that Stein experiments were attempts to find the right form for how she understood fiction, not just attempts to find forms.

    I agree that film is having a large influence on novels. I disagree with you that this is a good thing. I think it's an awful thing, because the storytelling in most films is godawful; most films suck, you know. Happily, the cinema influence seems to be having the least impact on literary fiction. The best novels don't seem to be influenced by film, or the internet, or texting or anything like that. The best novels seem to be influenced by a sensitivity to real life and by the best novels of the past.

    It's also true, I think, that a lot of the "new ideas" brought about by the latest technology are just dusty old ideas in new wrappers, and we are blinded by their shininess without pausing to think about how these ideas failed to be earth-shaking in the past. Texting a novel isn't really innovation, and it's all about the device, not the substance of the novel being texted. So yawn. All is vanities, and fads come and go.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.