WHAT THE HELL

Co-writing a novel: two’s a crowd

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A couple of dudes wrote a novel together and think you should too!

Gavin Kovite & Christopher Robinson are the author of War of the Encyclopaedists (Scribner). It’s a collaborative project.

The duo describe their approach and methods in this Salon piece, concluding that it’s better to write a novel with someone because — well, because they did it and it was awesome. They say all writing is collaborative, plus it’s a drag to sit alone hammering out scenes when you could be in the company of a friend and colleague, joking your way through your plot spreadsheet and improving each other’s contributions.

I’m not sold. To me, the writing of a novel is a one-man operation. A book starts in the crinkly little folds of my brain and starts to evolve based on the idiosyncrasies life has planted in me. Childhood memories, dreams, imagined confrontations I didn’t have the guts to stage, wants, fears, notions, a fondness for string cheese: everything goes into the pot and gets stirred up in a thick bubbling wort. Then it ferments. The novel that comes out of it is stamped with my being, and it has a nice floral afternote thanks to those aromatic Cascade hops. (Pardon the metaphor; I used to dabble in homebrewing…).

Now, if I were sitting down with a co-author, I’d have to reveal all of that raw material and explain it to justify keeping certain details in the book. And when my co-author explained his (or hers), I’m sure I’d be shaking my head and thinking, “You’re frickin’ psychotic, chief!”

I’m not sure what kind of novel War of the Encyclopaedists is — the dudes call it “literary” — but from their hints it appears to be semi-autobiographical, which is probably the one kind of book that could be written pretty happily by a team. Two narrative lines, each guy writes his story and then the pair mashes them up and edits out all the clumsy bits. Voila.

These two are also very close pals, so it’s possible that they are one of the few combinations of co-authors that could actually pull off a viable novel. Literary, at least. God knows there are plenty of thrillers and romance novels written by committee or in the James Patterson mode: you write it, I put my name on it. There’s really only one person I could realistically write a novel with — a close pal — but we’d probably wind up emailing silly haikus back and forth when the thing started to go off track and that would be that.

It’s often pointed out (as these guys do too) that many works of art are collaborative: TV shows, films, music, plays. But there’s a fundamental difference, isn’t there? These things are meant for public presentation, for performance. The novel is a much more intimate experience, a line of communication between two people — writer and reader. No one would call for poetry to be made by a rhyme squad, would they? (Then again, that Shakespeare — he was a nice buncha guys, eh?)

I don’t begrudge Robinson and Kovite their personal achievement. In fact, editors eat this sort of thing up — it’s a selling point. You can just imagine the book tour, with each guy reading from his sections and swapping dialogue lines. They’re gonna be great on “The Daily Show.”

And maybe this is the real problem I see in the concept. Writers have to come up with new ways to trick the system, to get editors to pay attention and support their books. Gimmicks, in other words. If that sounds too cynical, how about a nice shtick?

(My co-author would probably want to edit that line out…)

What do you think? Could you write a novel with someone else, or do you reckon it would deteriorate to hair-pulling and fisticuffs before Chapter 3?

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