Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Gatecrash — Part 6: Aiming to change the game


Things can be done with the physical book that can’t be done in the ebook. It is, after all, an object that offers shape and texture, scores of options for typography, and design opportunities that don’t exist for the ebook. One provocative sample is A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley by Warren Lehrer (Goff Books), in which Lehrer uses design and illustration to tell the story of a fictional author. A physical book can also be turned around and upside down, and there’s been at least one novel in the early 2000s (which I can’t locate, unfortunately, though Lehrer describes something like it in his book) and several children’s books that require the reader to turn them upside down at the halfway point and read from the back until he reaches the halfway point again. An innovative writer with a flair for the tactile, and who’s a little bit playful, might come up with a book whose pages need to be folded back on themselves to reveal important messages or plot points, a bit like the old back covers of MAD Magazine. Or one could have marginalia scrawled on the pages with a separate plot (that of the invisible “reader”) implied by what’s revealed in the margins. (And just yesterday I was made aware of the 2013 “novel, S., by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams, which does exactly that!) “Why not send your reader to a mirror to be able to read a page printed backwards?

We’re just brainstorming here. Inspiring, though, isn’t it?

Ask yourself: What did The Beatles do to change pop music? They didn’t reinvent rock and roll; their songs generally used the same blues and R&B foundation everyone was playing. Instead, they messed around with the conventions of pop, changing the kinds of sounds that could be used, adding layers, trying different instrumentation, and manipulating the tools of recording. How about Talking Heads? They changed pop music by applying world music sounds to a funk foundation.

Someone needs to take “pop fiction” and turn it on its head.

Then there’s the language itself. From Finnegan’s Wake to A Clockwork Orange to Everything Is Illuminated, the way the writer uses language has been a hallmark of innovation. English is a stunningly malleable language, with a massive vocabulary, influences from all over the world, rhymes, puns, layers of meaning, and much more flexibility than many others. We can make words up if we need to, like Lewis Carroll’s “portmanteau” words; we can write in dialect; we can sprinkle the text with foreign phrases and transcribed sounds; we can even, God forbid, abandon the rules of grammar and rhetoric if the effect is potent enough. Most great and remembered authors are known for their use of language. Not enough is being done with it in commercial fiction.

Let’s turn to the more typical elements that writers use to put a fresh stamp on capital F fiction. Characters, for instance.

One of the most restrictive ideas in publishing is that readers like to see themselves in novels. This has had the dampening effect of encouraging writers to rehash the same kinds of protagonists, shelf after shelf of gals looking for love, gals dealing with family problems, gals trying to balance career and children, families dealing with disease and misfortune, professors screwing students, lovers killing cheating lovers, wandering men with deep dark secrets. There’s an everyman quality about the characters because readers are looking for recognitions: That could be me, I’m glad that’s not me, If I were her I wouldn’t do what she just did, God I wish I could have that guy! Male readers often look for vicarious experiences in sports, military adventures, sexploits, and business (I’m giving myself permission to generalize here), while women seek to relate or empathize with the main character in matters like family, career, sexploits (again), and self-worth.

This is the cookie-cutter approach to writing, though, and because there are infinite ways to vary the themes, we have an infinite number of similar books on our hands.

Every now and then, though, someone writes about a character you wouldn’t think to focus on. Rachel Kushner in The Flamethrowers gives us Reno, a motorcycle-racing female artist in 1975, who inadvertently falls in with Italian revolutionaries. Michel Faber, in The Book of Strange New Things, gives us a preacher trying to spread the gospels on a distant planet. Looking further back, Nabokov put us in the brain of a brilliant pedophile, O’Connor paints the cynical Hazel Motes, Faulkner confronts us with the disconnected thoughts of Benjy Compson, and Atwood horrifies with Offred, a “handmaid” in an evangelical dystopia.

The possibilities — the great ones show us — are as endless as the hackneyed roster of heroes and heroines we’ve been spoon-fed for years.

Though I do believe that innovative characters are not enough to change the form, they are certainly part of the artist’s toolkit and can be used with some of the other elements noted above to work at getting off the beaten path. Again, Picasso took representational painting and boiled it down to its basic forms — geometrical shapes, colors, and spatiality. In music, composers like Schoenberg altered the guiding conventions and created a different kind of sensibility, and in fiction, the development of stream-of-consciousness changed the direction of literature for good. It can be done. History is a litany of examples.

It’s been said, however, that there are only seven kinds of stories, so if that’s true, what’s the point in fussing around the edges? Will the next paradigm create a new kind of plot?

Maybe, with the new millennium well underway now. In our post-9/11 world, where mass surveillance is not only possible but practiced and where social media has already changed our concept of identity, new stories can emerge. Before technology made it possible for our privacy to be violated without our knowing it, self-definition was an easier idea. We put ourselves out there but we couldn’t control what the world made of us. Now, we can fabricate an identity online and ensure that it’s our “brand,” the avatar of self that we want perceived. Fiction should be able to do something compelling with the notion of self that is hologram more than human. A new category of plot, akin to rebirth or tragedy? That depends on what the most creative among us can come up with.


© 2016 by Kevin Brennan


7 comments on “Gatecrash — Part 6: Aiming to change the game

  1. kingmidget
    January 18, 2016

    It’s interesting … one of my writer friends, who I have helped self-publish and whose manuscripts I continue to help get cleaned up, wants to “do things” with the format of her newest effort. What it boils down to is large white spaces between some chapters and even in the middle of some chapters because she wants the reader to pause there … a longer pause than what usually comes with a period or a new paragraph. And it’s something that completely escapes me as it will most readers, unless she explains in a Foreword what the white spaces are intended for. Which kind of ruins the whole thing, I think. And when I try to talk to her about this and recommend against it, what I’m really doing is expressing my preference for simply reading a book. So, as to your first point, I’m likely not the type of reader who will be enthused with a different story written in the margins, or with having to turn the book over or start from the end. Reading is a refuge for me, a place of escape and safety. Don’t make it any harder on me. 😉

    That said — I do think we need to do a better job of creating unique characters. One of my complaints about my own writing is what I refer to as being “too white bread.” The pieces I’m proudest of, which come all too infrequently, are those where I feel like I am actually able to create a character who isn’t. Sigh … another challenge. Create a unique character or set of characters. Break the mold. Break the rules.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 18, 2016

      Yeah, I think a lot of inexplicable white space in an ebook would make most readers think it was poorly formatted. And that’s the thing about a lot of these possibilities: they might strike the reader as contrived or as gimmicks. A very fine line to walk for the writer.

      But it’s true, the vast majority of readers don’t want newfangled approaches; they want good books. Nothing wrong with that. But readers in the ’20s didn’t want what James Joyce was dishing out either. New is often challenging, so it takes a group of willing readers to help get the ball a’rolling.

      Characters are a great way to point readers in the new direction, though. A fresh character, by definition, opens up a different world to the reader.

  2. John W. Howell
    January 18, 2016

    More food for thought. Makes me want to run upstairs and create something new. Okay, maybe tomorrow.

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    January 18, 2016

    Many self-published authors are discouraged from experimentation because they are intimidated by pontificating bloggers who rail with absolute authority against “Show-offy prose,” “Head hopping” and “Episodic storytelling,” winding up with this type of sweeping statement: “Remember a novel is a kind of contract between writer and reader. If you are writing to fulfill your own needs, not those of the reader, you’re breaking that contract. They’ll feel cheated. And they will probably let you know.” This stuff appeared in a blog post recently that infuriated me, although I kept my comments to a sullen mutter. My point, though, is that only a minority of indies is going to cut loose and experiment, probably those who have been around long enough to live through the process and discover there really are no sacred rules. They will likely be people who don’t feel they have anything to lose in terms of sales. Different approaches are available to those who publish in print or electronically; it will be interesting to see what develops.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 18, 2016

      Man, you’re so right, Audrey. And I hate to say it, but anyone who takes advice from a blogging self-appointed expert is buying the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, there’s a whole class of bloggers cashing in on the advice biz, who, in the real world, are no more qualified to talk about writing than about nuclear physics.

      But the perception is definitely there that the reader will “fire” you if you don’t deliver the goods, and, sadly, it might well be true for a lot of readers!

      To that kind of reader, I say, “Have a nice life.” 😝

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This entry was posted on January 18, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .
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